In Beijing

I am spending this Thanksgiving Break more than 7000 miles away from home, in Beijing, China, conducting research for my senior thesis. As a joint political science and art history major, I am combining my training in both disciplines in this capstone project. Focusing on the intersection of politics and architecture, I am investigating how the development of the National Mall in Washington, DC and Tiananmen Square in Beijing reflects the different political ideals at the foundation of each regime but also how the historical-political moment in which the spaces were conceived led the leaders of each country to pursue similar political ends, despite the difference in their ideology.

I am spending 8 days here in the Chinese capital, visiting the municipal archives, museums, and libraries that hold documents dealing with the construction of Tiananmen Square in the 1950s. I am staying in a traditional neighborhood of alleyways and courtyards, which is allowing me to see a side of Beijing I’ve never seen before. I am, of course, spending a lot of time in the square, to experience the space for myself and to examine the architecture with a critical eye. The best part about this trip? Middlebury is paying.

This trip to Beijing would not have been possible without the generous grant I received from the Undergraduate Research Office (URO). Every fall and spring, Middlebury College students have the opportunity to apply for senior research project supplements of up to $1500 from the URO. These supplements are meant to eliminate financial barriers for seniors working on their capstone projects and provide support in addition to what many academic departments provide for these projects. The funding can be used for anything from trips overseas to see an art historical site to the purchase of pipettes to hiring a translator to translate documents critical to one’s research.

When they hear the term “liberal arts college,” many prospective students and families, especially those oriented towards the sciences, assume that Middlebury lags far behind larger universities in our capacity to do research. That is simply not true. The grants from the URO are one example of how Middlebury is supporting its students in their independent research endeavors. Each spring, Middlebury hosts a spring student research symposium, at which any student can share the research they’ve worked on in the past year with the whole college community through oral presentations and poster boards. Every summer, over 100 research assistants work on campus full-time directly with faculty members, mostly in the sciences, but also in fields like political science, philosophy, and English.

Far from being disadvantaged, students wishing to conduct research at Middlebury have more direct access to faculty and equipment than they would at larger research institutions. If you work hard, you can start gaining research experience during your first year at Middlebury. Co-authorship of papers by faculty and students is not an uncommon phenomenon. Middlebury students regularly travel to conferences to present projects they’ve done inside and outside the classroom, as I hope to do with my senior thesis in February. For now, I’ve got to get back to searching the shelves here at the National Library of China in Beijing.

Never Stop Exploring

The North Face company got it right: never stop exploring.  But it doesn’t always have to involve the wilderness, which in Vermont can get pretty aggressive around this wintery time of year.  No, the exploring I’m talking about happens in the Middlebury classroom.  We are constantly being encouraged to take classes that force us to work outside of our comfort zones.  Our advisors tell us to do this, our friends tell us to do this, our professors tell us to do this, even our graduation requirements tell us to do this (and we definitely want to listen to those), but what we really need is to actually do it.  In order to receive my diploma at the end of my four years, I know I need to fulfill seven of our eight distribution requirements and all four of our cultural requirements, and I have done so.  I took Germany in the 19th Century because I needed a history class, I took Funerary Arts of East Asia as my AAL (Asia, Africa, Latin America), and I took Epic Greek and Roman Poetry to fulfill my philosophy requirement, but did that all just kind of defeat the point?  Sure, I know I feel as though I am a more well-rounded student for having taken those classes, and I learned a lot about other cultures I never could have learned in my majors or minor, but was I truly pushing myself outside of my comfort zone if I was being told I had to fulfill these requirements?  Maybe.  But maybe not.

