Family (Festival) Matters

Our suite was suddenly spotless. The dining halls began serving lox garnished with capers, onions and sliced tomatoes. Every leaf seemed to be perfectly positioned as to transform the Vermont backdrop into a computer background.  All of these signs were diagnostic of one thing – Fall Family Weekend. Every year, in the heart of the autumn season, students are encouraged to invite parents, siblings, uncles and any other possible familial relation to campus for three days of Middlebury festivities.

Formal programming hosted by the school seeks to capture our institutional ethos through a variety of talks, workshops and student panels. In addition, many of our extracurricular organizations put their passions on display, ranging from dance performances to the Solar Decathalon Open House. A particularly memorable event was an address delivered by President Ron Liebowitz. He, at length, discussed the benefits of a liberal arts system. Even the most skeptical parents couldn’t disagree with the assertion that the Middlebury academic experience “doesn’t prepare students for their first job. It prepares them for their career.” Much to the satisfaction of my mother, it was made clear that the degrees conferred by the liberal arts equip students to thrive in any path within an increasingly globalized, heterogeneous world.

For me, however, Fall Family Weekend is more than just providing parent’s the reaffirmation needed to continue to send their child here. Prior to arriving at Middlebury, the Ryan Brewster profile was relatively unchanging – I was passionate about competitive freestyle skiing, enjoyed the sciences, and my height had stabilized at an enormous 5’ 6”. My evolution was hardly perceptible to the people who had nurtured me constantly for the better part of 18 years. As far as they were concerned, the formative years of my life had long passed.

Dropping me off at college was my parent’s first exposure to “empty nesterdom.” It wouldn’t be a normal week without a whimpering call from my mom saying she missed me. Out of reach of their constant overbearing tendencies (after all, what are parent’s for?), I was left to my own devices, to my own-self discovery. Since then, every year has been marked by something new. And aside from a weekly phone call and brief home stints during vacations, who I have become at Middlebury has remained largely outside my parents’ purview. My latest stunt was travelling to Rwanda this past summer, and failing to tell me parents until I had already signed a binding agreement. Oops. But for Fall Family Weekend, the patchwork of stories they’ve compiled over the years comes together as a cohesive whole. There was some always some revelatory connection wherever we’d go on campus. “Oh, so this is where you dissect your ovaries!” “You must be Ryan’s roommate from Freshman year. He’s told me all about you!” However blush-inducing, it was always validating to see them really interacting with my niche, engaged and interested.

Playing acoustic guitar is one of those passions I’ve developed nearly exclusively at Middlebury. It was through a Winter Term introductory workshop that I picked up the instrument. The subsequent months were dedicated to mastering it. I sought out jam sessions and devoured music theory books. The first thing my parents noticed upon my return that summer was not the fact that I was wearing a dress shirt (another huge transformation in itself), but that I had a guitar case in my hand. The disbelief persisted even after filling the house with my playing. After all, how could they truly understand this new interest of mine without having any real context to attach to it? The music culture is what really drew me in, as it infused a real sense of craftsmanship and community into an otherwise very individual activity. Yet, all that my parents saw was me and my guitar, completely isolated from this identity.

Three years had elapsed, with mom and dad still stuck with the incomplete story. That looked to be the case again, until the opportunity presented itself to perform at this year’s Fall Family Festival. The origins of Playing with Arrows are rather humble, and to be brief, involve a couple Adirondack chairs, campfire songs, and some incredible vocalism from my two close friends.

Worms, Nematodes, and Everything in Between.

