Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vermont Colleges - Something for Everyone

Many people assume that April is not the best month to visit Vermont. The snow begins to melt, giving way to muddy fields and trails. But travel to Vermont in April is exactly what I did last week with a group of 37 high school and independent counselors, along with 4 Vermont college admission officers who served as our guides. We visited 17 schools in a 6-day college tour that took us up, down and across the Green Mountain State. What I discovered is that Vermont is truly beautiful year round, not just in winter, summer and fall. It is also home to a group of colleges and universities that provide a broad spectrum of wonderful options in higher education.

Our trip yielded many surprises and discoveries, starting with the variety and breadth of educational opportunities that this state with fewer than 700,000 year-round residents has to offer. Vermont truly has something for everyone, so it should come as no surprise that it attracts students from all over. The majority of those enrolled hail from beyond Vermont's borders. Whether you are looking for a flagship public research university, a military college, pre-professional programs, a work and service learning experience, a school devoted to students with learning differences, top liberal arts, or state colleges that offer unique programs and financial value even to out-of-state residents, there is a good chance that you will find a school that meets your needs in this beautiful northeastern state.

The unique qualities and programs of each school were fairly easy to keep straight, but I also began to notice some characteristics that were common to nearly every college we visited, beginning with the shear beauty of each campus. Mountains, lush hills and lakes define the landscape, even for the colleges situated in the heart of Burlington, the largest city in Vermont and a thriving college town. The second thing that struck me was that nearly all of the colleges we visited offered a liberal arts core education, yet each with its own clearly articulated approach that made the experience distinct. Lastly, the Vermont schools share an appreciation for the environment, whether it is just a part of the collective consciousness or an integral component of the curriculum. This, after all, is the Green Mountain State.

So after 17 colleges in six days I am challenged by the task of conveying a sense of each school, in a few hundred words or less (not unlike staying within the word count limits on the Common Application). Here are some quick thoughts and observations, and why they might be choice picks:

University of Vermont (10,000 undergraduates, 2/3rds out-of-state) - Best small liberal arts feel in a major public research university; No concerns about classes predominantly taught by teaching assistants as undergrads dominate the student body here; It's all about them! Offering sound programs in all of the liberal arts, UVM is also known for its Business, Nursing, Education and Engineering.

Burlington College (170 free spirited students) - Where artists and activists shape their own hands-on liberal learning; Popular courses of study include Cinema Production & Film Study, Fine Furniture Making, and Transpersonal Psychology. While tiny by most standards, Burlingon College's community is part of the larger Burlington cityscape. Additionally, it is a member of a three college consortium with Saint Michael's and neighbor, Champlain College.

Champlain College (2,000 students) Top choice for an academic experience that uses liberal arts as a lens to view real world issues and practices; Its unique Upside Down Curriculum has students engaged in their major course work starting as early as the first year. Majors fields of study include Communications & Creative Media, Information Technology and Sciences, Education & Human Studies, and Business. Within thes broad areas, Game Programming, Digital Film Making, Graphic Design and Digital Forensics are popular.

Bennington College (750 students) - “Interdisciplinary” is more than just a buzz word here; This is the place for the creative and independent student who wants to design his or her own interdisciplinary plan of study and put critical thinking into practice. Student-faculty relationships are more central to the experience than at other colleges, with weekly advisory meetings. Fine and performing arts, languages, as well as creative writing and architecture are big draws.

College of Saint Joseph (450 students) - Where a small and nurturing environment caters largely to first generation college students who seek to blend theory and practice. Students enjoy the security of a small campus with internship opportunities and an emphasis on pre-professional studies, i.e., Criminal Justice, Business, Education, Human Services and Sports Management.

Green Mountain College (750 students) - Top choice for the environmental liberal arts experience and one of 5 colleges in the Eco League of Environmentally Aware Colleges; At Green Mountain, reducing the carbon footprint takes on a whole new meaning. Popular academic programs include Environmental Studies, Resort & Hospitality, Biology, Education and the Arts. It is one of two colleges in Vermont with a working farm managed by students.

Saint Michael’s College (2,000 undergraduates, 80% out-of-state) – A small fully residential college with a big perspective on community; This Catholic institution prides itself on the close-knit campus and the students' celebration of differences. Communications, Journalism, Business, Education and English Literature are popular majors at this test-optional college noted for strong and dedicated academic advising.

Middlebury College (2,400 students) - Vermont’s own little Ivy and a top contender for best facilities on one of the most beautiful college campuses around; Known as a premier institution for the study of languages, Middlebury is also especially strong in English Literature, Environmental Studies and the Sciences. The college welcomes students to take a gap year and enrolls 90 freshmen for February admissions.

Southern Vermont College (500+ students, 2/3rds out-of-state) - Nurturing and small, SVC has a pre-professional focus with a liberal arts core; The college promotes a project-based learning experience and strong community partnerships; 61% of students are first generation; Strong majors include Nursing, Healthcare Management, Business with an emphasis on entrepreneurship, Sports Management, Criminal Justice and Creative Writing. Forensic Nursing will be added next year.

Vermont Technical College (1,000 students) - 98% placement rate for graduates of this vocational school; Fields of study range from Business Agriculture, Fire Studies and Architecture, to Nursing, Dental Hygiene (only program in VT), and Veterinary Technology. Aviation Technology will be added next year.

