For Good: Students Volunteering to Support Bennington, Vermont
Leaders of local organizations on the impact of student work and volunteerism throughout Bennington by Alex Dery Snider
"I was wicked nervous,” Kayla, a Mount Anthony Union High School student says, remembering her experience with International Term. The Term is an informal partnership between the College and the Mount Anthony Union High School Quantum Leap program. Taking place during the College’s annual Field Work Term, the Term has international college students assisting teachers and students in the Quantum Leap program at Bennington to re-engage with their education.
For Kayla and others in her class, the Term would be the first time they ever engaged directly with someone from another country. “Some students haven’t left the town of Bennington much, and myths become embedded. They have to meet a human, not just hear a teacher talk,” said Ric Crosier, co-director of Quantum Leap. “I can’t think of anything we’ve done in the last few years that has had as much of a positive impact as International Term.”
Across town, at the Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin has his hands full, getting multiple installations and exhibitions up.
Franklin leans on Field Work Term interns to take one of the smaller projects from concept through to the exhibition. “I don’t know that many undergraduate students would be able to do that at that level,” said Franklin.
Noting that most Bennington College students are from further afield, Franklin appreciates the opportunity for students to be steeped in the local history. The Museum has been expanding that work through partnerships with faculty members to provide other opportunities outside of the winter work term. “Getting [students] excited and interested only benefits the community at large.”
Through a partnership between Sue Andrews, who runs Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services, and faculty member Yoko Inoue, students help Andrews’ small nonprofit assist Bennington citizens living in poverty to meet their basic food, shelter, medical, and dental care needs. The area is the second most food insecure area in Vermont, with one in four families needing assistance to survive. For several years, the nonprofit has hosted an Empty Bowls event as a fundraiser to support their efforts.
Inoue teaches ceramics and is interested in socially engaged art, issues of food sovereignty, and community building. She and Andrews saw the overlap between their work, and Inoue developed a class in which students and community participants collaboratively created 500 bowls. “Craft can be a vital tool for building new social relationships through skill sharing and stimulating face-to-face dialog while working together toward a mutual goal,” Inoue says.
At the Bennington Free Clinic, also run by Andrews, students volunteer as translators and medical recorders, with post-bacc and pre-med students more likely to take on expanded roles.
At Second Chance Animal Shelter, Cathleen Perrone marshalls volunteers who walk dogs, socialize cats, help with events, and more. One animal-loving photography student offered to take pictures of pets looking their adoptable best. Perrone sees the impact on the animals—human contact can help them cope with the stresses of shelter life. “I have never seen a student enter or leave our facility without a smile on their face,” said Perrone. “We, both furry and human, appreciate all that they do.”
Throughout its history, Bennington students in each and every class have formally and informally volunteered to work with hundreds of local organizations, and in some cases have even started organizations to address community concerns. But in the last several years, the College has worked to put more formal structures in place to organize and recognize the impact of this ongoing work.
In 2015, the College created a Student Engagement Kilpatrick Fellowship, in which recent graduate Michael Thomson ’15 would lay the groundwork to help formally connect students eager to pitch in with local organizations that could use the help. Thompson held fairs, arranged for transportation, and served as the internal and external community contact for volunteer opportunities.
This year, the College expanded that work opening an Assistant Director for Community Engagement staff position. Already these structures have helped calculate what was once an illusive measure—hours spent volunteering in Bennington. Last year alone, the total was 520 volunteered hours. Next year, leaders predict, it will be even more.
For more information on student community engagement, contact Anya Piotrowski at email@example.com.