Esprit de CORE

“Extortionist calling group W!”

Pete Palmer is a former CIA operations officer in Latin America who has also managed kidnap-for-ransom recoveries and consults on kidnap-hostage recoveries.

Today, he’s making a bunch of MiddCORE students squirm by creating a fictional crisis to be managed in which the malevolent “Absolom” has laced chocolates with arsenic and is demanding $1 million from the MiddCORE “company.” Jessica Holmes, the course’s coinstructor, and Mike Kiernan, a Porter Hospital physician and MiddCORE mentor, act as ferocious members of the media; legal expert and fellow mentor Jason Meek is a cop. None of the groups seems to have the right solution for the crisis as they deal with Palmer’s rat-a-tat role play. Eventually Claudon, playing a consumer, bursts in and writhes on the floor—apparently dying from tainted chocolate.

Like all winter term courses, MiddCORE meets for four weeks, with most mornings revolving around mentor-created challenges and competitions and many afternoons devoted to fieldwork, cold-calling, and workshops. (There are also team dinners and opportunities each day for students to have lunch with the mentors.)

While Claudon and Holmes create the MiddCORE structure, oversee operations, and are responsible for doling out the pass/fail grades at the end of the term, it’s the 30 mentors, they say, who really steer the course from day to day. This year’s mentors include environmental scholar Bill McKibben, Middlebury women’s lacrosse coach Missy Foote, and playwright Dana Yeaton ’79—an all-star roster that brings a diverse array of backgrounds, expertise, and personality styles into Atwater 100.

Each week has an overarching theme. Week two focuses on growing skill sets—negotiation, communication, ethics, leadership, teamwork, and emotional intelligence. And the awkward atmosphere in the room is entirely intentional. Claudon says that he has coaxed mentors away from dry PowerPoint presentations and toward more stimulating, interactive sessions that allow students to do the walking and talking. As he explains in his “secret sauce” document, traditionally taught students learn how to “ride a horse” by listening to lectures, reading textbooks, and taking exams. MiddCORE, by contrast, just tells you to get on the horse and figure out how to ride it.

“It’s almost like you’re flying into a meteor shower continuously,” says Claudon of the arranged challenges that MiddCORE students face each day. Such exercises range from the fictional (like Palmer’s) to the very real and charitable. During week one of MiddCORE this year, students raised $3,000 for Life Is Good Kids Foundation.

“The genius of MiddCORE is that it is all about building self-confidence by ‘doing,’” says mentor Ernie Parizeau. “Students learn to trust their instincts and intellects by solving authentic challenges under time pressure. The process of learning is very active, and students must be completely engaged. This ensures that the learning is challenging, exciting, sometimes frightening, but often transformative.”

The unpredictability, adds cofounder Boillot, is what makes MiddCORE matter for success both on campus and after Middlebury. “Originally MiddCORE tried to expose students to certain disciplines that would exist in any organization,” says Boillot. “Now it focuses more on exposing students to challenges and opportunities that can immediately stimulate personal growth and increased skills, which the students can apply in their future classes and later in life.”

Zach Karst ’12 took MiddCORE in 2009 and says he didn’t gain a particular skill set, per se, from the 60 to 80 hours of work per week he put into the course, but he gained experience and confidence. He’s now launching his first business, selling computer hardware in Uganda, while still studying at Middlebury. “It was a life-turning event for Zach,” says Bill Rosenthal, a Washington state arts teacher (and Karst’s godfather), who also served as a mentor this year engaging the class in creating self-portraits.

MiddCORE 2009 student Caroline Towbin ’10 says that the month made her a better leader, more comfortable with ambiguity, and allowed her to redefine for herself the meaning of success. “I knew within the first few minutes of sitting in that classroom,” she says, “that we were onto something great.”

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