Author Archives: carnowitz

Extracurricular Reflections: Election Season

While the United States picked its president on November 6, at Middlebury we’ll be choosing our next president of the Student Government Association on May 3. It’s an exciting time, with aspiring candidates putting up creative posters, accosting students outside the dining halls, and giving dramatic speeches in random locales in an attempt to woo the undecided masses.

For me, this year’s election season is bittersweet. For the last year I have served as president of the Student Government Association, which has been a unique and fantastic opportunity for me. In that role, I have sent thousands of emails, attended hundreds of meetings, and worked with fellow students, faculty, staff, and administrators across campus. It has been a wonderful learning experience for me, as I’ve had to engage with a variety of issues, learned to work more collaboratively and effectively, and to be a real leader. As I’m getting ready to transition out, I know I’ll miss having these opportunities.

In many ways, as you can see, I’ve learned as much in this extracurricular pursuit as in some of my classes. While my particular role is unique, the incredible learning value of extracurriculars for Midd students is not. Student athletes learn about the value of teamwork on and off the field. Members of performing groups, in addition to honing their various techniques, are also coordinators and leaders who work with others to accomplish shared goals. A major driver of what keeps Middkids busy day-to-day is our extracurricular involvements, and that is a key reason that student life here is so vibrant. We take these commitments seriously because they are as important as what we do in the classroom in driving student learning. But they’re also fun.

As I nostalgically watch underclassmen campaign for my job, it is hard not to think of the extent to which my non-academic commitments have shaped my time at Middlebury—my skill sets and schedule, to be sure—but far more importantly the friendships I have made and the ways in which I enjoy myself. The choices we make on that front sometimes may seem arbitrary when we make them, but ultimately have significantly consequences for how we spend our time. My involvement over the last four years in student government, Hillel, the College Democrats, College Choir, and other groups have fundamentally shaped my time at Middlebury. They’ve each been learning experiences, they’ve been places to make friends and enjoy myself, and the way it’s all shaken out, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Spring Student Symposium

As I am always telling my information sessions, I have two favorite days every year at Middlebury: Chili Festival and Spring Student Symposium. The reason I love Chili Fest is obvious, I think, because I get to sample dozens of kinds of chili while casually strolling along Middlebury’s Main Street on a balmy day in March. But the reasons I love Spring Student Symposium are a little more complicated.

Spring Student Symposium takes place on a Friday in late April, and classes are cancelled for the day. McCardell Bicentennial Hall (“Bihall”) transforms itself into the college-level equivalent of an elementary school science fair, and hundreds of students put up posters, make presentations, and give all sorts of demonstrations. The topics? Anything they want—papers they’ve worked on, research they have undertaken, senior theses, work done while studying abroad. The Symposium is a celebration of the huge amount of undergraduate research that takes place at Middlebury.

The presentations really range the academic spectrum. I’ll give an example, using two roommates I know. One is a physics major, and was part of a team that converted a tractor to run on hydrogen. (I went for a ride.) The other roommate is a classics major with an interest in the civil rights movement—so, naturally, he translated the works of Malcomb X into Latin. So Spring Symposium presentation topics truly range the gamut.

The reason I love Symposium is because it is an opportunity to see what friends and peers are up to and to marvel at the amount of research that goes on here, in some really fascinating different fields. We all know that our friends are smart and that our friends work hard, but to see them presenting the results of their hard work in a group setting can be inspiring. In my mind, Middlebury’s emphasis on undergraduate research—across the curriculum and at all levels—is a unique trait and one that cannot be understated.

This year, I will be presenting at Symposium for the first time. I’ll be discussing my senior thesis, which is about Internet censorship in China. I’m excited for my friends, peers, and professors to see what I’ve been up to all year, and I know that it’ll be a proud capstone for my Middlebury experience. But I’m more excited to see what my friends and peers have been up to this year—I know I’ll be astonished and inspired by their work.

