Opinion: Alum praises VUHS Walden Program

I am writing to express my concern about the possibility of the Vergennes Union High School board cutting funding to prevent the continuation of The Walden Project at VUHS. I am a writer, filmmaker and artist and proud alumna of The Walden Project. This program was absolutely essential for my development as a student, an artist and human being in general, as has been the case for so many of the teens who have passed through the woods of The Willowell Foundation. I am certain that I would not be where I am today if Walden had not come into my life. The program directly influenced my desire to know myself, enforce change in my own life and in so doing within the small community of Vergennes.
From an early age I had little desire for conventional school. I floated by with little effort but was never truly engaged in anything happening inside the classroom. By the time I had gotten to high school I found the experience so mind-numbing that I started skipping out on classes (and making choices that typically coincide with a teen not showing up to class). I always had a passion for the written word and art, so during this hard time I was still at the top of my class in AP writing and art classes but was failing gym and health. I was depressed, had little sense of self and even less of a sense of place within my environment and my community. I should note, I come from a supportive loving family that worked endlessly to help me find the right path, but it was not until I myself found Walden that my life shifted in drastic and some cases “magical” ways. There is no doubt in my mind that Walden was the impetus for my enrolling and graduating from the College of the Atlantic in 2011, and then continuing on my journey as a working artist.
Coming from a bustling city like Los Angeles to the cedar groves of Monkton, Vt., forced me to take a look at a world that I had never had any real access to. I was able to sit with my feeling and through this begin to contemplate what sort of person I wanted to be. I was held accountable for my actions in a whole new way. I felt responsible for not only my own actions but began to see that I needed to be thinking more of what I had to offer the world rather than what the world was offering me. I got involved in ceramics and photography on Fridays, internship day. This fostered my continued love for the arts and sparked a passion within me that encouraged me to become the artist I am today. I volunteered at the soup kitchen in Burlington on Tuesdays, which forced me to care about others far less fortunate than myself. I wrote poetry, learned the names of trees, was introduced to philosophy for which I continued my obsession far past university. I learned about the fragility of eco-systems, how to garden, how to canoe, hike, wilderness survival and took charge of the beehive on the land while discovering the cedar grove, the wetlands and the open fields of the Willowell land.
I was welcomed into a community of students from diverse backgrounds, with varying opinions but all deep within introspection about how we as people can be better. We learned that in fact ignorance is not bliss, that being informed about the world is a journey that lasts a lifetime and it’s necessary to face the problems that face us today. For me, having the exposure to such an open world view freed me from my own adolescent insecurities, as it did for so many others who have passed through the Walden woods. There has always been an open space for students to honestly express, something that so many teens don’t have access to.
The friendships that I cultivated during my time at Walden are still strong today. There is a bond that’s formed in those woods that can’t be gotten at in more formal education. Walden has had such a positive impact on the community — both locally and at large. As a filmmaker I feel inspired by the story of Walden, not necessarily because I have my own footing in the tale but because it is a story that must be told, it must continue to be told now and explored further. There is no way to express in this letter how innovative this program really is. It is a beacon of hope not only for many student of VUHS as they move through high school but more so, for current and future educators, environmentalist, social activists, farmers and artists alike. It is a story about equal opportunity. There is nowhere else I know of that offers this program to public school students. It’s a problem and VUHS has implemented a program that I truly believe in years to come will be an example of excellent standards of fairness, innovation and education. Walden taught me how to shape my own mind, it fostered a sense of agency in my own life and a calmness in my daily routine that made me discover the beauty of the world. I will cherish my time there for the rest of my life because in so many ways Walden saved my life.
I understand that in times of financial discrepancies and budget cuts you have to cut the fat. I think, as I’m sure you do too, that the fact that you are being forced to make these decisions with the fate of our children and the future leaders of tomorrow is a tragedy. However, I also know that choosing not to renew Walden’s budget is not only a tragedy but it’s also criminal. Don’t take away these kids’ opportunity to see the world in a new way, to engage in community discourse that in some ways far exceeded the seminar lectures in my undergrad days. Please don’t take these students’ rights to be immersed in nature, learn from the natural environment of Vermont and cultivate who and what they want to be. This program is immeasurable in monetary terms.
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. I trust that you will make the right decision for the future of the Addison County community, the students of VUHS, all the many people who have been through the woods of Walden and the future of place-based education in the state of Vermont, the United States and the world.
Julia Walsh
VUHS class of 2007
Santa Monica, Calif.

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