I am grateful Middlebury has asked me to fulfill a myriad of courses outside of my typical schedule, but what I was missing, what Middlebury could not provide for me, was a class I took entirely by my own coercion.  In my first three years, I never took a class about which I had to fight with myself.  This semester, that changed, however.  I took a class that did not fulfill any major or minor, distribution, or cultural requirements.  No one told me to take this class; I just took it.  The class is called Writing for Children, and, I will admit, it is taught by my advisor, who is one of my favorite professors on campus.  Doesn’t sound too scary, right?  What am I talking about going outside of my comfort zone?  This is a 100 level course in my department of study taught by someone with whom I have a close relationship.  Well, it’s not all quite so easy.  The catch: this is a creative writing course.  While I am passionate about the subject of this course–which is familiar to me–I am absolutely terrified of expressing creativity, especially creativity in the form of the written word.  The idea of crafting a piece with my mind and my heart only to have it put on display and torn apart by my peers is not something I find enjoyable.  The ideas of the class: totally up my alley.  The application of the material: heavens no!

What I have found is that, even though each time I write a piece for workshop my chest closes up a bit in sheer horror, I also get really excited.  This is new.  This is unfamiliar.  This is really fun.  I had always been too afraid of the criticism to take a creative writing class at Middlebury, but as a student in this class I have grown to appreciate others’ opinions not as judgement but as helpful suggestions and a mutual appreciation of the difficulty of this process.  The workshop environment is one in which I have never found myself, and it is one I always assumed I would loathe.  It turns out, there is a great deal I can learn when I force myself to do something terrifying.  This class has proven to be one of the most enjoyable and self-realizing classes I have had the pleasure to take at Middlebury.  Doing something that seems emotionally impossible is in every way beneficial.

You might think senior year is the year in which you finally get to just relax in your major, but I’ve found it’s exactly the right time to never stop exploring.

Franconia Ridge

With the explosion of fall foliage reflecting in our wide eyes, and the sun glistening off the lake on our right, we pulled into a parking area in the White Mountain National Forest. I had planned our hike down to every last detail. The group I was with was going to hike up Falling Waters, make a right along the ridge and hike another 1.8 miles to the Liberty Springs Campsite where we’d meet up with our other two friends. The next day we would retrace those 1.8 miles, hit Haystack, Lincoln and Lafayette before we descended down Greenleaf and onto Old Bridle path. Meanwhile, our friends were set to do the entire Pemigewasset loop.

I had this all memorized.

And I had a hand written copy of the itinerary in my pack.

And a map.

And an extra map.

And I made sure I charged my phones in case we needed GPS.

I was prepared. I was going to crush this thing. We stepped out of the car, donned our layers, hoisted on our packs, synched them to our bodies and started to walk. To where? Just about 10 steps before I lost total confidence that I was in the right parking lot. For all the effort I made to figure out what was going on once we got on the trail, I had failed to figure out how to get us to the trail. We had just gotten lost on the highways and were roughly an hour behind schedule as it was. We decided to wander around with our packs until we saw a definitive sign that we either were or weren’t in the right spot. We went up a trail for 10 minutes and turned back having no more or less indication that we were where we were supposed to be. We were in New Hampshire, we were in the white mountains… that’s all I knew. Without great signage and the inner feeling that I let my whole crew down I decided to begin problem solving. I opened up the map that my friend’s dad had given us. It was no less than 30 years old. I found the parking area we were supposed to be in on the map. So now where the hell were we in relation to it? The lot we were supposed to be in didn’t have any exceptional geographic landmarks around it to help us navigate. None! No lake! This meant now I knew for sure that we were wrong. This was great news, because our period of total inactivity had come to a close. We threw our bags back in the car and drove maybe another half mile until we found a very obvious, incredibly well marked parking area. Perhaps my planning ego had grown too big, so the universe did a really nice job of totally crushing it before we set off. The hike was absolutely gorgeous, the weather was prime, and the company was ideal. We marveled at the waterfall, the oranges, reds, yellows and browns of the leaves and made our way to the campsite. We were about two hours behind schedule at this point due to my oversights in planning. This along with the fact that the other car was being driven by a speed demon caused me to think that that we were going to roll into the campsite and see our two buddies waiting for us. Not the case. As we descended into Liberty Springs campsite (which is .3 miles straight downhill after the false relief of the sign that says campsite) we were greeted by many campers. Each platform was full of tents cramped together. We wandered around for a while looking for our two friends or an open spot, whichever appeared first. A big hello came from behind us from a man with a worn red puffy and a clipboard. He introduced himself as Declan, the caretaker. We said we were a group of six total and he brought us up to a platform that we had not been able to find ourselves. One of the last platforms still available. Before he left I asked, “Has an incredibly energetic blonde guy and an athletic looking Asian kid rolled through here yet?” He assured me that they had not, for he would have remembered them. Where could they be? We were very delayed getting in and had about the same distance to hike as them. Within 15 minutes we all heard the discernable jubilatory shouts of our friends. We could not see them, but the “yahoos” and “Parkour!” could only really belong to our friends. Before we even had a chance to go down to help them find us, we saw Declan. “These have got to be your friends,” he said as he led them up to our platform. We smiled in agreement and began chatting with Declan about his responsibilities as caretaker. This was my first time ever camping at a site with a caretaker so I asked, with zero tact, “be straight with us, are we supposed to tip you?” Declan said that usually people don’t tip. So we gave him five dollars. The trip was an absolute blast full of a failed attempt at making one giant pancake, freezing cold winds, Siracha on tuna, and some incredibly spectacular views. It was so hard to convince myself to go back to campus instead of doing the whole loop with my two other friends. They ended up doing their four day trip in two and a half days. I highly recommend hiking the Franconia ridge or doing the whole loop. And if you stay at Liberty Springs… tip your caretaker. They stir the compost all day. They deserve it.

