In an office on the second floor of Dunbar Hall is a display of Sterling posters through the years. In one, a group of young people are walking up a hill, looking purposeful and ready for the woods and the fields, carrying chainsaws and axes, wearing hardhats, with the green hills of Vermont spread out behind them.
“The Grassroots Project in Vermont,” the poster proclaims. “Intensive One-Year College Program in Agriculture, Forestry, and Wildlife Management.”
The Grassroots Program was launched in 1974, taking elements from both the Sterling School, a boys’ college prep school, and the Short Courses. It helped shape generations of alumni as well as the current curriculum of Sterling College, now a four-year baccalaureate degree program.
It initially started as what would now be known as a “gap year” program—a year after high school, but before college. It started out offering college credits from the University of Vermont, but would eventually be able to offer its own credits in 1978, and Sterling became the Sterling Institute. The program would go on to add a second year in Rural Resource Management; this two-year program led to Sterling being able to offer AA degrees in 1983, and Sterling evolved again, into Sterling College.
The Grassroots Program helped to shape the core of the Sterling College vision and mission—one of experiential learning, and preparing the next generation of environmental stewards. It was a program where, as alumna Jody Frey ’96, now a faculty member in Environmental Humanities at Sterling College, said, “I learned to live my dreams.”
In the late sixties and early seventies, private preparatory schools were not doing well. A Newsweek headline in 1972 asked, “CAN PREP SCHOOLS SURVIVE?”
Sterling was feeling the pinch—enrollment was declining. The school had gone from 120 students in 1968 to 60 in 1971. Ted Bermingham, the Sterling School’s Headmaster, had added the Short Courses in 1971 to expand Sterling’s outreach, as well as further refine the curricular offerings in agriculture and outdoor leadership.
However, the Short Courses weren’t enough to offset the dwindling enrollment. Sterling sold 500 acres it owned in nearby Danville to shore up its finances. “We weren’t raising a lot of new money,” remembered Steve Wright, who started at Sterling in 1968 as a science teacher and eventually became President of Sterling College.
Bermingham had gone to the Ditchley conference in London to discuss incorporating principles pioneered by Kurt Hahn and Outward Bound into private secondary education. And that was when the United World College first heard of Sterling.
THE BRITISH INVASION
As Steve Wright remembers it, Bermingham called him into his office in 1973 and said, “I’ve got something big about to happen. You need to be aware of it. You need to know—I’m going to be leaving the [headmaster position], and I’m going to be working on raising money because Sterling is going to be the North American campus of the United World College school.”
United World College was founded in 1962, and its founding principle is explained on its website as being “the vision of bringing together young people whose experience was of the political conflict of the Cold War era, offering an educational experience based on shared learning, collaboration, and understanding so that the students would act as champions of peace.” By 1973, the UWC had grown, but still had no school in North America.
Excitement was running high. “The more I learned about United World College schools,” Wright said, “the more I was intrigued.” The Board of Trustees appointed Bill Manning to the top position at Sterling.
The head of the UWC at that time was Lord Mountbatten. Yes, that Lord Mountbatten—second cousin once removed to Queen Elizabeth II of England, the last Viceroy of India, and Admiral of the Fleet. He came to Vermont for a site visit. Wright met him and his entourage in Burlington, thinking, “I’ll have to take him out in the woods and see if he can build a fire.”
Mountbatten toured the campus and gave his blessing to the plan. Sterling prepared to become an outpost of UWC, sending its few remaining prep school students to finish their high school careers at other schools.
Steve Wright will never forget what happened next. “One day in the spring of 1973, I remember I was planting peas. I was living in North House…and Bill Manning came walking down the street. I was leaning on my hoe, and he said, ‘You need to know something.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘The national board just voted to sever ties with Sterling.’ And I said, ‘I guess I better plant some more peas.’”
It was horribly true: UWC had decided to rescind its offer to Sterling, for reasons that are unclear. There were no students on campus. There was no plan.
Wright said, “And we looked at each other and someone said, ‘So what the hell are we going to do now?’ And Ted said, ‘We’re going to do what we do best. And that is what we’ve been doing, working with young people in a structured approach using the outdoors as the arena.’”