“Ok only four more” I replied to my lab partner. “Great these worms are really coming along”. This exchange between my laboratory partner and me  was one of several that we’ve had over the last few weeks. We were examining C. elegans, which is pretty much the scientific name for a type of worm. Each lab period we would examine these 1mm nematodes under a high power microscope to observe whether blocking the expression of certain genes would affect their biological clocks. While this post is starting to sound  more like a lab report than a blog post, this exchange reflects the heart of sciences at Middlebury: collaborative, first-hand experiences that are rooted in research and laboratory exercises. Watching worms wriggle in a small plate might not overtly scream excitement (and after three weeks of it, excitement was the last word to use), but more than anything it gave me a personal and intricate look into genetic processes that I had only read in textbooks. Working with a partner also allowed us to gain confidence in each other and foster a friendship from staring at worms in a microscope for hours. For me, experiences like this reaffirmed my love for the sciences. Animal Physiology has been more than a class in which we simply read out of a textbook, but instead taking an in-depth and first-hand look at the actual things we study. This theme resonates in all Middlebury classes and shows the deep commitment of the faculty to developing the education of the student. Sitting in lab that day and counting how many times a worm defecated was certainly monotonous, but doing it with my lab partner while my professor’s electro/alternative music played in the background made it all the more rewarding.

PCI Young Alumni Showcase

Middlebury’s Project on Creativity & Innovation in the Liberal Arts (PCI) has been the nucleus on campus for tons of interesting projects since it’s inception in 2007. PCI is an office on campus that supports lots of different student initiatives including, but not limited to, Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, The Old Stone Mill, and MiddCORE. Every semester more students get turned onto PCI programs. What this means is that every semester PCI has new alumni, alumni who go out into the world and do awesome things. This weekend, as part of homecoming and the Alumni Leadership Conference, PCI hosted the first “Young Alumni Showcase: Creating Impact Through Design”. Over coffee and bagels young alums talked to current students, faculty, staff, and community members about their jobs, what design means for them, and their “next big idea”. These alums are doing things from founding their own companies in apparel and GIS mapping, to teaching, to working for National Geographic, to working at non-profits like Ashoka Innovators for the Public.

A wonderful addition to homecoming weekend, I hope this event happens every year.

Young Alumni Design ShowcaseYoung Alumni Design Showcase

Halloweekend

Even though Halloween is coming up this Thursday, I’ve been feeling the Halloween spirit settling in for the last two to three weeks. A few weeks ago, I arrived back at my house on campus to discover that our house had been “ghosted”. For those of you who (like me) don’t know what being “ghosted” or “boo-ed” means, its a surprise  waiting on your door in the spirit of Halloween fun! When you arrive home there will be an orange piece of paper with a friendly Casper-type looking ghost and a poem along the lines of:

It’s a small way to spread some neighborhood fun! By Halloween all of our neighbors must be ghosted, each and everyone.

And the best part, is the bag of candy attached at the bottom for everyone in the house to share! The next step was for us to refill the bag with new candy and go stick the ghost on another neighbor’s house to continue the ghosting tradition!

As the fall festivities continued, last week my housemate showed up with four pumpkins and one spooky looking jack-o-lantern making our living room feel like a pumpkin farm! A few hours later, our kitchen caught the fever as pumpkin seeds were cooked (as soon devoured) by my friends!

And then last Sunday, my friend brought over two boxes of Funfetti cake: HALLOWEEN STYLE with orange icing and bat shaped sprinkles which lasted in our house of 6 for about 24 hours!

And today, two days before Halloween, I’m starting to get my costume ready. I remember my first year, when I hadn’t celebrated Halloween in 8 years, buying a Queen of Hearts costume and being more excited than ever for people to guess who I was! The evolution of my costumes has been somewhat sporadic: starting with the girly Queen of Hearts and then moving sophomore year to the comical monopoly man whose stick on mustache refused to stay on, and the spooky Morticia Adams on the Monday which was Halloween. Last year I decided to become more traditional and do something scary as I turned into the spooky skeleton, and this year, I’m determined to be as creepy as possible as I’m attempting to make my own Grim Reaper costume. I went to our local Ben Franklin store and bought some black cloth for my cloak and a plastic golf club for my scythe. I bought some black and red face paint to make my face as scary as possible and hopefully it’ll be as terrifying as I hope.

Bundling Up, Buckling Down!

Bundling Up, Buckling Down

 

Brrrr! What happened to the warm breeze? What happened to dinner on Proctor Terrace? Where did all the leaves go? (No, literally… I know they fell off the trees but… where did they actually end up?) We had an outstanding Fall of weather here at Middlebury, but it looks like winter’s chill has arrived. Judging by the size of the bags it’s packed, I’d say it’s here to stay.