Apples and Independent Projects!

This coming Saturday starts the countdown for the final two-hundred days of my senior year. Since the last time that I corresponded with y’all, I have been able to check off a few of those final firsts. I was able to go to a fall harvest festival two weeks ago and embarked on my first Vermont apple picking experience at Happy Valley Orchards. The experience was very beautiful – I was able to spend the afternoon learning about picking and tasting many different apples. Who knew there could be so many varieties of apples! On top of just learning about the many different kinds of apples that are in existence, I also tried my hand at different forms of ways to consume apples; trying everything from delicious cold/hot cider to fresh cider donuts to cheddar apple flatbread.  Overall the experience was very pleasant and I am fortunate to have been able to go on such an amazing adventure. I highly recommend that everyone take the opportunity to visit a local orchard as early as possible.

In addition to my great appleventure, I also have finalized my plans for my last J-term. I will be working on an independent student film project for the month. In collaboration with four other students, we will be creating a 20-30 minute short that we will produce from writing, shooting, acting and editing. It is an amazing opportunity to work on a self-guided project in which we have full control to produce our own idea. I think it will be a great opportunity to put my love for comedy and film making to the test, while also having the opportunity to work with great minds.

Meet the Press

Like clockwork, every Thursday morning copies of The Middlebury Campus can be found on the dining hall tables.  Stacks of them sit at the entrance to the Axinn Center.  Students page through before the start of class.  While these newspapers appear as if by magic, there is a large team of dedicated students with varied talents behind the operation of producing a weekly newspaper.

I started writing for the Campus during Winter Term of my first year at Middlebury and now am lucky enough to serve as the Editor-in-Chief.  Although I had never written for my high school newspaper, I saw it as a great way to get involved on campus, to meet interesting students, faculty, and staff, and to improve my writing.  Knowing the large amount of writing involved in a History or Political Science major, the Campus seemed like a surefire way to learn from skilled editors and writers.  On a whim, I joined the Features section.

There are six sections in the Campus, each with its own personality in terms of the types of stories they run.  News takes breaking stories.  Local covers the town of Middlebury and Vermont news.  Opinions publishes Op-eds, columns, and letters to the editor.  Features writes human interest stories and long-form pieces.  Arts & Sciences writes arts reviews and reports on research happening on campus.  Finally, Sports covers Panther Athletics.  These sections are each led by two to four editors who curate content and train writers.  Unlike some student newspapers, all of the writers and editors of the Campus are volunteers and do not get paid.

