Middlebury College students launch ‘Humans of Vermont’ project

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College consistently ranks among the top liberal arts institutions in the U.S., and the college prides itself on fostering a close-knit community of students and faculty on its small campus. 
But for seniors Sophie Kligler, Noah Goss-Woliner and Molly Parizeau, this means it is possible for students to go through their studies at Middlebury without learning much about surrounding towns, or meeting regular Vermonters.
“It’s easy to be, especially as a student, stuck in that Middlebury bubble,” Kligler said.
So, the three embarked on an independent study project, called “Humans of Vermont,” that they hope will help their classmates learn more about life in Vermont outside of campus.
It’s inspired by a project by photographer Brandon Stanton titled “Humans of New York,” in which Stanton showcases the lives of city dwellers whom he meets on the street.
“The idea is to highlight the unique story of each person you meet every day on the street,” Kligler said. “That’s what ‘Humans of Vermont’ is premised on.”
Kligler, Goss-Woliner and Parizeau have spent the past few weeks traveling to different towns (so far Bristol, Vergennes and Burlington) to document the people they meet. They engage strangers in conversation, and ask them questions about their lives.
So far, they’ve heard stories about reconnecting with loved ones, alcoholism, heart surgeries and Maoist uprisings. They’ve showcased their work to date on a Facebook page titled “Humans of Vermont.”
Goss-Woliner said it’s not easy to get people to open up about their lives to young adults they’ve just met, so he starts with questions on lighter topics.
“I want to ask them something that doesn’t put them on the defensive, like ‘What’s your happiest moment?’” he said. “We try to give them questions they can respond to without prying so much.”
THIS SUBJECT, PHOTOGRAPHED in the Burlington Square Mall, says the biggest obstacle he has faced is “open heart surgery. Two of them.” Photo by Humans of Vermont
Though the trio thinks of questions beforehand, Goss-Woliner said often the most interesting responses come as conversations wind onto different topics.
They said the majority of people they have approached were open to participating. About half, according to Parizeau, had heard of “Humans of New York.” Many participants worried their lives weren’t interesting enough to be featured, but Kligler said people often underestimate themselves.
“The idea is there’s so much more to people than they think themselves,” Kligler said. “We’re trying to draw that out and present it in an easily accessible way.”
Goss-Woliner said in addition to the friendly people the group has met in different towns, the reception on campus has been positive, too.
“A lot of people we know, and now people we don’t know, are following us on Facebook,” he said. “Everyone I’ve talked to wants to hear about the things we’re hearing.”
Goss-Woliner said part of this interest is rooted in his classmates’ desire to learn more about life off campus.
“We’re kind of isolated,” he said of being on campus. “I think it’s important for the students here to see the diversity of people and the unique stories people have to share.”
THIS FATHER, PHOTOGRAPHED on Church Street in Burlington, said of his daughter, “Every day she wakes up with a smile on her face. Every day she is happy to enjoy the day in front of her.” Photo by Humans of Vermont
Parizeau said many Middlebury College students are looking for ways to become more involved in the larger Addison County community.
Kligler said the group believes “Humans of Vermont” is beneficial to the Middlebury community because it portrays Vermonters in a different light than flatlanders may cast them in.
“We don’t presume to be shattering stereotypes about Vermont, but I do think there is something to be said for talking to people you meet on the street in these little towns, and getting to know them on a more personal level,” she said. “That has been a lot cooler than I thought it was going to be.”
Parizeau said the project reminds her of something her father once told her — that there is always something going on in a person’s life that you don’t know about.
“They have their own story that you just don’t know about,” Parizeau explained. “This project is a cool way to learn about those stories.”
Each described the project as an eye-opening experience. Goss-Woliner said going out and accosting strangers on the street has encouraged him to learn more about the people in our communities.
“It has given me the confidence to approach and have a conversation with someone, and find out more about who they are and how they’ve experienced different things than me, or anyone else,” he said.
In order to sample a broad swath of Vermonters to complete the project, the group plans to visit many different areas of the state.
“We want to get a wide variety of people in Vermont, and that requires us to go to small towns and economically diverse places,” Goss-Woliner said.
The trio has not yet set an end date for the “Humans of Vermont” project. They may continue it from J-term through the spring semester, for credit or just for fun.
“There isn’t necessarily an end,” Kligler said. “There are always more stories out there that you can collect.”

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