People always ask me on tours and in information sessions if the cold bothers me. I reply, “Of course it bothers me! It’s the cold!” Then I make some remark about how it doesn’t do much more than deter me from going to the gym, and the group laughs.

The cold is sown into the fabric of our identity as college students in Vermont. A few nights ago, a couple friends and I went for a midnight swim off campus. We linked arms, said a prayer, and plunged into the frigid water. It washed over us like the first cleanse after a camping trip. That’s what the cold does to you here at Middlebury. It washes over you, it dries your knuckles, it makes you long for your LL Bean moccasins, Vermont Flannel, and down comforter. It promotes snuggling.

But it also promotes hard work. The coldest months are the months we are working the hardest (J term excluded for obvious reasons). Anyone remember Spring 2012? On March 21st it was 82 degrees- a full-blown Dunmore Day. I don’t recall the temperature dipping below 65 again until well after graduation. My GPA that semester warns me that the warmth can sometimes be distracting!

The cold winter months remind me that the focus of our college is primarily to grow our minds intellectually. It is to learn inside the classroom, to work hard, and to apply ourselves. Easy to do when 4:30 pm rolls around and it’s pitch black outside with whipping winds and a bitter frost. Not so easy when Battel Beach is abuzz with sunbathers and Frisbee tossers. I look at the winter months as a time to rid myself of distraction, to curl up in a cozy corner of the lib with a good book and read it. Really read it. Put down the phone, no fear of missing out, just a kid and his homework.

Winters at Midd are good for more than just skiing and snowshoeing. They provide more than merely an appreciation for warmer days.

When it’s time to bundle up, it’s time to buckle down.

 

PS The water was so cold. So, so cold.

Tradition in the Key of Murray Dry

Murray Dry, Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, is a living legend here at Middlebury College. He wears a three-piece suit to class, calls students by their last names, and yells at the top of his lungs to accentuate a point. I’ve taken two of Professor Dry’s courses – American Political Regime and American Constitutional Law – and today he was our substitute teacher for a political philosophy course I am taking. We’re reading Machiavelli’s The Prince, which Professor Dry has read hundreds of times. He has written a tome on the whiteboard and plans to run through every bullet point in an hour and a quarter. (He won’t even get close – Professor Dry is notorious for keeping students late and there’s always shared laughter in the room when he insists he won’t do it “this time.”) His voice is getting louder and louder with every minute that passes. He covers material far beyond what was assigned for class that day. He says, “I’m surprised that any of you could put the book down!”

And I realize that some things just never, ever get old.

Professor Dry will never be tired of The Prince. He’s obsessed with it. I’ve heard him obsess about upwards of fifty books now in my time at Middlebury, and not only am I not tired of him obsessing, but the obsession itself is also infectious. “There was once a young woman in my class who broke off a date with a young man to read The Prince,” he says, making a joke about how we should all have that kind of passion for the work.

But he’s kind of not kidding. He’s kind of that guy.

And I find myself being taken in for the umpteenth time. He is asking a tricky question and I jump in. He acknowledges me with a wry smile and a long, drawn-out “Ms. Dicker.” I give it my best swing, and as he fills in the blanks of my understanding, my features twist in comprehension. He yells: “I SEE MS. DICKER MAKING A FACE LIKE SHE UNDERSTANDS THIS DIFFERENTLY! GOOD! YES! THAT’S RIGHT!”

That “eureka” moment from a student still excites him to the point of yelling. 45 years at Middlebury and he’s still yelling about The Prince like it’s a football game.

And you will see that kind of enthusiasm at our football games, too. It’s everywhere, and it’s everlasting. It’s the rejuvenating feeling of tradition: that is something is worth doing, it’s worth doing over and over again. As we enter Homecoming Weekend, I’m reminded of the enthusiasm alumni feel for Midd and how infectious that is, too. They come from all different sectors of the post-graduate world and reflect on how their Middlebury experience has changed them, shaped them, inspired them. It’s like going back to The Prince and experiencing it anew for Murray Dry. And for some alumni, The Prince elicits that same feeling partly because of him.