I owe a lot to the Features editors who helped me improve as a journalist when I was a writer for their section.  They coached me through interviewing, writing and rewriting, and how to identify a potential article idea.  It is incredibly rewarding for me to now be able to encourage new writers to join the paper.  I try to help writers and editors improve their journalistic abilities as much as I am able and I always want to make their extracurricular experience as rich as it was for me.

I have a ton of admiration for the editors and writers who work for the Campus.  For writers, making an article a great piece requires follow-through and tenacity.  Editors spend countless hours in our office in the basement of Hepburn Hall editing articles, brainstorming new story ideas, and designing the look of that week’s issue.  However, all of their hard work is worth it when the paper arrives on campus every Thursday.  Seeing the hours of writing and editing take shape into something tangible is one of my favorite parts of working for the Campus.

TGIF, it’s Halloween!

Angry birds, Waldos, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is merely a sampling of all of the wacky costumes I saw walking through campus on Halloween. Once every seven years, Halloween happens to fall on a Friday. It was great to have a stressful week lead up to Halloween festivities on campus.

Coming up with a costume was perhaps the easiest part of the day. Given my interest in the Middle East, I thought it would be fitting to dress up as Aladdin for Halloween. Luckily, I had a couple articles of clothing in my wardrobe that I gathered from volunteering as an English teacher in Morocco last summer that would help me look the role pretty well. My costume consisted of a gold-embroidered black vest, traditional Moroccan rezza hat, and sirwal pants that would give MC Hammer a run for his money. For a finishing touch, I asked a friend of mine, who is well-known for the henna tattoo making J-Term workshop she has taught in the past, to give me a henna tattoo. This definitely took my outfit to the next level.

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Here’s a picture of me in my rendition of Aladdin!

For me, it wasn’t too difficult to bring a costume together. However, for most college students Halloween is a time to be resourceful and creative about bringing a costume together. Usually friends would borrow clothes from each other to make sure their costume is looking picture perfect in time for Halloween night. The result of clothes exchanges and taking creative license to come up with their interpretation is often not translatable for the bystander but it is always amusing to watch what people come up with.

I walked into Ross Dining Hall for dinner in full Aladdin regalia to a bunch of other students who were already decked out in costume. The highlight of my meal was witnessing the extravagant entrance of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh carried in a throne by a group of henchmen. After the group had settled into their seats, I complimented them on the elaborateness of their performance and attention to detail. Through their ability to maintain character and role play, I quickly learned that Halloween was, in fact, a serious matter for them and they were determined to win the costume contest happening later that night.

In addition to the costume contest, there were many other fun Halloween-related events happening on campus. Student organizations and social houses had many events to celebrate Halloween. Middlebury Queers & Allies threw a HalloQueen dance party, while the Hispanic heritage club, ALIANZA, prepared an altar for Dia de los Muertos. For those who don’t necessarily find the late-night dance party scene their cup of tea, there is an exhaustive list of alternative options available for them. Xenia, the substance-free living house, had a get together after dinner with snack and mocktails galore. It just goes to show that the options for what to do on a typical weekend at Middlebury are many and diverse.

When people ask me what the worst thing about Middlebury is, I would say it is constantly succumbing to FOMO–the fear of missing out. On any given night during the weekend, there are so many a variety of different events happening that it is not humanly possible to be present at all of them. For example, I sadly had to forfeit watching my friend’s play Mendel Inc to bond over apple-bobbing with my housemates at Munford, the intentional-living house, this weekend. Coming from an urban metropolis like New York City to small-town Vermont, I was concerned there was not going to be many events happening on campus to keep me engaged and excited. However, with over 160 active student organizations and energetic students, faculty and staff who are motivated to making our community a vibrant one, there is always something fun happening on campus for people of all interests to enjoy.