The Beginning of the End: Preemptive Nostalgia

Last Monday was my last first day of school. Ever. Sure, I suppose I may someday go on to grad school, but those plans are indistinct and far off. It won’t be for a long time that I get that rush of excitement when meeting a new teacher and looking at a new syllabus. This last first day also represents the first of many “lasts” we seniors will confront during this final semester at Middlebury. It’s time for a bit of preemptive nostalgia.

That morning I grabbed breakfast in Ross Dining Hall, and I noticed an awkward freshman practicing his Chinese characters in a messy, loopy scrawl. That was me, I realized, just three short years ago. And in those years I went from knowing not a single word or character in Mandarin to having studied abroad in China and speaking the language with a confidence that would have astounded me as a freshman.

That’s a big change, I thought—so what else has changed in four years? Well, I suppose I’m no longer that awkward freshman either—although I’m sure some of my friends would disagree. I’m a self-assured senior with the ability to speak and present and communicate with confidence and a little pizzazz, too.

I went about my day. First day of classes—man, do I know how to pick them well now. I can select classes that strike a balance between great professors and interesting material and challenging coursework. Heading to the library to work on my thesis—I’m reading academic literature and analyzing it in a way I never would have been able to freshman year. In Proctor Dining Hall, at dinnertime, I see dozens of friends that I have made over four years. And after dinner I spend the evening in extracurricular meetings, interests that I’ve discovered over my four years here.

It feels, in some ways, like so little has changed—but I know that so much has. When I give my information sessions at the admissions office, I see high school juniors and seniors—and I remember distinctly what it’s like to be in their shoes. It feels like yesterday that I was driving around New England with my parents attempting to find that perfect campus. But it’s not yesterday. It’s a long time ago and a lot has happened since then.

There are less than a hundred days before graduation. Double digits. The beginning of the end: The last J-Term is past. So is that last first day of school. And this Saturday was my last Winter Carnival Ball. Every weekend seems to bring about some milestone: the last trip to some restaurant, or the last party with some group of friends, or the last meeting with some professor.

But this mindset, even for a person as nostalgic as I, is a bit ridiculous. First of all, I still have more than three months left at Middlebury. Three months to study and to ski and to sleep and three months not to waste. And second, it would be wrong to say I’m not excited to leave, in some ways. I’ll miss Middlebury, a lot, but because of how I’ve grown in these four years I know that I’m ready to take on whatever is coming next.

Thesis Time!

Every senior at Middlebury is required to complete some kind of senior work, in the form of an independent project, production, or thesis. There are a couple of guiding principles here: First is the idea of challenge by choice. Students have the option of choosing an independent study or an honors project depending on the level of commitment they choose. Second is the concept of student choice. Students choose a project appropriate to their departmental focus: a music major might write a piece of music; a theater major might direct a production; a science major might conduct laboratory experiments; and a political science major will write a thesis.

How do you choose a thesis topic? After all, this is a project you’ll be working on for at least a semester, if not a year. Of course, you hope that the topic that is both interesting to you personally, and also one that has some academic value and is worth your time. Often students will find inspiration from a paper or project during sophomore or junior year. Others will find inspiration from their time abroad, summer experiences like internships or volunteer work, or some long-held interest. Still, many students will come into their senior with little idea of a topic that inspires them—this is why we have advisors!

I’m a political science major, and for me it was clear I wanted to write about some element of my time in China. Since a political science honors thesis is a three semester/yearlong project, I knew I had to find a topic that could keep me engaged for a full year. My internship this summer at the US Department of Commerce gave me the opportunity to learn about the importance of the Internet in various contexts. And having lived in China and learned about the uniqueness of the Internet censorship that exists there, I knew that this would be an interesting topic for me. My advisor helped me to narrow the topic to something focused, academic, and worthwhile.

So now it’s research time! The first stages of the thesis involve reading as much as you can about the topic of your choice. It is an exciting, humbling, and terrifying stage of the project. And by the end of J-term, amazingly, the bulk of my project will (hopefully!) be written.

