BENNINGTON -- Bennington College students have been scattered across the world for the last month participating in the college's annual Field Work Term, but for the first time this winter 16 students stayed right here in Bennington.
The college's pilot program that allows students to work with nonprofits in the Bennington area for their field study was made with the intention of getting students involved in and familiar with the community, as well as getting them comfortable with the Field Work Term, said Field Work Term Director Tammy Fraser.
"We were thinking about ways our students could be more connected with the community in which they are living for four years," Fraser said. "We developed this program for them to integrate into the community and help them become more facile in the field work experience."
Roma Aryal, a freshmen from Nepal, said that prior to beginning her local Field Work Term in the community rehabilitation and treatment program at the United Counseling Services, she rarely left campus to explore Bennington.
Through the field work term, Aryal has been talking with UCS patients about their lives and writing their stories of how they are working to overcome mental illness, said UCS Community Relations Director Robert Pini.
The stories will then be made available in the community so people can understand how someone can work to overcome their mental illness, Pini said.
In addition to her interest in psychology, Aryal said she wanted to take advantage of the local field study at UCS because she knew she'd be in Bennington for the next four years and she didn't know much about the area.
"Just working at UCS and meeting people from Bennington, I feel like it has really closed the gap I had at the beginning. I would just go to town once a week to do groceries and I didn't feel involved in the town at all," Aryal said. "It's a much friendlier place than I thought it was in the beginning. I just feel more warm about going into town now."
Pini said he's been able to see first-hand the great benefits of the work Aryal and another student have had at UCS.
"For them, that's a really good community connection," Pini said. "For the clients, they talk with them and that's an important therapeutic aspect as well. Mental illness affects a person's ability to socialize."
Fraser said the students taking part in the program feel it's been beneficial as well.
"What's been so exciting for us is seeing the connection they have with the community and they want to talk about what's going on there," Fraser said. "A lot are saying they want to continue volunteering there (after the pilot concludes)."
As well as getting a stronger sense of the Bennington community, Fraser said a goal in the program is for students who choose to move out of the area after college to learn ways to become active citizens wherever they move.
In the pilot of the local program, 16 students, all but two of whom are freshmen, stayed local. By next winter, Fraser said she hopes twice as many students will be staying local during the Field Work Term and the program can expand to include more organizations.
Students are working with 11 different local organizations: Bennington Free Library, Bennington Project Independence, Bennington Early Childhood Center, Hiland Hall School, Images from the Past, North Bennington Graded School, Park Jung Academy, Park-McCullough Historic House, Quantum Leap Program, Sunrise Family Resource Center, and Vermont Arts Exchange.
Linda Donigan, a children's librarian at the Bennington Free Library, said she and another librarian have been working with another Bennington College student who has led crochet classes and helped with an after school program.
"It's been extremely helpful. It's wonderful to have a young person with a lot of talent and a lot of energy join us for five weeks," she said. "I think it really has enriched our community."
Because many freshmen haven't picked a major, not all the students are in fields they will likely get careers in, but Fraser said that's OK.
"During the field work term for the first year we really encourage the students to explore some things that either they are interested in or want to learn more about," she said.
Fraser said different from the majority of the college's students who go to locations outside the region, the students who stay local also participate in many events such as panel discussions with local people in the fields talking about local aspects of key issues and how they relate to global issues.
One of those upcoming events will take place Feb. 19, when author and scholar Paul Rogat Loeb will speak on how ordinary citizens can make an impact on their community and the world.
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at firstname.lastname@example.org