STERLING COLLEGE (visited 4/13/14)
If you didn’t know better, you’d pass by this college campus thinking it might have been a glorified summer camp or simply more pretty white wooden buildings lining the small main street of Craftsbury, population 1,300 (“we’re supposed to get cell service in about 6 months!”). They’re an hour from Burlington, 2.5 hours from Montreal, and 3 hours from Boston.
Sterling is one of the most unusual colleges I’ve ever visited; with only 120 students, this is 1 of 7 federally designated Work Colleges (others include Warren Wilson and Berea). They’re looking to grow to 150 students in the next 2 years. They do have an 85% acceptance rate which reflects the self-selecting population of the applicant pool. Cross-over colleges include College of the Atlantic, Green Mountain College, Warren Wilson, Evergreen State, and Prescott. Sterling is test optional; things like Work Ethic counts for much more than scores. Tim, the Director of Admission, said that the students here work harder than he did at Williams. We were all impressed that he was one of the two people taking us out on tour; dressed in corduroys and boots, he was tramping through the mud with the rest of us, clearly excited to be showing off all that the school has to offer.
They do their best to accommodate special academic interests but the baseline educational experience is Ecological Stewardship. Tim called Sterling, “Boot Camp for Stewards.” It’s a vibrant community with an ethic of land use. Majors include Sustainable Agriculture and Sustainable Production (and in fact, 20% of the food used in the dining hall is grown on campus); Ecology (students work for the National Parks, Land Trust, Game and Wildlife), and Education (grads go on to work at the Farm School and other similar things). They have several minors, including Draft Horse Management and Climate Justice. The buildings are small, older, wooden buildings, many of which are being fitted for solar power while keeping the traditional feel to the buildings; you won’t find new modern LEED certified buildings here. They’re also working to transform everything to not use fossil fuels.
We talked to several students who came to Sterling from across the country: OR, NY, MA, PA, and NJ. Twenty percent of the students come from Vermont, 50% come from New England and New York, and 8% are international. The students said that they came because of the small community, the unique programs, and the opportunity to merge hands-on and intellectual work. One student was surprised that it’s so academic here. Many of the students are non-traditional students (although the average age is only 21), and several transfer or come back for a second degree. One woman on the panel was 29 and had already been working as an architect. She here because she was “blown away” by the ecology lens.
Students are expected to have an axe (not kidding!). All freshmen need to complete “Bounder” which is based on the Outward Bound Education. This fall class ends with a 4-day, 30-mile trek back to campus without tents or stoves. They’re taken out to the woods and dropped off with the group. “In December, you can get any kind of weather.” The kids said that it’s a really difficult experience – they’re glad they did it, but hope they never have to do it again! Over their time at Sterling, they can get certified in Wilderness First Responder, as well. A student at lunch said, “I learned so much about anatomy and physiology, and it only cost about $100 rather than $1000 if I did it somewhere else”.
All students must complete a one semester internship; before that, they do a “Work Search” class; afterwards, they do a reflection. A veteran on campus is about to gradate with an experience in Horse Therapy because of his internship; he plans on continuing this work with other veterans after graduation. There are 4 draft horses on campus which are used for everything from working the farm to pulling the carts with maple sap to the maple syrup hut. The campus farm is extensive, with all sorts of animals (currently, they have steers being raised on an old tennis court which the school acquired when they took over a resort that went bankrupt) as well as food. They’re building a new chicken building that looks like a little cabin.