Students find that energy in all areas at Middlebury. They find it like a warm blanket waiting to greet them. They come back to it: to their books, to their friends, to this place. And even when it’s unexpected, they find something new every time.

The Solar Lifestyle

While the fall leaves are changing and there’s a smell of apple cider and pumpkin in the Vermont air, a few Middlebury students are braving the warm, sprawling desert of Southern California, celebrating the end of the Solar Decathlon Competition.

For those of you who don’t know, the Solar Decathlon is a biannual competition put on by the Department of Energy where 20 schools from around the world are chosen to build a 1,000 square foot house entirely powered by solar panels. The competition is a ‘decathlon’ because each house is judged in 10 different categories, ranging from Market Appeal and Home Entertainment (where each house throws a series of dinner parties), to Engineering and Energy Balance.

Middlebury College is a spunky David in a field of Goliaths. As an unpartnered liberal arts school, we were up against engineering powerhouses like Stevens and Stanford, conglomerates of larger schools like Team Capitol DC (American University, GW, and Catholic University), and schools that represented entire countries like Austria and the Czech Republic. For many Southern Californians, it was difficult to grasp the idea of a liberal arts school pulling off such a feat on its own.

I had the opportunity to travel out to Irvine a few weeks ago to finish construction and lead public tours through the house. While I was sorry to miss a week of the Middlebury fall, I could not give up the opportunity to see the latest and greatest in solar energy building. There was a palpable energy on the competition site as competitors eagerly toured all 19 houses and made new friends from across the globe. Our neighbors and new best friends Team Austria instantly nicknamed us ‘Team Smiley’, probably because of our upbeat demeanor  afinity for early morning yoga, soccer during lunch breaks, and spontaneous mid-construction dance parties.

While it was great touring the other houses and getting to know the competitors, the best part of the week were the public tours through our house, InSite, showing off 2 years of hard work and planning. For those of you that couldn’t make it out, here’s the tour highlight reel from our Five Points of Insiteful Design:

1. Live in a Walkable Community: InSite was designed for a specific lot on Shannon Street. When it comes back to campus as student housing, the house will form a nice bridge between the college and town communities, with the solar panels providing shade over a well worn sidewalk between the two.

2. Prioritize Social Space: Over 2/3rds of the 956 square foot floor plan is dedicated to the open space of kitchen, dining room, and living room. The high cielings and continuous feel of these spaces makes the home feel much larger than its blueprint suggests, encouraging the home’s residents to spend the majority of their time together or with other community members in the social areas rather than cloistered away in the private spaces.

3. Centralize Energy Systems: All of the appliances heavy in electricity and water usage are centralized along our mechanical module to make awareness of these features a cornerstone of the house. Our solar panels are also featured prominantely, with the panels removed from the roof in a pathway that acted as a nice patio shade in SoCal. The Lumos brand panels we used are also distinct from typical panels, with spacing between the silicon cells that allows you to see through them to the sun and sky beyond.

4. Engage the Street: Our house is designed to fit into the local Vermont community. To do so from the outside, the house is clad in reclaimed barnwood over 150 years old. Many key components of the house, like the windows and roof orientation, are designed to engage shannon street specifically.

5. Use Local Materials: The floors are sugar maple woods harvested from Middlebury College forests, less than 10 miles from campus. Look closely and you can see tap holes where these trees were tapped for maple syrup! Much of the furniture was also made by Midd students. The coffee table, the benches, the punch out window seat, the bowl for the bathroom sink, and all of the dishware were made by students this summer.

The competition is now over and the judging complete. Middlebury came in 8th overall and 4th in the People’s Choice Award! An amazing victory for our small school. Many congratulations to our friends, Team Austria, for winning 1st place! The house is being deconstructed as we speak so it can be shipped back to campus. It will be student housing in the spring – so be sure to ask for a tour if you’re visiting us next semester.

Congrats to all of the Solar Decathlon teams for their hard work and contribution to the future of architecture and energy. A special shoutout to the Middlebury team, for proving the mettle of liberal arts students and our contribution to the future.

Go Team Smiley!

