“Really? You’re moving to the middle of nowhere and abandoning New York City?” my friends would echo, upon my announcement that I’d be moving full-time to the Adirondacks after nearly 20 years of living in Manhattan.
“What will you do to earn a living, what will you do, period?” Well, I would embark on many worthy endeavors to earn a living and to enjoy a full and rewarding life in the Adirondacks. Living in this community has grown me as a person more than any other experience in my life (including residence stints in Paris and Cote D’Ivoire, West Africa).
Naturally, then, when John Murphy three years ago shared with me the news of Hamilton initiating an off-campus program in my region, I jumped at the chance to learn more about it, as well as its initiator and leader, Janelle Schwartz.
What a wonderful discovery to meet this dynamic and brilliant woman who had clearly caught the Adirondack bug— the I can’t believe this amazing place bug, which one sees often in our parts. She had jumped into the new endeavor with the enthusiasm and discipline of an Olympic athlete (appropriate given the Olympics role in the Lake Placid region, near where the program would be headquartered). When Janelle shared with me her list of local participants she had chosen (most from whom she had already secured eager participation), I was stunned at the comprehensiveness of her list. She had discovered all the movers and shakers in our region, all the inspiring folks making a difference in our region and beyond. What a great researcher, she is, creating that impressive and comprehensive list as a newcomer in the ADK region, I thought. As I discovered, she’s not only a good researcher, but she’s a force of sorts. She’s a people connector, a make-things happen person, and her enthusiasm for her subject matter, in this case the Adirondack region, is entirely contagious. The fact that she has the energy of three over-achieving people has certainly helped in her quest to create an all-encompassing educational experience in the region for Hamilton students. With that kind of momentum and excitement behind her, who could say no to her? I don’t think anyone asked to participate in the program did.
I have had the fortunate opportunity to meet the first three groups of students participating in Hamilton’s ADK program and I have been more than impressed by them as individuals and as a group, in their delight for the program and the opportunity to live and learn in the Adirondacks. Additionally, I’ve had the luxury to hear about the appreciation for the student’s internship participation, from local folks involved in the program. They are as well, impressed with the students’ eagerness to learn and to assist in local works that directly, and measurably benefit the region.
I urge the Hamilton administration to continue its support for the program not only because it serves as a great public relations boon for the college in the region, state, and beyond, but also because the work that the students are doing in their internships really matters in our underdeveloped, sparsely populated community. All work counts here, and all of it helps to shape our region. Even more importantly, however, the experiences that the Hamilton students will undergo while living in this region, will teach them valuable life skills that will serve them well in their future lives.
The ADK’s are a diverse and fascinating microcosm for the world at large and important community lessons can be learned here that don’t develop as easily when living in large urban or suburban communities.
To live in the Adirondacks is to be engaged. It’s almost impossible to sit on the sidelines here. Civic responsibility flows naturally when living in a town with several hundred residents. The events that occur in your town have too much of an influence on your quality of life and the value of your property to let someone else tackle the difficult issues. When your drinking water is condemned by state authorities, and when raw sewage is flowing from households and businesses into your lake (from where you drinking water emanates), as was the case in my town, you can hope for the best and get ill from your drinking and swimming jaunts, or you can rally state and national officials to support and fund proper sewer and water plants (as we did).
In Manhattan, the usual conversation between folks meeting one another inevitably ends in the question “what do you do?” Usually one sentence follows. “I’m a banker.” That usually ends the conversation unless a very inquisitive person would inquire: “What bank?” The conversation would usually move on after the aforementioned information was shared.
