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.

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.

Moving Out

In the senior year there is constant talk of the next step–where we’ll all go from here and what we’ll do after we leave Middlebury.  But those are scary thoughts no one likes to think about.  Instead, I think we should all spend our last year (and maybe even all four years) moving out, not moving on.

As a Vermonter, I know many different Vermonts.  What does this mean?  It means the Middlebury way of life is not the only way of life you find if you drive around the state, especially to those areas that are far more rural.  There is so much to be enjoyed about Vermont, so many different people from different backgrounds.  You don’t always expect that from such a rural location, but I think getting to know the greater Vermont is an essential part of the Middlebury College experience.  It would be a shame to spend all four years in only one kind of Vermont when there are so many with which to fall in love.

The Middlebury College community recently came back from Fall Break.  Because Fall Break isn’t a full week, only Saturday through Tuesday, many students don’t go home and decide to stay at school and enjoy Vermont without quite as much homework.  Some students take this time to explore Vermont more fully.  Whether it’s spending three days in the Green Mountains surrounded by Vermont’s four-legged residences, going to a small B&B in the southern part of the state for a night, or finding a Vermont friend with whom to go home for the weekend, there are endless ways one can get to know the greater state.  A day trip to Montpelier can show you what it means to be the only U.S. state capital without a McDonald’s, or a trek up to the Northeast Kingdom (a personal favorite of mine) can show you firsthand what almost 1.5 million acres of farmland looks like when covered in autumn leaves.

Middlebury is a beautiful place filled with people who have lived and worked in Vermont their entire lives, people who are only here for four years, people who thought this was temporary but absolutely had to make it home, and everything in between.  It’s a diverse place filled with thousands of unique stories, and that only gets more exciting and more varied as you move around the state.  If you meet a Middlebury student from Vermont, you’ll likely find he or she has a lot of other Vermont Middkid friends, because we like to revel in our shared experiences, but you’ll also find that our upbringings are very different depending on the region of Vermont in which we grew up.  Where I’m from, we have farms on farms on farms, but I have a friend from Burlington–the largest city in the state–who thinks of Lake Champlain as home.  We grew up in two very different versions of Vermont, but we love it all the same.

So in this time of thinking about what’s next, I like to remind myself, and those around me, to think about what’s right now and how we can spend this time enjoying and exploring the beautiful state Middlebury students call home.

Finding Balance

Senior year of college, like the senior year of high school, can be an amazingly exciting but also frighteningly nervous time. Unlike the previous three years of college or high school, you are in a completely different mindset. Instead of looking up to students older than you for guidance, you are those wise, maybe even intimidating, seniors who you once admired. Instead of panicking about switching into the classes you want, you revel in all the tricks you have learned over the years – emailing professors weeks in advance and playing the “I need this class for my major” card. Instead of worrying about getting an internship for the summer ahead, you are madly studying for the GRE or MCAT or LSAT, or of course, looking for that elusive offer of employment.

This prelude to the transition into the next phase of our lives means that we have a whole lot more things to balance on our plate during the next nine months, more so than any other time in our college career. Perhaps you are finally leading the club you’ve been a part of since your first year here. Perhaps you are writing a monstrous 100-page thesis. Perhaps you are walking around campus in a suit and tie three days a week, networking and attending interviews. If you are a high school senior reading this, you will certainly relate with this everything-is-happening-at-once feeling. Leading clubs. Planning events. AP exams. Volunteering. And of course, applying to college.

So how do we keep sane? How will you keep sane? Well, first there’s sleep, that precious thing we’ve all learned to treasure here at Middlebury. You can’t possibly expect to balance what’s on your place without the rest and energy your body and your mind need to function. Sure, caffeine helps, but it can’t substitute for the time you spend in bed.

After getting the rest I need and climbing out of bed ready to tackle my day, I like to use a calendar and to-do lists to organize my time. I like to visualize my time so I can plan out my day in my head – what dining hall is closest to my class before lunch, how long I have in the afternoon to do homework before going to that lecture at 4:30, when I can sneak a hitting session in on the tennis courts with my friends. My dad  told me an old Chinese proverb once, “the best memory cannot beat the blunt point of a broken pencil.” In other words, if you are feeling overwhelmed, it helps to write things down so you can use your brainpower to do other things.

But my favorite way of finding balance amidst the craziness that is senior year is taking stock of the little things that happen over the course of a day and going out and doing something spontaneous once in a while. This time of year, it’s enjoying the fiery reds, yellows, and oranges of the fall foliage, or taking an afternoon off to go apple picking. In the winter, it might be going sledding at midnight with your friends, or extending dinner into a two-hour conversation with your friends. In the spring, it might be finally asking your crush out on a date, or going for a late night drive with the windows down and the radio blasting. There is value in the spontaneous, especially when going between classes, the dining hall, and the library begins to feel a little too routine. There is value in the things that we overlook because we are going too fast. Who knows? Along the way, you might just find the perfect inspiration for that Common App essay, or find a new argument for your thesis, and if nothing else, you will come back with a new dose of energy to tackle the challenges of senior year.