'One decision ... affected so many lives': SVC students react to school's imminent closing

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BENNINGTON — Student leaders at Southern Vermont College said Wednesday that they were shocked by the speed of the decision to close the college, and criticized the actions of trustees and the school's accreditation agency as "unethical."

During an hour-long meeting with members of the media, three students — Vanessa Kendall, Allyson McNamee and Aliesha Thomas — spoke about how they and their fellow students have been coping with the news, delivered during an all-school meeting Monday in the theater of the Everett Mansion. SVC officials have closed the campus to the public since Monday, to guard the students' privacy as they grieve the impending closing, and organized Wednesday's press conference as a way of letting students express their thoughts to the public.

All three agreed that the students on campus understand the closure as happening because of the board of trustees. Specifically, the "unethical decisions of the board of trustees," McNamee said. She later expanded that to include the New England Commission of Higher Education, which had called the school's accreditation into question.

"The choice was so immoral, and it happened very quickly," Thomas said. "Shutting down smaller schools isn't the best. It's not the answer."

As an alternative, McNamee said, the school could have been put on probation. "To be able to have the chance would have been helpful," she said. "Or at least a little bit of notice."

Thomas said there should "definitely" be an appeal process. "They should actually try to hear us out — students," she said. "They made one decision, and that affected so many lives. Did they care to think about that, or did they just not care?"

The SVC trustees voted Friday to begin the process of closing the four-year college at the end of the spring semester, one day after a show-cause hearing before NECHE to determine whether the school should be placed on probation for failing to meet financial standards.

The three students, all of whom are athletes and members of the college's Student Government Association, each spoke of the support they've received from the campus community, and the closeness to faculty and staff that they described as a benefit of attending a small college. They also spoke about their sorrow at hearing the news, describing the college as more than a school to them.

"It's heartbreaking," Kendall said. "This is a home away from home."

"This has been a home to us," McNamee said. [We're] definitely upset."

A "huge theme" on campus has been that everyone is shocked at the news, McNamee said.

"We didn't think it would come to that, so quickly," she said. "So we were definitely shocked, and definitely heartbroken."

Kendall said she always dreamed of playing lacrosse in high school, but never even held a lacrosse stick. Now, she's been playing at SVC for four years.

"I would have never gotten that opportunity if I went elsewhere," she said.

SVC gave her an opportunity to finish her education on time, said Thomas, who is a second-semester transfer student from the College of Saint Joseph in Rutland, which will cease instruction after the spring term and lose its accreditation as of August.

Now, with having to transfer again — she might be graduating later than expected. "I'm not the only student who's in this situation as well," she said.

Since she's a senior, McNamee said, she won't have to transfer, but many people are worried about it.

Despite the frustration and sadness at the decision, McNamee, Kendall and Thomas said they, as students, couldn't ask for more support from faculty or administration.

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Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts from North Adams, Mass., has been on campus to give students transfer opportunities, McNamee said.

"[The faculty] — they have done the best job with us," Thomas said. "They have been coping themselves, and that's not easy. Because they also have families, they also bills to pay, they have kids."

They are "here with us till the end," she said.

Thomas contrasted the support SVC has provided with her prior experience at the College of Saint Joseph. "I had limited help," she said. "The amount of support that we're getting as students is amazing."

Professors and even coaches are reaching out to students one-on-one, Kendall said, to figure out what they can do.

Counseling to student affairs to faculty and staff have been "outpouring with so much support," McNamee said. "They're doing everything that they possibly can, just to make sure that everybody gets to where they need to be," she said.

As sad as they are, the students said, they're not giving up.

"I have a positive mindset," Thomas said. "I have to keep pushing forward, to be honest. That's all I can think."

At the end of the day, everyone is here to accomplish a goal, she said. As a first-generation student, her goal is to finish college.

"And I'm going to get there," she said. "If I have to go through this four times, or five times, or six times, then bring it at me."

All three students quickly recalled formative experiences they had at SVC.

McNamee recalled how her time at SVC pointed her to pursuing higher education as a career, and remembered the opportunity she had to enter pitch competitions — and win second place against all-male competitors.

"That's definitely something I'm going to take with me for the rest of my life," she said.

Kendall recalled coming into campus as a nursing major, switching to criminal justice, and, after a trip to Washington, D.C., realizing she wanted to be in the city one day. She now plans to ultimately work for the FBI.

Thomas remembered being part of running a student-run business. "We actually had [the] opportunity to make our own rules, to form our own training, and we actually have a better understanding of what it is to actually run a business," she said. "That was the biggest learning experience for me."

Students, faculty and staff are supporting each other in helping make future plans, the students said.

"Overall, we're just going to be okay," Thomas said. "I believe we will come stronger from it, no matter what."

"This isn't just a school," McNamee said. "We are a family."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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