More Than Just a Run

The past three years have proven to be a period of massive intellectual, social and personal transformation. That being said, there are still things left to accomplish as I launch into my final year at Middlebury. Finish the infamous Ben and Jerry’s Vermonster. Meet one student from each of the 50 states. Finally ask out that girl I’ve had a crush on since freshman year. My Middlebury bucket list is just about at the point of saturation. While most aspirations have and will likely to continue to collect dust, the opportunity presented itself last week to realize one of the most daunting line items – Run the Trail Around Middlebury, more commonly known as the TAM, in its entirety.

For 16 miles, the TAM weaves through forests, roads, and farmland in its circumnavigation around the village of Middlebury. And depending on whose using them, the paths can take on manifold identities. It becomes an outdoor classroom in the eyes of local naturalists, who inform residents and students alike of the natural ecology. Likewise, Middlebury College identifies the TAM as a symbol of environmental stewardship, and as such, is committed to trail design and maintenance. What can be appreciated for its academic applications can also be more recreationally enjoyed by runners, hikers, bikers, snowshoes, and cross-country skiers. The rolling and vibrant Vermont landscape provides a breathtaking backdrop for trail-goers. At the very least – as I learned the hard way – it offers some solace for those braving the full 16-mile challenge.

Posters for the 24th annual TAM Trek, a fundraising initiative to support maintenance expenses, began appearing around campus about a week before the race. I consider myself a pretty athletic individual, but registering for the event without any  long-distance running experience whatsoever seemed more than a bit ill advised. Making matters even more intimidating, the peers who I recruited to join me just happened to be either accomplished marathon runners or collegiate track athletes.

Race day quickly arrived, and at 7:00 AM, all full-TAM participants congregated at the college’s golf course. There was little fanfare accompanying our start. In typical Vermont style, curious livestock, groaning agricultural machinery, and a nascent sunrise constituted the spectators, the wild applause and the television broadcast, respectively. And instead of a dramatic horn signaling the start of the race, the event coordinator simply encouraged us to start “whenever we wanted.” The runners, albeit thrown by the somewhat anticlimactic exposition, heeded these instructions and took off onto the course.

The subsequent miles and miles…and miles formed a narrative colored with moments of introspection, community and comraderie:

Mile 3 // Scanning my “competition” as we settle into our respective positions, I notice quite the hodgepodge of demographics. Interspersed with us students were professors, faculty members, Middlebury residents and even a couple canines (one of whom I was convinced was Air Bud). Running really is the great equalizer. Our common objective gave way to a profound sense of community. Whatever obligations or identities were cast aside in pursuit of crossing that finish line together. As I was conceptualizing this in my head, I found myself flanked by my former chemistry professor and a local running enthusiast. Introductions were briefly exchanged, and aside from a brief “What do you do?” conversation, there was suddenly nothing separating a renowned synthetic organic chemist from a small-town storeowner. It was truly a meaningful moment to have witnessed such tangible community, despite me first having to cope with the fact that my middle-aged, nerdy, lanky professor was matching my pace. In my defense, he is far more decorated as a long-distance runner and even even authors his own trailrunning blog, called “The Middlebury Trailrunner.”

Mile 6 // A tight wooded path feeds into an expansive tract of farmland. Set against the Green Mountains and littered with grazing cows, the picturesque scene before us led us to break out in a chorus of “The Hills Are Alive”, only with fewer aprons and prancing. Unfortunately, the elation ended rather abruptly, when I managed to sink my feet into two feet of cow dung.

Mile 12 // The initial adrenaline surge has worn off. I have poop caked all the way up my leg. Out of some perverse version of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” we misread a trailhead and had to re-trace our steps for about a mile and a half. Why am I doing this again? I was just about at the point of resignation until something amazing happened. Suddenly, a profound sense of awareness overtook me. The leaves crackling beneath my feet, my cadenced breathing, the colors of autumn – All these sensory stimuli became heightened and magnified. Nature and I, as it seemed, were in perfect synchrony. What I was experiencing was the elusive “Runner’s high.” Being a hard sciences major, I know this phenomenon from a strictly physiological standpoint – It represents the upregulation of endorphin secretion when glycogen stores are depleted, thus staving off pain sensations with temporary feelings of euphoria and exhilaration. In this moment, however, I was absorbed in an experience far more intangible, far more beautiful than a simple endocrinal pathway.

