by Grant Olcott, Social Entrepreneurship Intern
Maggie Nazer spoke about two themes interwoven through her experiences: privilege and poverty. A tension between the two has motivated her passion for social change. In the face of poverty, both her own and that of others, she finds hope and inspiration by expressing gratitude for her privileges. Maggie’s story echoes expresses the importance of sharing: how sharing alleviates the stress of poverty and widens one’s perspective on privilege.
Despite financial troubles, Maggie dedicated herself to helping others as a child. She sold hand-made cards to raise money for a sick classmate when she was nine. As soon as she could, she found a job to help support her family. She looks back at this time with more gratitude than relief. In fact, she highlighted several privileges she enjoyed: having a home where everyone loves and supports each other, for example, and being part of a community that never questioned her ability to make change.
Maggie discussed how she confronted poverty while abroad in Jordan. She realized early on that she scarcely had adequate funds to live on, nor could she afford a plane ticket back home. The precarious situation tested her creativity. She networked extensively and found an internship, which provided the income she needed as well as the professional work she sought. While a difficult memory, she smiles at the rewarding experience—the privilege of a Middlebury education, the confidence built using her ingenuity, talents, and qualifications to overcome obstacles.
By the time she started college, Maggie was no stranger to these adventures. She spent a gap year traveling around Europe, living off less than $2 a day at times. With her free-spirited and risk-embracing nature, she hitch-hiked and connected with many new people. Maggie values and even prioritizes vulnerability. She knows that openness allows people to share, connect, trust, and progress. For her, vulnerability opens a window to the world of privilege and poverty. To connect the importance of vulnerability to her story, Maggie offered a brief but powerful message to the world: “Let yourself be broken.” By embracing vulnerability and openness, one can truly appreciate one’s privilege, discover self-knowledge, and share with others more openly. Vulnerability, she implies, often comes unwanted at first. However, if we let ourselves break a little, we can learn more about each other, and become better changemakers — just as Maggie does at home, abroad, and in the Middlebury community.
After graduation, Maggie hopes to bring these values to communities around the world through the English language immersion program that she is starting back home in Bulgaria. She hopes that students at Middlebury will embrace vulnerability, find brightness and strength even in challenges, and take their perspectives with them into the professional world. Maggie envisions a community where people matter most, and the room on Friday was filled with students, faculty members, staff members, and people from the community whom Maggie has touched.
by Grant Olcott, Social Entrepreneurship Intern
The combination of friendship and citizenship leads a community to the ideal form of communication: open-minded discussion. Sebastian Kern’s goal as a social entrepreneur is to promote this free exchange of ideas. He finds that people in communities that challenge themselves embrace this ideal. By agreeing and disagreeing with one and other openly, they drive the movement towards truth and progress. They achieve the most change by taking risks and communicating genuinely and deeply with each other.
Sebastian is not critical of the Middlebury community. He has had satisfying learning experiences with his group of friends. However, perhaps that illustrates the problem. As other SE fellows previously expressed in this space, he wants to understand the peculiar tendency for people to atomize themselves into separate ideological cliques. He fears what is lost when people split themselves up. Such division creates comfort zones — areas we dread leaving even when we know there’s something great on the other side, much like how we prefer to remain cooped up indoors during J-Term rather than walk to the athletic center.
Safe spaces could be the overlooked antidote to this phenomenon. To understand their importance, they must be distinguished from comfort zones. As redundant as it sounds, comfort zones emphasize comfort, and safe spaces safety. Comfort is something we as active citizens, friends, and community members could do with less of. It hampers our ability to openly and honestly communicate, and therefore holds us back from the truth. But in order to encourage each other to give up comfort, we must ensure our safety. Only in a safe space can we speak freely. To get there we must practice empathy, cultivate curiosity, and demonstrate respect.
Such a transformation would improve our community. One of Sebastian’s favorite quotes is “Loneliness is the inability to communicate what’s important to you.” Loneliness is essentially a symptom of too much comfort. In safe spaces, people develop the ability to talk openly and become what John Stuart Mill described as “noble and beautiful objects of contemplation.” In this ideal community, no one would feel isolated. Mill’s vision of human beauty would shine through the faces of engaged and active students.
