Esprit de CORE

It’s a January morning in Middlebury, and a typical winter tableau is playing out across campus—students trudging through a landscape of white as the wind swirls up small eddies of snow.

Which is what makes the scene inside Atwater 100 seem that much more unexpected.

“No spoon included/Just unscrew the lid/Live a healthy life/Eat and do it right!”

Four Middlebury students are singing a jingle about drinkable yogurt.

Scrutinizing the performance is a panel of businesspeople and entrepreneurs, including venture capitalists Ernie Parizeau and Pieter Schiller along with Gert Schut, the owner of Millborne Farm in nearby Whiting.

Welcome to MiddCORE, the ultra-intensive, four-week, 9 to 5 (and beyond) course that has taken place every J-term since 2008. (CORE is an acronym for Creativity, Opportunity, Risk, and Entrepreneurship.) Open to 16 Middlebury students and 30 mentors who travel from across the country for this experience, this class also has a tagline: Confidence for the Road Ahead. In the syllabus, MiddCORE instructors promise “a revolutionary program, unlike anything ever offered at a liberal arts college.”

It sounds bombastic. But with student after student calling MiddCORE “transformational” and finding lasting success outside the class, it just might be true.

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Shelley Carlberg ’11—part of the drinkable yogurt jingle team—decided to take MiddCORE this January without having a clue what she was getting into. (A friend of hers thought Carlberg was taking an all-day phys-ed class that promised better abs. “Really working on that core!” recalls Carlberg with a laugh.)

“I didn’t know what MiddCORE was about,” says Catherine Collins ’10. “But I had a friend who did and said, ‘Catherine, you’re going to love it. This is you.’ That ambiguity exists, but I was still drawn to it. If it’s going to be hard, it’s worth doing.”

And in some ways, the course is defined by what it is not. It is not, as evidenced by the long hours and 79-page syllabus, a typical J-term class, and it is not like any other course offered at a liberal arts college. It also is not a business boot camp, a “sad” misconception that cofounder Michael Claudon says was perpetuated by a recent article in the Addison County Independent titled “students get crash course in business.”

The more that MiddCORE evolves, the more it becomes a mash-up of many disciplines. But it did, in fact, begin with economics. Claudon explains that he was “shocked” to learn, in 2007, that a third of the student body was taking at least four economics classes. “There’s just no way a third of Middlebury is passionate about taking economics—it’s not one of the sexier disciplines,” recalls Claudon of his reaction. “They’ve got to be doing this for the wrong reasons.”

Claudon, a longtime Middlebury professor and academic entrepreneur, then surveyed one of his econ classes and discovered that 80 percent would be studying something else if they could find another way to become competitive post-college. “At that moment,” he says, “I decided to use winter term to create something that would begin to address this issue, because studying economics is not a meal ticket. My gut just tells me, follow your passion, and there’ll be a great life for you out there.”

The epiphany was serendipitous with the 2007 launch of Middlebury’s Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts, which, as President Ron Liebowitz explained in his announcement, would “focus primarily on providing opportunities [for students] to hone their creative skills and try their hand at problem solving outside of a strictly academic, graded environment.”

Claudon also partnered with Nicolas Boillot ’87 and Brent Sonnek-Schmelz ’98 to bring MiddCORE—loosely based on Tuck’s Business Bridge Program for recent arts and sciences graduates—into being. “It was three guys with three white canes,” Claudon says with a laugh, “trying to create something we had never seen before, so we couldn’t mimic.”

Beginning in August 2007, Claudon guesses he was spending 60 hours a week just on MiddCORE, reaching out to friends and alums who might serve as mentors, determining the skills that Middlebury students might need after graduation, and mixing and remixing the “secret sauce”—Claudon’s phrase— that would make it all palatable to students and mentors.

In January 2008, MiddCORE arrived on campus, and the outside reaction was, well, “confused,” says Elizabeth Robinson ’84, the director of the Project on Creativity and Innovation (under which MiddCORE sits). “I don’t think people really got it, because it was so different, because the students had to work so many hours, and because it was so intensive,” she recalls. “But the students figured out pretty quickly how special it was.”

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” says Ashley Bell ’09, one of the original 18 students. “I expected to go to class, listen to a few lectures, probably write a few papers, maybe have a discussion or two. Instead, I found a team of alumni, faculty, staff, and students who were experimenting to bring business to the liberal arts, and vice versa.”

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