People say that writing a thesis is simultaneously the best and worst thing they do at Midd, and the easiest and hardest, too. You have the opportunity to explore a single topic in depth, to become a real expert in an area, and to hone your research, writing, project management, and analytical skills. At the same time, a thesis requires self-discipline and a long-term commitment. Overall, though, it is a project that, after eight months, you can look back on with some pride.

I’ll have some more reflections on what the process is like come spring, but for now I’m excited to learn as much as I can about my topic and to begin outlining my work for the rest of the year.

Fall Family Weekend

Fall Family Weekend is coming! As a senior, my parents will be making it up to Middlebury for their first Family Weekend of my undergraduate career. It’ll be the last time they’re here before graduation weekend, and since there won’t be much time at graduation for them to see the campus and surrounding area, I’m hoping to make the most of it this weekend. So I’ve got quite the itinerary planned.

My parents are staying at a hotel in Vergennes, about 15 minutes north of Middlebury. I’ve always liked Vergennes. It is the “smallest city in America”—Vermont has a unique system of classifying cities and towns, meaning that tiny Vergennes with 2000 people gets to hold the title. Last year in one of my classes, Separation of Church and State with Professor James Davis, my class re-enacted a real life debate that had been going on in Vergennes, about the placement of a crèche in the city square. And, like most other towns around here, Vergennes is quaint, Vermont-y, and fun to walk around.

So on Friday afternoon I plan on taking the ACTR bus up to Vergennes. The Addison County Transit Resources is the Middlebury area’s fantastic system of local transit—free shuttles run constantly around Middlebury College and through town, and ACTR also offers bus service to Burlington and to some of the towns surrounding Middlebury. Last J-Term, I took the ACTR bus to Burlington every morning and evening to get to an internship there. The ACTR also places a heavy emphasis on green transit options.

So I’ll be taking the bus up to Vergennes, walking around town with my parents for a few hours, and then joining them for dinner at Black Sheep Bistro, a restaurant there specializing in delicious local foods. Vermont has a really wonderful food culture, and almost every medium-sized town surrounding Middlebury (Vergennes, Bristol, Brandon, etc.) features at least one or two truly excellent restaurants, most specializing in eclectic local fare.

I’ve got a full day planned for Saturday, too. We’ll start off at Lincoln Peak Vineyard, a few miles from Middlebury. Apparently grape-growing is an increasingly popular pursuit here in northern New England, and Lincoln Peak has wine tastings—being 21, this will be a fun activity with my parents. Afterwards, we’ll head out for a hike. I haven’t quite decided which we’ll do yet—there are dozens of great hikes in the area. A student favorite is Snake Mountain, which provides outstanding westward-looking views of the Champlain Valley, Lake Champlain, and beyond those the Adirondack Mountains of New York. During fall in Vermont, any of these hikes will be spectacular.

We’ll end Saturday with a dinner at Fire and Ice, a restaurant in downtown Middlebury, and hopefully spend the evening  enjoying each other’s company.

On Sunday morning, my parents and I will spend the day on campus. In the morning, Middlebury College Hillel will be having a Family Weekend Bagel Brunch. Hillel is the Jewish student organization on campus, and has been a very important part of my life at Midd. It will be great for my parents to meet some of my friends in Hillel and to learn more about what we do. I know it’s important to them, just like it is to me. In the afternoon, we’ll walk around campus. I’ll show them my dorm, a few places where I have classes or where extracurricular activities meet, and introduce them to some of my friends. They’ll head out in the evening, and I’ll give them a goodbye hug that has to last until Thanksgiving.

As you can see, I’m excited to share this place with my parents—there is a lot to do, and this will be a fun and busy weekend. Moreover, though, I want to share this place with my parents because their love and support is the reason I’m here, and I want to give them a taste of what my life at Midd is like. While they have seen the campus, it’s been a couple of years.  And I hope that seeing the places I frequent will let them know that I am using my time here well, enjoying myself, learning, and keeping busy.

See you on Friday, Mom and Dad!