If you ask someone in the Adirondacks what they do however, be prepared for a more thorough answer: “I am a children’s book author, but I garden, I mountain bike, I paint nature images for trail maps, I act in a local theater, I mentor underprivileged high school students on applying to college, I clear nature trails, I write grants for my town’s infrastructure projects, I’m a town zoning board officer, I walk dogs from the local shelter, I work with an injured owl at a rehabilitation center, I’m a painter and a photographer, I test my local lake for blue-green algae, I give lectures on the historic battles of the Adirondacks, I work with the film society, I harvest vegetables at my local CSA farm, I lobby state legislators for the preservation and creation of wildlife corridors, I work with a literacy society to teach illiterate adults in my community how to read, I volunteer in a soup kitchen during the holidays, I teach yoga occasionally, I’m a volunteer firefighter, and I council elementary students on the importance of eating fresh, local foods. We cook together with farm food once a month.” Yes, really, no kidding, that sounds like a number of people I know in this region, who define the term “full citizen.” People who moved here from other regions, most of them from cities, come very intentionally, and they lead very mindful lives, precisely because it’s not an easy place to make a living. There aren’t any big companies or employers luring workers to the region. No one gets stuck here for a job they can’t refuse. Most businesses here are small and owner-operated. It takes ingenuity to work and live in the region, and that’s one of the many lessons Hamilton students can learn here.
As well, one quickly learns in the Adirondacks, the art of coalescing diverse groups of people toward a common goal. The Adirondacks is a sparsely populated network of state and privately owned land in a national park. There are a wide variety of ideas as to how the state and private lands should operate. The region also witnesses a wide diversity of socioeconomic realities. Some of the poorest and wealthiest folks in our nation live here and must find common ground for harmonious living. Stakeholders here battle day-to day realities that have a huge impact on their lives. Here students experience a micro-view of impassioned, political, environmental and social movements.
Studying the Adirondacks on campus is a worthy endeavor, and an opportunity I wish I had as a student there. But in my time on the hill, this 6 million acre region right next door was largely unexplored, and continued to be forgotten for many decades.
Studying a region and living in a region are entirely different experiences. Not only do students see firsthand how small factions in the Adirondacks come together to make their community vibrant, engaging, and worthy models for other rural areas, but they also live in a very small community of their own. As if their community at Hamilton weren’t small by comparison of other colleges, their Adirondack locale, without campus distractions and city offerings, is a good place for them to learn about how to live, cook, work, and learn in a very small group. Janelle is instrumental here. She’s not only an educator, but part mom, therapist, mediator, life coach and personal cheerleader for each of the students. These roles seem to come naturally to her, but they are an important part of the learning process for the students. She reminds them to eat well, exercise, be appreciative, to engage, to ask questions, and so on. The students seem, what I gather from my conversations with them, quite grateful for Janelle’s guidance, but also for the freedom she gives them to learn on their own.
Many of the ADK program students I have spoken to come from urban and suburban homes, and the opportunity to live in a very small, rural community was a big draw for them, in addition to learning about a unique region of our country.
Why is this region unique and what can the students learn here, beyond the above-mentioned lessons on civic engagement? No matter their area of interest and study, the Adirondacks is a veritable playground for the educationally inquisitive:
Anyone who had even learned a small part of the Adirondack history is hooked. Students here have much to learn: about the early Algonquian and Mohawk tribes, and other native Americans in the area; the French and British battles for control of the region and its riches; the decisive battles that took place in the region during the French and Indian War, the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, to name a few; the tales of timber, animal, and mineral extraction; the developing tourist industry and the unique history of the famous and powerful Great Camp owners, the architectural vernacular that arose from their rustic playgrounds, and the accidental environmentalists that they became from their interactions with nature in the rural region. The list goes on. Much has happened here.
Science/ Environmental Studies / Biology / Geoscience:
The rocks in the Adirondacks are more than 2 billion years old. Post Ice Age remnants like Lake Champlain and its legendary pre-historic monster, Champ, will keep science-minded scholars busy for some time. The Adirondacks, with its 6 million acres of forest preserve, is a natural place to play around with scientific learning. The species-rich region boasts a huge diversity of wetlands, waterways, forest and soil types, not to mention the large array of wildlife that inhabit the area. There are scores of environmental organizations in the Adirondacks that are desperate for young minds to help in their work and missions.