 Mile 16 // Two and half hours have elapsed, and the finish is finally in view. A crowd of community members, students and faculty cheered us through our final steps, after which I collapsed under my own weight. Physically drained yet personally fulfilled, I accept a hand and a cider doughnut from my middle-aged, nerdy, lanky chemistry professor. Yes, in a shot to my perceived fitness level, he did beat me…

It is befitting that the TAM encircles the whole of Middlebury. The trails delineate the heart of our community, where the college and the town share a mutual awareness and investment in each other. To say that “town-gown” relations are good suggests that members of the academic and non-academic population happily co-exist, but still retain their own identities. Running the trails alongside community members, alongside faculty reminded me not of these differences, but of the common thread between us – We proudly call this place home.

Otter Pup

I have a new baby sister. Well, not biologically a baby sister, but the closest I will probably ever get. This non-biological family I have found here at Middlebury goes by the name of the Otter Nonsense Players. Since getting into the group freshman year spring, it has become my familial unit far away from home. With its ups and down, the group has been there for me in times of pure joy, absolute silliness, and days of sadness. However, the sadness never lasts long with this gang of characters. And the gang is now one more strong. Last week we had auditions and I am so very excited that we welcomed in one new member, the incredibly funny and charismatic sophomore girl who already meshes with our dynamic effortlessly.

Improv has been an amazing outlet of creativity and fun throughout these past years. These last auditions were very bitter sweet, marking the second to last that I will ever take part in. When going through deliberations of the many talented and deserving candidates, I wanted to take everyone, bring as many people into the family as possible for departing. It is just too fun to not let everyone come play make believe for two hours twice a week and the occasional show when we step out of safe confines of rehearsal and make fools out of ourselves in front of hundreds.

This week’s family activity – trust falls.

This weekend’s family outing – apple picking.

 

Autumn’s Creed.

          October is always a particularly interesting time at Middlebury. The month brings a luscious autumn landscape in which the leaves display a spectrum of colors from deep gold to bright red. These seasonal changes are not limited to the trees however, as October brings a shift of mindset to the students as well. Perhaps the most readily apparent change can be summed up into one crucial word: midterms. Yes, the beautiful fall foliage also brings with it exams that will challenge your understanding of your courses and certainly heighten your stress levels. Not to worry though, as I will graciously provide my personal 7 steps to a productive midterm season:

1. Organize, Organize, And Organize. Plan out every day of midterm season down to when you anticipate procrastination or bathroom breaks

2. Ditch the coffee. Tea is a great alternative that won’t make you hit a crash in your library carousel.

3. APPLE CIDER. It’s October, enough said.

4. Print and then print some more.  Reading on a computer screen will dull your eye vision quicker than that coffee will make you crash.

5. Study groups make it easy for me and you. Like driving in a car, pool your knowledge. It’ll make the test much easier to observe what you know.

6. Don’t stop ’till you write enough. Papers won’t write themselves. Write until you can’t write anymore. Better to get your ideas out even if it’s nothing more than a stream of askjksj ajkjkjs.  

7. Breathe. Then breathe again. Plus drink some more cider.

              These tips are a culmination of my personal exam experiences as well as ways in which I have learned to deal with stress over my four years. October is more than simply mid-term season however, as it allows brings two important events: Fall family weekend and Homecoming weekend.  Each are significant times for you to share your Middlebury perspective with both parents and alumni. For me this is one of my favorite times of the year as you can stop outside of the somewhat monotonous bubble of school, dinner, homework, repeat. When the families visit each year not only are you provided with a sudden sense of homeliness and familiarity, but also a chance to gain perspective into the important people in your friend’s lives. Similarly, homecoming weekend brings a slew of alumni, all eager to reflect upon their time at Middlebury. I often use homecoming weekend to ask alumni “what would they have done differently” Along with networking, seeing how an alumnus would reevaluate their experiences provides an important moment of introspection for you as a current student. These are all crucial events that makes the month of October a time of seasonal and personal change. So remember, whenever you’re feeling stressed at the height of exam week, drink some cider.