Marlboro College (300 students) - Where smart, intellectual, and self-described “weird” students seek a very personalized learning experience in a self-governing community; The college has a writing intensive curriculum with a focus on tutorials as a foundation of its academic approach; Test-optional.

Norwich University ( 1,250 corp of cadets, 950 civilians) - Where the oldest military academy in the U.S. and a civilian college co-exist; Students are drawn to the structured life style and leadership opportunities; Corp members maintain the option, but not the obligation, to join the military upon graduation; Popular majors include Nursing, Architecture, Engineering, and Criminal Justice.

Sterling College (105 students, 78% out-of-state) - One of seven work service learning colleges in the U.S. and the only one in Vermont; “Working Hands, Working Minds” is the motto at this back-to-nature college community with a science-based, environmentally focused curriculum. Students pursue Conservation Ecology, Sustainable Agriculture, and Outdoor Education & Leadership; Students must work at the school as part of their academic experience, including running the campus farm which also serves as a hands-on classroom. Our group had the pleasure of arriving early enough in the season to see the newborn rabbits, lambs and goats, and also observe a class in sheep shearing!

Landmark College (500 students) - Having a learning disability is not a handicap, but rather a pre-requisite for admission here. Those who attend this 2-year college study liberal arts and also learn to better understand their own disabilities in order to overcome academic challenges; 80% of students transfer to a 4 year college. The college measures its success by what students do after. And successful it is.

Castleton State College, Lyndon State College and Johnson State College
These 3 state colleges enroll under 2,000 students each. Unique academic opportunities abound, as all three have carved out their own academic personalities and specialties:
- Castleton State – in addition to Nursing and Education, Castleton is strong in sports related majors including Sports Administration, Training and Physical Education. While financial pressures have forced colleges to eliminate some sports teams, Castleton just added football. The team plays to sell-out crowds and has a spirited school marching band to cheer it on.
- Lyndon State – Electronic Journalism, Music Business & Industry, and Atmospheric Sciences are just some of the premier majors that put Lyndon on the map. The Emmy award winning school television station reaches 9.000 households in VT and NH, with its college reporters out in the communities covering local news.
- Johnson State – Perhaps the most arts focused of the state colleges, Johnson State has a strong program in the performing arts, especially for jazz. Other popular courses of study are Business, Outdoor Education, Hospitality in Tourism & Management and Wellness & Alternative Medicines.

Distilling these 17 schools down to quick sound bites does not nearly do them justice, but hopefully I have given you a flavor for some of their unique qualities. Please feel free to contact me if you wish to learn more on any or all of them. As you or your sons and daughters consider college options, keep in mind the wonderful possibilities that Vermont has to offer.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Setting Goals - Challenge and Attainment

It is a beautiful day and I am in my office writing rather than getting on my bike. Why is that so significant? I am chastising myself because I am officially “in training” and should be taking advantage of afternoons such as this to cycle. Yes, I have committed to do a tour of colleges in southern California with a group of counselors during the first week of July. We will travel exclusively on bikes, covering 50 miles a day and carrying our own gear. As many of you know, I am a runner, not a cyclist. The thought of riding for hours on busy and hilly roads in a pack of cyclists with the weight and bulk of my week’s worth of belongings strapped to my bike is both exhilarating and terrifying.

You may be wondering why I am doing this if I am concerned about being up to the challenge. At my age (let’s just say I am over 40) what am I trying to prove? Frankly, this is not a question I am asking myself. I am doing this for several reasons: as a college consultant I know the importance of seeing schools firsthand in order to best guide my students towards finding the right fit. This is why I visit 50 to 60 colleges every year. I am also looking forward to meeting others in my field, mostly school guidance counselors, who share my professional objective. I anticipate a special camaraderie developing within this group of 14 after sharing an adventure filled week on the road. But one of my primary reasons is merely to have a goal; something challenging, yet attainable.

We all have goals in life, some we set for ourselves and others that are assigned to us. They give our lives purpose and direction. The ones that offer the greatest rewards and satisfaction are those that challenge and push us to attain something we might otherwise not have achieved. Is there any feeling more gratifying than working towards something that we’ve earned from sheer effort, thoughtful planning and persistence? In the absence of setting objectives, we often lose our way. We have nothing against which to measure progress and success. The goals in our lives instill discipline and motivation. And if we get off track, we must look within for the inner strength that drives our personal resiliency. It’s the stuff that builds confidence and makes us stronger.

How we set goals is important too, both for ourselves and for our children. Goals are not a “to-do” list. A truly enriching goal should result in something more than just one finished homework assignment or a clean room. Longer term goals force us to have a plan, be disciplined and focused. The true pleasure should come to the one who achieves the goal rather than the person who may have assigned it. Goals must be attainable, yet challenging; sweat is expected, but the blood and tears are not a prerequisite. (I say this as I look down upon my scabbed knee healing far too slowly after a silly spill on my first outdoor ride; I felt foolish and ten years old again). The child struggling through one too many AP classes who is suffering physically and emotionally under the stress, may be experiencing more harm than good. In too many of these cases, students end the semester feeling worse, not better about themselves. Instead, we should help our children discover the satisfaction of achievement from mastering a challenging task that pushes rather than paralyzes them. We as parents should help our sons and daughters set goals that ignite their passions and help them build resiliency and confidence.

The west coast bike tour is now just 12 weeks away. I will definitely get some cycling in this weekend. The training and ride will be a challenge, but I am up to the task. I am already anticipating the pride, satisfaction, and yes, exhilaration that I know I will feel in July.