New college students explore Vermont

MIDDLEBURY — As parents and children across Addison County head to stationery stores for new notebooks and backpacks to prepare for the new school year, the MiddView Orientation team at Middlebury College is getting ready to welcome its 606 first-year students to the Green Mountain State.
One key element of their orientation will be the off-campus MiddView trips on the weekend following the initial on-campus events. Those trips — mostly local, some further-flung — provide new students the chance to forge connections with peers and student leaders and to explore the towns and landscape beyond the confines of the college, according to Middlebury officials.
“The trips help establish a sense of space and belonging within this larger community,” Orientation Assistant Director Amanda Reinhardt said. “We want students to feel that there is more to Vermont than (the college), and we want them to feel like they belong here and can see where they are (within a larger context).”
Incoming students can choose among three trip categories: Wilderness Exploration, Vermont Exploration and Community Engagement trips, each of which allows students to experience Vermont’s environment, people and towns.
The community engagement trips in particular allow students to learn about the issues and people in the surrounding towns. They can also form a bridge between the sometimes-rocky relationship between college students and community members, according to Tiffany Nourse Sargent, director of the college’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE).
“There are stereotypes from the college students about the community and from the community about the college,” Sargent said. “Whenever we can get people together so that they meet one another and know one another, it breaks down all those stereotypes and invites all kinds of opportunities for shared vision, friendship and work.”
The community engagement component of MiddView trips has a history tracing back to optional volunteer preview trips hosted by the CCE in the late 1980s. Since 2013, MiddView has worked with them to plan annual theme-based community engagement trips alongside their two other trip categories.
“The community engagement trips give students the opportunities to … see how their actions and inactions affect other people and to become more conscientious of what they do,” said Robert Zarate-Morales, the MiddView Community Engagement intern this year.
Students can choose trips with themes are personally meaningful to them. According to Sargent, trip experiences create connections that many students continue to use throughout their time at Middlebury.
“For many of the students that participate, part of their identity is some kind of community connection: a passion about citizenship and working in the community,” she said. “The earlier we can get students engaged, the greater the opportunity for them to take full advantage and enhance their Middlebury College experience.”
Those connections are not limited solely to the town of Middlebury. Community engagement trips take students to as near as the Charter House Coalition in town to as far away as the Central Vermont Humane Society in East Montpelier.
AT THE BRIDGE School in Middlebury, incoming first-year students at Middlebury College work on collaborative arts projects with elementary school children as part of the 2015 MiddView Community Engagement trip Arts in Education. Courtesy photo/Brett Simison  
Themes on the trips range as widely as the locations. This year, they include Bridging the Health Gap, Creating Inclusive Communities and a new addition, Animal Advocacy and Rehabilitation.
“Even though Middlebury is in a small, relatively rural community, we are a microcosm of the larger world and of larger world issues such as food insecurity, education challenges, immigration and housing,” Sargent said.
This year, the Bridge School is one local partner that college students will visit as part of the Exploring Education in Rural Communities trip. The independent elementary school in Middlebury is one of the community engagement trips’ longest-standing partners.
At the Bridge School, and at other local partners, incoming first-year students engage in different projects each year as the MiddView team works closely with the organizations to create fulfilling experience for both parties.
“It’s been exciting to see people get fired up and to exchange ideas,” said Bridge School mentor Cynthia Clarke. “We look at what the team from the college wants to do and what our own students can do to create an authentic experience where everyone can feel fully involved in the process.”
Last year, the Bridge School worked with college students to build a makeshift playground out of cardboard boxes and found material to stimulate the children’s imagination. This year, students will collaborate on a mural that merges each Bridge School student’s silhouette with the values of the school.
“(The mural) will be a part of the school forever. I’m so excited to get the kids through the door and doing the project,” Clarke said. “We love the Middlebury students that come and work with us. They’re wonderful, and it’s fun to see how the younger kids respond.”
At the Center for Community Engagement at the college, Sargent hopes that these trips will continue to produce positive experiences for all.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “(These trips) just make the fabric of the community all the stronger by having people know one another and work towards a common goal.”

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