Sebastian once told a professor that he wanted to take classes where he clashes with others. Learning requires communication, and the ideal type involves respecting and listening to alternate viewpoints. This attitude allows one to develop a greater idea of reality. The brightest changemakers live by it. Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway never allows himself to have an opinion on anything that he doesn’t know the other side’s argument better than they do. Whether for self-knowledge or industry expertise, truth cannot be found in an echo chamber.
In order to push towards this vision, Sebastian believes people can start by taking more risks. They can say hi and sit with people they don’t know. Small risk-taking can help assure us that Middlebury is a safe space. Leaving the comfort zone can guide us to our futures and teach us what matters. Sebastian suggested that a vibrant life starts, in a way, where the comfort zone ends. As a community of bright and talented people, Middlebury is the perfect place to engage with others and listen to embrace new ideas.
Finding a campus mentor is an important experience in college. Mentors can help us think through things. Together we develop a shared understanding and build a vision. Judging from the energy in the room many students have found a mentor in Grecia. At her Reflection Friday, she inspired a vision of inclusivity and empathy. Her goal as a mentor is to introduce people to more experiences, cultures, and ideas. Friends, family, and neighbors matter to her, because the connections she builds with them help her bring out the best in everyone — the dream of any changemaker.
Being an international student shaped her experiences at an American college. She told this story through language. Leaving the warmth of her 2,500 person hometown for a foreign country meant she had to learn a new language. The challenge became how to be herself in English and Spanish. As a senior in college, she’s grateful for the opportunity. She learned to appreciate how interacting with others is something that’s always there to lift her up. Overcoming one challenge can create a new one, however. When she comes back to Mexico, people are unsure where she’s from. Her accent suggests Guatemala! Correcting them makes her uncomfortable, but it’s all part of how her experience abroad enriches her. Identity and language have a special meaning to her. Through her own language and way of communicating, she mentors others.
As a CSE fellow and Semester at Sea participant, Grecia expressed this vision. The best moment from her Semester at Sea experience was afterward, when she shared pictures with her Grandfather. In that moment, she served her family and friends from across the world world as bridge — linking and expanding experiences. As part of her fellowship, she traveled to Chile to design sustainable energy sources and connect with a new corner of the Spanish-speaking world. A mentor collects her experiences by showing grit and courage, just as Grecia has done.
The greatest take-home message from last Friday is this idea of mentorship. It’s one that Grecia never specifically mentioned, but constantly shone through her thoughts and stories. Everything she said focused on people — bringing out their value. What matters to Grecia is really appreciating the people with whom she can flourish. Sometimes, flourishing can be a challenge, as it was when she came to Middlebury and dove into an academically rigorous program in a foreign country. At other times, success can be simple and honest — when she tells her friends at 7PM that it’s nap time. Regardless of how she flourishes, the sense of empathy and community remains. The vision that drives her each day is being a mentor — a bridge, as she puts it.
Post written by SE Intern, Grant Olcott ’19
Submitted by Greg Conrad, ’17
June 30, 2016
Over the past two months, my business partner Mason Pulde and I have worked diligently in getting our program off the ground. We have reached out to over 50 families, contacted numerous professionals, and spoke with various collegiate players that we felt could serve as potential mentors. As an organization, we have officially made New England Core a DBA, established a social media presence, hired new staff, purchased jerseys, adjusted our pricing/curriculum, finalized our insurance policies, and received agreements from NCAA liaisons to continue our project.
Since May, we have made tremendous growth as a program and really got our legs under us. Our professional team added four new members including a strength and conditioning coach, a nutritionist, a spacial awareness specialist, and a secondary school consultant. Our summer mentor team added six new collegiate players including players in leadership roles at Dartmouth, Brown, Bowdoin, Boston University, Babson, and UMass Dartmouth.