Student Government

For as long as I can remember, I have always had an interest in student government. Whether it was running the classroom “variety shows” in elementary school in China, being Class Rep during middle school, or getting elected president of my high school’s student body, I have always found satisfaction in making student life just a little bit better for my peers.

At Middlebury, I have continued my involvement in this area through the Student Government Association, colloquially known on campus as the SGA. In my first two years at Middlebury, I was elected Senator for my class, which meant that I represented the voices, concerns, and ideas of my classmates in the SGA. The Senate is the deliberative body of the Middlebury SGA, consisting of class and Commons representatives. It has the ability to spend the student activities fee on initiatives beneficial to the student body and pass resolutions that state the official opinion of the students.

For the last two years, I have been involved with the SGA Cabinet, in my capacity as the Chief of Staff to the SGA President. Each year, the president of the student body appoints a team of people to help him or her with managing the operations of the SGA. As Chief of Staff, I have the fortune of leading this team of 15 passionate, ambitious, and incredibly competent individuals as we implement resolutions from the Senate, distribute the student activities fee to organizations and ensure their smooth operation, and lobby administrators on issues as diverse as sexual assault prevention to changing our distribution requirements.

While at times, the multitude of SGA-led projects and initiatives can be overwhelming and progress on them painstakingly slow, being a part of the student government at Middlebury has allowed me to learn about the issues important to the student body from many different perspectives. I have learned, through my SGA experience, that nothing is black and white, especially at such a diverse institution like Middlebury. It has also allowed me to meet so many students that I would have never otherwise met before. Even though we may not agree on everything, everybody in the SGA has one thing in common: we all share an abiding love for the Middlebury community that we are willing to spend hours and hours changing it for the better. That student-driven passion and sense of ownership to leave our community better than when we found it is what I will miss most about this place.

The End of October

It’s the end of October. This means a lot of things are happening in my life at Middlebury. It means the last savory days of 60 oF weather are here in Vermont; Fall Family Weekend is around the corner; as is Halloween, Day Light Savings, my birthday, and – special to this end of October of 2014 – the removal of all 4 of my wisdom teeth! I know, all very fun things you wish you could enjoy within just one week of each other.

About two months ago, I still proudly proclaimed that I would never need to part with my wisdom teeth. Then a little less than two months ago, I had to retract that statement. It seems as though my wisdom teeth were a problem, a problem I needed to take care of now. “Now” was early September, also known as the first weeks of my senior year at Middlebury. Long story short, the date was set for October 27 – the Monday after Fall Family weekend – at which point I would part with the teeth that are deemed the wisest.

It is now October 29. So you can calculate that it is two days after the date of removal, and you may guess that my face may be reminiscent of Alvin from Alvin and the Chipmunks. I honestly expected the worst for this end of October of 2014, but I soldiered through the 32 minute surgery and came out on top:

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The doctor assured me I’d be back to eating Champlain Valley chocolates and bagels in no time. Until then, I have been ordered to press two adorably pink ice packs to my face for 20-minute intervals throughout the day. Without any clever mechanism by which to hold them in place, I’ve taken these 20-minute spurts as a time to reflect (and listen to podcasts). So on a warm and fuzzy note, Middlebury has yet again proven itself to be a wonderful place to spend not only my College years but also the weeks during which to recover from wisdom teeth extraction: my professors have encouraged me to take care of myself, friends have made me delicious smoothies, and Senior Fellow Zoe took over my shifts at Admissions so I wouldn’t have to lisp and blubber my way through an hour long information session. All in all, my road to recovery has been made easy and full of smiles, thanks to things that are Middlebury.

Fall Family Weekend

As President of the Middlebury College Activities Board, I knew I would have a packed Fall Family Weekend. MCAB serves as the largest programming board on campus, with different committees to plan a wide range of events: concerts, speakers, trivia nights, dances. You name it, we help with the planning.

