Old Chapel: Alumni Thoughts

the-leap--finalLast year, more than 11,000 alumni of Middlebury College, the Language Schools, the Schools Abroad, the Bread Loaf School of English, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies participated in surveys (one version for each cohort) in which they answered questions about their current activities, their experiences at Middlebury, and their current and future connections to the College and its programs.While Middlebury’s institutional research group is still mining the data (a snapshot of which can be found here), we asked President Liebowitz about some of preliminary results.

When looking at initial results, one thing that stands out is the high percentage of people who reported to be very satisfied with their education: Nearly 90 percent for Schools Abroad and Monterey alumni, 97 percent for Language Schools and undergraduate alumni, and 100 percent (!) for Bread Loaf alums.  
I think those of us who have been here a while would have expected this type of response—this very positive response. We have upwards of 55 percent alumni participation in the Annual Fund, which is really exceptional and can be seen as a surrogate measure of satisfaction.

Middlebury alumni feel proud of their institution, and well they should, judging by how excellent an education they feel they received while here, and how dedicated our faculty remain to undergraduate education. The survey results support this feeling. Yet having said that, it’s amazing to me how satisfied people are across all the programs—the Bread Loaf School of English, the Language Schools, Monterey, and even the Schools Abroad, which are relatively young in terms of including alumni from other undergraduate institutions. To see the same level of satisfaction with these programs as with the undergraduate college is very gratifying.

However, I found some of the secondary data to be even more compelling, particularly the data resulting from the question “How close do you feel your relationship is to Middlebury?” For non-undergraduate alums—that is, alumni of Bread Loaf, the Language Schools, and the Schools Abroad—we saw very low numbers. Only 5 percent of Schools Abroad alums, 14 percent of Bread Loaf alums, and 18 percent of Language School alums said they have a very strong relationship with Middlebury today; 77, 37, and 35 percent say they have little to no connection. And remember, these are people who are extremely satisfied with the education they received!

So we then asked, “How much connection do you want?” Of that small group that already feels strongly connected, 50–75 percent want to be even more connected. And of those with little to no connection, more than half said that they want to be more connected.
Quick summary: graduates of the Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and Bread Loaf School of English feel overwhelmingly positive about their Middlebury experience, do not feel close to Middlebury today, but are interested in being more connected. OK, then how?

That is, where do their greatest affinities lie? Let’s look at alumni of the Language Schools. When asked if they would contribute to the general Middlebury Annual Fund, very few of these respondents said they would (having not gone to the undergraduate college). They respond more favorably when we asked if they’d consider making a gift to the Language Schools. And when we asked about supporting their particular school, their language of study, the numbers went through the roof. This is significant.

In retrospect, this didn’t surprise me because it mirrored my own experience. In the fall of 1980, I was back at Columbia University in graduate school after spending my first summer at the School of Russian. I remember getting a solicitation, a generic solicitation from the Language Schools, and I think I threw it out. And then, maybe a few weeks later, I got a handwritten note from Tom Beyer, who was director of the Russian School and one of my instructors, asking if I’d contribute to the Language Schools. And I did, even though I was a graduate student and had little money.

To circle back to the primary data, this strong affinity for Middlebury and its programs . . . at the risk of sounding too much like the president of this institution (!), I believe the results speak to the excellence of the programs—the Language Schools, the Schools Abroad, the Bread Loaf School of English, and, of course, the undergraduate college. All are superb. In a way, we should have expected this, but I think the results exceeded our expectations.

So let’s talk about why that is. Why a place like Bread Loaf received a 100-percent result.
Location is crucial. It’s interesting; in this day and age, it would be easy to say that it is not. The Internet has made space and place more irrelevant. However, the environment in which one learns, the whole idea of immersion, matters very much. We talk about language immersion—living the language—in relation to our Language Schools all the time, but the idea of immersion applies to Bread Loaf as well. You are surrounded by your learning opportunities, with minimal distractions.

You couple these unique settings—it’s why the Language Schools were started here, why Bread Loaf was started on the mountain, after all—with the intensity of the programs, and it is no wonder people who make it through have such strong attachments. A student in, say, the Russian School will do a year of college-level Russian in nine weeks. Each day is like a week during the regular academic year. That intensity translates into a connectedness that is hard to explain. And I think that when you step back and get away from it, the appreciation gets stronger. (In the moment, it’s not always so positive. I likened my time at the Russian School to being in the Gulag. I dreaded every day. But now, I can see that there was no better way to learn.)