Right now, the Core is heading into the closing weeks of recruiting before starting our first tournament between July 29th-31st. Families have shown tremendous interest in our program and our three-day curriculum has improved remarkably. We have gotten great feedback from coaches in the area and can’t wait to take the ice in less then a month. We have also been thinking about getting sponsorships (an organic protein company) for t-shirts and other gear for our players and teaming up with a non-profit to assist us in our mission. Unfortunately, we were not ready for the July 9th tournament, but we feel as though we are now prepared to really make an impact in player’s lives at the end of this month.
Greg is a hockey player, Psychology major and Sociology minor at Middlebury. With his 2016 MiddChallenge grant, Greg co-founded New England Core, in his words, “a hockey tournament team for middle school aged kids, that uses the power of mentorship to both inspire youth and create a team culture that promotes leadership, personal growth, and player development on the ice and beyond.”
Naomi is a rising junior at Middlebury College currently interning in Morocco with theAnou.com, a fair trade web-based platform that connects Moroccan artisans with larger market spaces. The following is an excerpt from her blog about her experience.
“I felt like I was praying with my feet.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel 1965
The houses are empty. Neatly organized rows of tagines line the balcony across the way. David beach, a quiet suburb south of Rabat is full of summer homes, and summer is just beginning. Hibiscus, tea, round wheat bread, and the smell of the ocean, this journey has begun.
I arrived in Morocco yesterday, where I will be for the next ten weeks working with a company called Anou that connects Moroccan artisans to larger market places at fair trade prices via their online website. (theAnou.com)
I learn at dinner on my plastic chair around a small wooden table pulled into the center of the kitchen of the different languages spoken even within this villa that we live and work in together. Berber, a language of the Atlas Mountains, and Derisha, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic
Across the table is a young Moroccan woman, clad in a long bright pink dress, smiling at me, though few words are mutually intelligible between the two of us. She is an artisan leader, working at the Anou headquarters. A weaver by trade, but now also performing administrative work for the collaborative. Tzadik in derisha, Moroccan dialect Arabic means “friend.” In Hebrew, Tzadik means “righteous,” or “righteous person,” I like the slightly warped interpretation from one language to the next.
Jinny, the professional fellow also working with Anou teaches me the word “Jugaad,” an Indian word that tells us to “figure it out” with whatever you have. The water pipes went out today, the first day of Ramadan, and she filled up a bucket of water and lugged it up the stairs to the bathroom. This is jugaad, she says. After a run I slosh the water up the stairs to the second floor, using a smaller bucket to risk out my hair and clean my face.
I feel like I am talking, though I know I am not. Surrounded by words I don’t understand, I realize that most of the conversation is occurring only within myself. This inner companion that I have is one I have not spent much time speaking to in the past few months. This will be a long conversation – one I must get used to. Just like the bucket baths and the sticky smell of salt coming from the ocean, like the wooden table and the call to prayer at the first ray of daylight.
I intend on praying with my feet for the next few months, though I will admit I do not know yet what that will mean. Tomorrow we leave for the high Atlas mountains. My guess is that I shall find out very soon.
By Grant Olcott
CSE fellow Sarah James gave a fascinating exposition of her study of poetry. Through eloquent exchanges with Melissa Hamerly, Sarah expressed the personal meaning she’s found in books. She identified connection, whether between friends or poems, as a significant theme in her life. To Sarah, discovering connection — this fifth dimension — represents the true essence of learning. Indeed, this talk shows how ideas studied in the classroom extend far beyond the final exam. A liberal arts education allows students to connect personally with their coursework by intermixing the material with their personalities.
Words, what she occupies herself with everyday, were a core part of her reflection. Language tries to capture all parts of life. However, some elusive ideas escape such confines. One of Sarah’s professors illustrated this mysterious fact by explaining the word “like.” If one thing is like another, it is similar but also different. This sometimes overlooked implication ties well into Sarah’s discussion of connection. Everything is connected, but yet separated by some unmeasurable distance.