This growing field of interest offers students a welcome opportunity for learning about the “agricultural artisans” in our community. The CSA model has gone viral in our region, where college educated young folks are thriving in a sustainable movement that has encouraged the creation of many organic farms, local wineries, cheese makers, breweries and farm-to-table restaurants. Large-scale publications such as the New York Times, and many others have been busy reporting on the success of the sustainable food movement in the Adirondacks and have featured the small individual players in our region. The Hamilton ADK students I’ve met have all been delighted to work on and learn about the local farms. A large part of their diet during the program comes from local farms. What a unique experience for them to spend time so close to the production of their own food. All of our local farms depend on young, strong, and smart field workers to get their endless list of chores completed. They are eager to host college students, to teach, to offer work, and food. It is of constant interest to visitors in our region, why so many college- educated students are flocking to the agricultural world, many quite successfully running thriving farms, often while raising families.
From regionally linked hospitals, small private practices and medical centers, the ADK region is a great environment for hands-on training in medicine. Students can gain an understanding of the unique challenges of serving a largely poor, health-challenged, insurance-less population, while also accommodating active, well-educated residents who expect high-level medical services.
Many artists, some world recognized, some less known, live and work in the Adirondacks. One only needs to visit our region once to understand why the scenery would inspire artists to live within the beauty. Artists here, like local writers, are generally quite open and receptive to inquiring admirers, so they could be great mentors for Hamilton students. We also have regional art associations and galleries, which could also be a welcome resource for students.
The Adirondack region houses many theaters, both local and professional, equity-run ones. All of them are continually looking for smart, energetic young folks to work and learn there.
Media Studies / Communication:
Small and friendly print and digital publications, along with private and public television and radio stations, abound here. Student assistance would likely be a very welcome addition to these all-hands-on-deck organizations with limited resources.
Philosophers have been inspired by the natural world of the Adirondacks for many centuries. Hamilton students would likely be too.
Anthropology & Sociology:
Shipwrecks, historic sites, and museums in the region offer a glimpse of past and present cultures in the region. The cultures of the people, past and present, are rich with clashes of romantics and industrialists, developers, environmentalists and survivalists. There’s much to learn here on how distinct interests and personalities can sometimes coalesce around common visions.
Government / Law:
The Adirondacks boasts being home to the largest natural protected area in the lower 48 states, and of being the largest national historic landmark. How did the Adirondack Park Agency form and what have been its legends? How has it changed and how does it affect the use of private and public lands in the region? How do and must local governments cooperate with it and other local governing institutions like the EPA? How have mixed zoning regions bolstered (or handicapped) the region? Students can quickly and easily mingle with accessible government officials in the region to discover how laws are created and enforced on a local and regional level. Once involved, they’ll also see the effect of non-profit organizations’ lobbying efforts on the legal environment.
How do you support a region with a huge number of residents living below the poverty line, with minimal educational skills, many of who live on Federal and State subsidies, and eat largely from animals they hunt? And how do you keep wealthy stakeholders content enough to remain residents, while not raising their taxes to the point of their leaving or of driving away the middle class? How does a small town stretch dollars to maintain community support systems and business incentives? These are every day issues with which many communities wrestle, but they are keenly evident in the ADK community and present good learning models for students.
Many inspiring (some famous, some less-widely known) writers call the Adirondacks home. Some of them supplement their income from teaching, or they write for blogs, local and national media outlets, local publications, or books of their own (usually all of the above). They all could likely benefit from a student assistant / mentee. Shadowing one of them would be an invaluable benefit to anyone interested in the craft and profession of writing.
In sum, it’s an inspiring region, full of hands-on educational opportunities for Hamilton students. Janelle, now a full-time resident of the Adirondacks, where she’s currently raising a family, and where she has chosen to volunteer in key local initiatives, now has an even more thorough understanding of, and appreciation for, the region. The Hamilton ADK program founder and leader, and other assisting professors, along with their well- chosen regional participants, have created an unforgettable experience for the lucky students who have attended. I hope that this program is granted the right to continue on their very worthy venture. The rewards of this program will have far-reaching and important consequences.
Learn more about the program on Hamilton’s website https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/offcampusstudy/adk and you can get in touch to show your support for the program.
Susan Bacot-Davis (class of 1988)