For this Fall Family Weekend, we had two major events on the schedule: a Roller Rink on Friday night and a lecture and Q&A with Mary Robinson.

We traditionally do Roller Rink every Fall Family Weekend, which usually draws a big crowd. I arrived early with a crew of 10 MCABers to set up the event. We pumped 90’s summers hits and country road trip songs as we laid down the Roller Rink floor. We finished the set up about an hour early so we had the rink to ourselves before the event opened. With the disco ball spinning and green lights flashing, we skated around the smooth rink, singing “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Water Falls” by TLC. Shortly thereafter, the Roller Rink filled up with students, parents, and little siblings. Almost 200 people skated around over the course of three hours, each one coming out sweaty with a big smile slapped across their face. I returned to my room at 1:30am post-cleanup for a quick sleep before prepping for the next day.

In the morning, I had a bagel brunch at my house with my friends and their parents before my mother and I did a quick hike up Snake Mountain.

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We rushed home from our hike so I could prepare for our big event, Mary Robinson.

The MCAB Speakers Committee is awarded money every two years to bring a prominent speaker to campus. We wanted to bring a speaker that both reflected the values and goals of the College, but we also would challenge the audience to think more critically about their understanding of the world. Mary Robinson stood out to us as a perfect candidate, both for her unparalleled leadership record as well as her unwavering commitment to social justice. Mary Robinson served as the first woman President of Ireland from 1990-1997 and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002. She is now the President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and a member of the Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, who contribute their wisdom, independent leadership, and integrity to tackling some of the world’s toughest problems with the goal of making the world a better place. We felt her range of speaking topics (women in leadership, climate change, and corporate social responsibility) would resonate with a wide audience. Additionally, bringing Mary Robinson during Fall Family Weekend would give parents a taste of intellectual life on campus.

The Speakers Committee, with the support of Cook Commons, was lucky enough to share dinner with Mary Robinson before the event. She spoke of her time at Harvard Law School, her work with the Elders, and her travels around the world promoting Climate Justice. She wowed us with her knowledge about human rights in the context of climate justice, and she answered students’ questions eloquently and accessibly.

After six months of intense planning, the event was over. The much anticipated weekend came to a close. But I could not have been happier.

Listening

I have always loved stories. When I was a child, I used to sit at the dinner table late into the evening eavesdropping to my parents and their friends talk. I would listen to the same book on tape over and over again. I loved the sound of narration, how it could enrich words. When I read printed books, I would say the words out loud, relishing the way they filled my mouth and tripped over my tongue. I still do that.

Now, I channel my love for stories by hosting and producing the Middlebury Moth, which is a live storytelling hour. About twice a month, my fellow producers and I find five or six people who want to tell stories. Then, a crowd of listeners join us, and we all meet in the Gamut Room, which is a student-run performance space. Storytellers speak about anything and everything from their bad dates, to their parents, to their failures. Speakers must follow only two rules: they can’t use notes and their stories must be true.

We love using the Gamut Room, but it can get a little crowded. So, this year and last year, we produced an event we call “Cocoon” in the Mahaney Center for the Arts (MCA). The event takes place in the Concert Hall, which seats almost four hundred people and uses professional-grade sound and lighting systems. Plus, it’s beautiful! Liza Sacheli, who is the Director of the MCA, worked directly with us to put on the show. I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to use such a wonderful space and work with such an amazing, talented person.

The event itself occurred on Friday, October 24. Students, parents, and community members packed the Concert Hall, filling every seat. A guitarist played music as people filed in, the lights went down, and the show began. Six different people told stories, including an actor, a logger, an alumnus, a student, and a dance professor. They spoke about everything from their fathers to their high school shenanigans, and everything in between. Their voices filled the Hall, comingling with the sound of laughter and tears. After the show ended, the audience moved to a reception to eat dessert, drink apple cider, and talk. Everyone had a different favorite tale, but I truly loved them all. More than any individual story, I loved the listening.