The word “humanities” expresses the significance of connection. Linguistically, it refers to the study of the works of humans. By studying literature, one can indeed learn precious life lessons gleaned from all kinds of experiences. Grounding beliefs in literature provides greater depth and allows one to express those ideas that live outside the reach of language. Sarah’s thoughts on life seemed to have page references; she illustrated her opinions on campus issues by quoting the ideas of Wordsworth and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In order to be a successful changemaker, one must read. Sarah shows how reading plugs one into the power grid of emotional energy captured by the brightest minds. Admiring the beauty of ideas in poetry allows Sarah to stay emotionally on task and understand the complex situations people in the world experience. As the only CSE fellow majoring in the humanities, Sarah represents the benefit literature can offer innovation in a world of interconnectedness.
April 22, 2016
By Grant Olcott
In his talk, Debanjan quoted poet Marianne Williamson who said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Indeed, Debanjan focused on access: people need support in order to overcome their fear of being unstoppable. They need guidance to find their light. As a teacher and activist, Debanjan hopes to help keep education open and accessible. Personally, he wants to achieve this task, while being remembered for his light, laughter, and fire.
Debanjan believes everyone has his or her own place and path in the world. Finding the specific way that one fits into the jigsaw puzzle of life is why education is so important. Perhaps recognizing that one has the power to decide which part of that puzzle to contribute to invokes a certain fear. Individuals can overcome it, and Debanjan wants to dedicate his life to helping them do so.
While working with Chicago teens, Debanjan witnessed the incredible difference that lending support to talented children can bring. This experience bridged the ideas of individual power and the importance of access. By working with teens, he gave them the confidence to access their rap skills and set them on their path to success and self-discovery. He saw how important access to mentorship was. As a teacher and activist, he hopes to always support the light of others at the times they need it the most.
Mentoring teens is one way Debanjan hopes to apply Williamson’s words to his life work. What will always matter to him is making sure doors are open. As long as he ensures it, people will find what they love and life’s puzzle will become less terrifying. They will become unstoppable.
Blogpost Reflection Friday April 8, 2016
When Professor Nadia Horning finds out she’s on the CSE blog, she might feel embarrassed. To post her reflection Friday — which criticized productivity and achievement — is rather ironic. Although this blog inherently promotes Nadia by publishing her thoughts, it also achieves what she identified as her goal: “to enable young minds to find their purpose and to think and rethink the world they live in.”
What matters to Nadia is serving others. She left Madagascar to receive an education so that she could help change her country and continent. During her time abroad, she found a new home in academia and realized teaching was the most effective way to help Africa. Her reflections focused on college: the vehicle by which she makes change. Her ideas on student life and accomplishment constantly point to the CSE’s mantra “what matters to you and why”
Nadia introduced the topic of college life by talking about students’ big goals and the rigor they put themselves through to achieve them. Society’s flawed measurements of self-worth (the accumulation of awards and material things) detract from the experience of learning. They trick people into worshiping productivity. They blind good intentioned and disciplined students into believing that the more they do, the better they are. They make college a means to end.
Oftentimes, students end up sacrificing what’s important to them to “play the game.” They rack up handfuls of extracurriculars and achievements not for themselves, but their Linkedin Profiles. This conflict of quality versus quantity transforms into its cousin dilemma, appearance versus reality. Students stuff their resumes fuller and fuller, while they feel emptier and emptier inside.
Nadia doesn’t see all of this as purely negative. She also saw her education as a means to achieving her goals for Africa. However, in order to put a positive spin on this monotonous grind, a student needs to be three things: keen, prepared, and ready.
Keenness comes naturally to many students. They want to do the best with the opportunities they have. They want to get out and make a change, therefore they need to go through the process of preparing themselves. However, they also must realize when they are ready to focus on the one thing that matters to them most.
One of Nadia’s goals as a professor is to help students find that drive. She encourages debates and broad, self-aware thinking. She designs each lecture as a spark for a debate to blow up, leave the classroom, and resettle at Proctor.
The way society sets up life as a race makes finding meaning more of a challenge. Thus, the question Nadia poses to the Middlebury community is, what do you propose to do to change that?
Reflection Friday 3/18
During the semester’s second Reflection Friday, CSE Fellow Gabby Fuentes ’16, led the community on a genuine and intimate tour of the thoughts she ponders daily. “What matters to me and why? Me,” she responded.
