Pit Stop #52: Sterling College

At the very end of July, I had the opportunity to travel north from Boston to the Green Mountain State. In light of all the disasters that have befallen the country since then, it might be a bit difficult to remember that during the second week of July, Vermont suffered a massive environmental crisis, with almost seven inches of rain falling over the course of two days. Even two weeks later, the impact of the floods that followed was still clearly evident. 

Downtown Montpelier, the state’s capital, was mostly shuttered as I drove through. My destination of Sterling College, located about an hour north in the small village of Craftsbury Common, is not on a river as is Montpelier, yet virtually every one of the town’s buildings had flooded. Craftsbury Common is one of four villages that make up the town of Craftsbury, with a total population of just over 1100. It is a small Vermont village where Sterling’s 130 acres represent a key part of the village’s life and economy…. 

…and in this community, neighbors help neighbors.

President Scott Thomas began his leadership at the college on the first of July and spent the inaugural days of his tenure helping fellow college staff pump water out of buildings. It reminded me of my first days as President of Oglethorpe, when Katrina hit New Orleans and we were all scrambling to offer assistance. I suppose this falls under the presidential job description of “other duties as assigned.” 

Sterling College is a Work College, one of nine such colleges in America. Work Colleges are a group of four-year, degree-granting, liberal arts institutions that engage students in the purposeful integration of work, learning, and service. Unique to Work Colleges is a requirement that all resident students participate in a comprehensive work/learning/service initiative during all four years of enrollment. In other words, all resident students have jobs. Most students work on campus, but some students hold off-campus positions; either way,  they learn responsibility and accountability, gain valuable work experience, and reduce the cost of their education. The Work College model is student-centered and designed to enhance and enrich the educational experience. 

Learning at Sterling is deeply personalized, outdoor-oriented, community-centered, and rooted in doing. In fact, most of Sterling College’s campus is a working farm managed by three farm supervisors and supported by Sterling students. Students earn credit and gain expertise through engagement and growth in courses, work, experiential endeavors, and seminars. By giving equal weight to work, study, and living in community, a Sterling education is truly distinct. 

Sterling is one of NECHE’s smaller institutions, with fewer than one hundred students. While becoming a large institution has never been in its plans, stabilizing enrollment at around 125 remains an objective for President Thomas. I had the opportunity to meet with a handful of students who were entirely and passionately engaged in their academic work, but equally committed to their work assignments on the farm, which is stunningly beautiful.

Clearly, the education and “doing” experiences that Sterling offers its students are both exceptional and unique, and certainly make it the right place for the right kind of student. Like so many of our institutions, Sterling’s challenge ahead is to find those students and introduce them to what makes Sterling such a  singularly rewarding community.