He went on, Wright remembered. “‘We’re going to take the Short Course model and we’re going to expand it into a one-year model. It’s going to have an academic program.’” And thus Grassroots was born, for the 1974-75 school year. It debuted with 65 students.
THE GRASSROOTS CERTIFICATE
The program would today be called a gap year; it was designed as an academic year-long program offering physical, mental, and spiritual challenges. Grassroots was a one-year program in forestry, wildlife management, and agriculture, and pioneered experiential education.
Distinguished Professor Ned Houston, who came to Sterling in 1978, said, “In the early seventies, ‘experiential education’ as a term was just starting to get used, and the idea of outdoor adventure challenge was just starting to get currency.” Sterling was breaking new trail. “It was all based on powerful experiences.”
The Grassroots certificate originally offered college credits from the University of Vermont Extension program. By 1978, however, Sterling was granted bona fide status for higher education—meaning the Grassroots Certificate was able to grant college credit. Sterling officially changed its name from the Sterling School to Sterling Institute.
Students who came to Grassroots chose to be in either Wild Area Services, which encompassed both Forestry and Wildlife, or Agriculture. The two tracks were quickly nicknamed “Woodchucks” and “Aggies.” Farley Brown ’85, faculty member in Ecology, said of her Grassroots track: “Woodchuck all the way. I didn’t feel like [working with] lambs.”
Elements of Grassroots are still part of Sterling College’s overall experience—with some changes.
Expedition has been a feature of the school since Short Course days (Common Voice, Fall 2014). “Bounder experience, for us, is taking on something that’s scary and hard, figuring out how to do it, working with each other, and not backing away from it,” Houston explained. “We said, ‘I can’t’ is not one of the options.” All faculty, at that time, went on Expedition.
There was a ropes course, and a farm—although the farm was quite different than it is today. It wasn’t right on campus—it was down the road, rented, and closer to Little Hosmer Pond. And, because the campus was empty in the summer, the farm wasn’t really a place to grow fruits or vegetables—it was mostly a place to raise meat.
Brown remembered: “We’d all have to get in the van and drive down to the farm at 6:30 in the morning, 30 below, and the wind was blowing and you’d come back with frozen eggs because [the chickens] were in an old, drafty barn.” She added, ominously, “And if you missed the van, you had to walk.”
Along with the farm, Sterling’s recent recognition for sustainable food on campus is also based in the Grassroots years. “We always had home-grown food,” Houston explained. “It was homemade food by homemade people that lived here—great cookies.”
Sustainability as a whole on campus was modeled during the Grassroots program. “We were green when others didn’t know what that word meant,” said Houston. “We’ve composted our food since day one. We were also organic right from the beginning; we’ve been very plugged into back-to-the-land.” Houston taught courses in renewable energy, conservation studies, and “Humans and the Environment.”
Draft horses and mixed power models for farming and woodlots were also in evidence during the Grassroots years; and work as an integral part of the curriculum was established then as well. “Work has been with us forever,” said Houston. In fact, said Houston, when the Work Colleges Consortium reviewed the Sterling College application in the mid-90s, they said, “You already ARE a Work College!”
Brown laughed, “I came in from a liberal arts school [Sarah Lawrence] and I came in feeling like I was in the Army! We were so scheduled!”
The notion of place-based education was established during Grassroots; also, outdoor challenge. Former Chair of the Board of Trustees Marvin Brown said of the Grassroots program, “It was about challenge! Here’s problems, here’s difficulties, here’s how you work it out.”
Community, of course, was always an important part of Sterling, no matter what iteration it was in. Houston remembers “music nights—in the barn [in Dunbar], staying up until 11 p.m. on a Saturday night playing music, doing skits—it was great!”
Accreditors and other visitors were always shocked when they saw Sterling’s tight-knit community. “‘How do you get students to buy into the values? How do you get faculty to eat with the students?’” Houston remembers them asking. “The faculty really love this stuff and this program, that’s how.”
THE PATH TO STERLING COLLEGE
The Grassroots Certificate continued, eventually forming the first year of a two-year course of study that led to an AA in Rural Resource Management. Students could either stay one year for the Grassroots Certificate, or add on a second year and graduate with an AA.
But no matter how much the current Sterling College continues to evolve, it has been shaped by the Grassroots program. Perhaps what the programs keep in common is best summed up by a Grassroots T-shirt: “It makes you rugged!”