In allowing herself to toy with the narcissism taboo, she emphasized the importance of the self, to the individual and also to the community. Through her explorations and abstractions, important moments and dreams, she gave the community three powerful principles to reflect on.
- Compartmentalization. Working on obligation-to-obligation requires one to repress various emotional, spiritual, and personal aspects of the self. While this requires a great amount of drive and selflessness to sustain, it is a learned behavior. One must not overlook the hidden cost: personal health and wellbeing. She quoted the saying, “You can’t give others a drink if your cup is empty” to highlight this point.
Rather than focusing on this idea as something to fix and change, she merely urged everyone to be aware of it. In what spaces is there this pressure to compartmentalize a side of oneself? She believes community reflection should start with this question. Whether it is a student who can’t make a faculty member’s office hours due to problems at home, or one who feels out of place in the social scene, this question can help create a more understanding community. The self does not exist in a vacuum.
- Difference. Acknowledging and respecting the external and internal differences between people and the sides of the self leads to a more respectful community. Being okay with difference is the goal. To understand internal difference, one should not label difference sides of oneself as fake. Different people and places give off different energy.
- Inclusivity. This principle brings the other two together. Inclusivity means acknowledging other people for who they are. In an inclusive community, one does not ask people who are different to compartmentalize and repress parts of themselves. Inclusivity is achieved when the community recognizes compartmentalization and appreciates difference.
Gaby painted a personal picture of her experience coming to Middlebury as a Posse Scholar. By verbalizing all her ideas, she highlighted several of the dilemmas college communities face today. Although she apologized in a self-aware way for making too many abstractions, all her thoughts provide a clear solution to fostering an inclusive community: develop awareness for compartmentalization of the self and difference.
Reflection Friday March 4
By Grant Olcott
Elizabeth Ready spoke with Daniel Adamek ’18 at the CSE’s spring semester’s first Reflection Friday. The conversation covered some of her experiences in the Vermont State Senate and John Graham Housing Services Center, but focused more on philosophy. To the question, “What matters to you and why?” Elizabeth said justice. In her ideal world, everyone belongs to a place or community. This hope connects to some of the main tenets of Buddhism, which inspires her outlook on life and passion for service. The CSE lists the four steps of the changemaking process as reflect, connect, analyze, and engage. Elizabeth focused on the first.
Reflecting on personal awareness can bring change to the world. From one conversation, Elizabeth realized the size of the ego inherent in any opinion. After she told a friend about an Iranian family she helped in the shelter, the friend opposed it. He had grown up on a Kibbutz, and he didn’t want anyone coming to the country whom he associated with any anti-israeli feelings. The topic of the conversation changed as they talked more and more about the nature of opinions. Any opinion is merely an extension of the opinion bearer, they determined.
When one becomes an activist in any context, one should reflect and become aware of personal reasons for why that cause is important. Embracing this awareness helps throughout the changemaking process. When it comes time to act, the first impulse is just one impulse. Other thoughts and opinions are just as valid. By removing the self from reflection, one improves judgment and reduces selfishness.
The story also reveals insight into unlocking the power of fear and anger. Beneath one’s fears is a place of vulnerability. The friend truly wishes for peace everywhere and the health of all refugees, once the painful memories are stripped away. Becoming a changemaker involves allowing oneself to live in that space.
Elizabeth’s Reflection Friday talk was more spiritual than most. While justice is her cause, she values the concept of understanding the most. Understanding means seeing people as people. Despite the somewhat revolving door at the homeless shelter — she often gets the homeless into homes only to see them return a few weeks later — she understands them as people in need of help. Giving up on the problem would deny individuals that help. To illustrate this point she used the refugee crisis as an example. To those who think it is a bottomless pit: is a child washed up on the beach, a child in need or a bottomless pit?
To Elizabeth, an ideal world is one where everyone asks: what serves here? People reflect on their values and strengths and discover how they can best serve each other. They appreciate the interconnectedness of humanity, and use it to create beneficial and supportive places. They come to an understanding.