I was intrigued by the number of graduates who attended either the Language Schools or the Schools Abroad and are living (or have lived) abroad post-Midd.
I believe that the number reflects a couple of things. It reflects the world we live in, a world where barriers are down and opportunities abound for people who want to take advantage of them. And then, of course, it reflects the ability of people who are competent and able to engage different cultures and languages to thrive in this world.

I think this figure is also a result of self-selection. People are shocked to learn that Middlebury College doesn’t have a language requirement. Because of the excellence of our programs, we attract people who are very interested in studying a language. I believe almost 40 percent of all undergraduates study a language to the third level or beyond, which is the level you’d need to study abroad and to study abroad effectively in an immersion environment—taking mostly “direct enroll” courses, which means courses taken by and with the local college students.

So, really, it shouldn’t be surprising that these students who have taken advantage of this opportunity would then choose to live abroad after graduation.

Not all was rosy. Respondents were critical about a particular area. It was strongly suggested that the College did not do a good job in preparing graduates to speak effectively in public.
I hate to sound like a broken record, or perhaps so smart, but this didn’t surprise me, either.

John Spencer—former dean, professor of history, and trustee—has been championing this cause of public speaking for as long as I’ve been here, 29 years. In his class, you couldn’t get away with speaking poorly in public. He would stop you mid-sentence if you uttered an “uh,” or had your hands by your mouth. John Spencer has been saying we need to include a spoken communications requirement of some sort, we’ve been hearing it from current students, and now from alumni…but we’ve done little about it. We talked about it during our strategic-planning process, but for whatever reason, there was a sense of denial. We kept coming up with excuses for why this wasn’t the case, why students were adequately prepared because of all the discussion our faculty promotes in class. We were wrong.

I think we will look more closely at this issue  now. It’s part of that set of skills that we talk about that may not be recognized as central to a traditional  liberal arts education but I, for one, believe strongly that it is essential for a liberally educated individual to do well in the world.

If there was foot dragging before, it has to be much harder when you hear, “This is where you failed me.”
Exactly. Not only to hear people say it, but the number of people, the consistency across generations, and the high level of importance the respondents gave to this particular aspect of a liberal arts education.  And it’s especially valuable because for many of these alumni, they are looking back on their lives, their careers, and identifying what was missing, how Middlebury could have better prepared them.

Looking back on the totality of the surveys, the most eyebrow-raising result was . . .  

The growth in the attitude of those who come from other institutions who have attended the Language Schools, Bread Loaf, or the Schools Abroad, especially those who are just six or fewer years removed from these experiences.
As I explained earlier when talking about the Language Schools, it generally takes more time to fully appreciate the experience, to get past the scars left by the rigor and demands of the programs (for example, not being allowed to speak any
English during the entire session).

Take the Schools Abroad, for example. These programs are tough, very hard. When you are an undergraduate in an intensive immersion environment enrolled directly in the host institution’s classes—taking a literature course, for example, in language, surrounded by native speakers—it can be brutal. It can take three or four months to start to feel comfortable in such an environment. So to see such positive responses from alums, some of them immediately removed from these programs, was surprising. And so very pleasant to see.

Our hope now is that this appreciation for Middlebury will translate into support—financial, strengthening the network for jobs and internships for our students and alumni, and overall support for our academic program. We are more confident today than ever about such support as a result of the survey.

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  1. Two comments:
    1. Nice to hear about how well Middlebury alumni regard the institution, but I’m certain there were many specific criticisms that have not found their way into the general love feast reflected in the summary – a summary so saccharine that there’s really very little to take away, or to provide guidance for improvement. Pres. Liebowitz’s remarks about public speaking are well-founded – the college has itself failed in this public undertaking to say anything useful. “We love ourselves.” If I were in an audience listening to this institutional hagiography, I’d have gone to sleep.
    2. Not one word about one of Midd’s (and comparable colleges’) chief problems: its obscene & limiting COST. To

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    educate ONE undergrad for one year (actually for only about 8 months – the standard academic “work year”) at Midd these days costs about as much as about FOUR impoverished American families must try to get by with for a full year. We’ve become a polarizing & deteriorating society, and almost everyone knows it. MIdd has become part of the problem, and not part of the solution…though many of its idealistic young people wish that it were.
    Where are others’ comments on this posting? Best, Mike

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