Bennington College

Uni in the USA review

If you are free-spirited, liberal-minded and don’t have an aversion to body hair or clogs then Bennington could be the place for you. It’s known not only for its distinctly artsy student body and breathtakingly beautiful Vermont campus but also for the free hand that students have in planning and fulfilling their education. Taking responsibility for your own schooling is not for everyone but for the select 800 students that choose to do so, it is a liberating and deeply engaging experience.

Campus

Once you visit this 550-acre haven in southern Vermont it’s difficult not to fall in love with the place. Seated on a hill-top just above the small town of Bennington, the college campus has outstanding views of the Green Mountains, plenty of space for roaming, and rural touches that give evidence of its beginnings as a farm. Even the main academic building was once a barn and is still referred to as such.

Although there are some wonderful modern facilities such as the Meyer Recreation Barn, the newly-opened Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), and the Student Center (which houses a café, snack bar, pub, and concert venue), the aspects of the campus which visitors and students are most taken by are its quaint New England-y features.

Accommodation

If someone dropped you down in the midst of Bennington’s original dorm buildings, you’d think you were in some cosy little residential neighborhood during the middle of the last century. These eleven Colonial style cottages look and feel more like homes than college housing to the 30-odd students that reside in each one, lined up and down the “streets” that surround the main green space of the campus, which is referred to as The End of The World.

There are also more modern options available (as well as one off-campus cooperative living house in the nearby hamlet of North Bennington) but no matter what style you choose your dorm building will have students from all year groups under the same roof since on-campus housing is provided for all four years and there is no such thing as a “freshman-only” house. This arrangement opens the door to early friendships with upper classmen, who can take you under their wing (or help you to secure the right beverages for your party).

University Man/Woman

Though most students tend to hail from the East Coast or California, the individuals you see roaming the campus are often from a world of their own. Exotic hair colors, face paint, dreadlocks, piercings, homemade clothes, or no clothes at all are fairly common sights – however there is also a fair share of hipsters and Vermont farmer types.

It’s been said that Bennington is the place where people who were outcasts or freaks in high school go in order to be in the majority. In any event, it’s hard to find many people you would call mainstream. And even though all types of people are able to find their place in this school, you won’t find many Republicans (in the American political sense), churchgoers, math-enthusiasts, fraternity bros, or preppy athletes.

A majority of the student body is on financial aid but it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between those paying full-tuition and those paying nothing – wealth is not something that is obvious or even discussed here. Walking through the dining hall, you sense there are distinct social groups – this is hard to avoid in such a small community – however it does not feel cliquey, and because of the small class sizes and housing environments it’s easy to weave your way through several different social circles.

There are fewer men than women on this campus, which is a source of frustration, dysfunction, and incestuous dating situations, but Williams is a short drive away and it’s not unusual to head south to find men.

Hitting The Books

There are no required courses or 101-classes – instead, highly specific, probing seminars that are created based on the students’ needs and the professors’ interests. It’s unlikely you will ever find yourself in a Bennington classroom where the teacher or any student is not engaged with the topic.

Each term the school publishes a relatively short list of course options (especially compared to the larger universities), but each one sounds more interesting than the next – probably because they are designed around a particular theme by professors who are passionate about their subject. Bennington professors and students alike are given a great deal of intellectual freedom and choice. As a result the classroom debates are marked by enthusiasm, curiosity and multidisciplinary input.

During their four years at the college each student integrates different areas of the curriculum that are of interest to them around a central idea or question – this ultimately results in their Plan, Bennington’s equivalent to a major. Once this is declared in the middle of the second year, students must be actively responsible for planning their classes and then developing their final paper that will fulfil this plan.

The intensity and independent nature of the work has been said to produce students that are at times a little self-focused. However, at the end of the day, ample support from the faculty and the close-knit nature of the community reinforces the feeling that everyone is working together. Bennington also emphasises learning through experience – hence the seven week off-campus Field Work Term (FWT) required every January and February. This is not a new idea; FWT has been a central part of Bennington’s educational requirements since the College was founded. Through their own contacts or with help from the school, students find work (paid or volunteer) in a variety of fields and in locations around the world, pursuing interests they’ve developed at Bennington, getting practical experience and making professional connections – and they do this for each of the four years.


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