Notes from the Desk: Best Summer Ever, Right in My ‘Backyard’

By JAMES FINN

This op-ed was originally published in the Addison Independent last summer during the author’s internship there. The Campus is republishing it as students prepare for the upcoming summer.

As the school year creeps along, Middlebury College students expend tons of energy seeking summer jobs, internships, travel opportunities or other “substantive” ways to spend the summer months. Career interests are the main part of the equation; bustling cities like New York and Boston are oft-preferred destinations. When summer arrives students flock to these cities to pursue big-time tech, finance or PR internships; or they return to their hometowns where family, childhood friends and smaller-town summer job opportunities beckon.

Students who choose to spend their summers in Middlebury and greater Addison County are, relatively speaking, few and far between.

There are many reasons for this, but I see the main force keeping students from spending summer here as a failure on our (students’) part to realize what this county has to offer. A tendency to get caught up in schoolwork, sports and our ever-important social lives can make it feel difficult to keep in touch with what’s going on in our own families, much less in the towns and communities around us. Many of us also come from big cities, which might make us slow to want to explore Addison County’s emptier, rural space.

As summer nears, we’re left unaware of the wealth of fulfilling, stimulating and engaging pursuits that are open to us right in our proverbial Vermont backyard, and too often we hurry away before looking near by. The same thing happens after graduation.

When I was presented with the opportunity to intern at the Addy Indy this summer, the chance to write journalism every day as a summer job seemed too good to turn down. Besides, a few friends who had spent past summers here painted it as a veritable paradise between May and August: they conjured up images of deep swimming holes, rolling green farm fields and orange sunsets that are scarce during school months. I thought I’d give it a shot.

Looking back, I can say with ease that I couldn’t be happier to have spent my summer here — for more reasons than trips I’ve made to Bristol Falls and the Middlebury Gorge.

Working with the Addy Indy has taken me all over Addison County, and in doing so it’s made me think hard about the mindset to which many (though certainly not all) Middlebury College students subscribe: the outlook that our lives in Addison County don’t extend beyond College Street. This job has given me a fresh look at the complexities, struggles and triumphs of daily life in communities that we college students so often fail to see as anything more than a distant pastoral backdrop to life on the college’s campus.

Writing about the anticipated struggles of Middlebury’s Planned Parenthood health center in the face of Title X cuts lent human reality to the low-income Vermonters who could be affected by the change. Covering the Great Bristol Outhouse Races gave me a look at a Vermont town’s joyous, family-oriented community through the heat-soaked lens of Fourth of July fun. And attending Panton’s July 23 special town meeting (one of my favorite assignments) showed me a glimpse of how shifts in local politics can represent years of complex societal change in Addison County’s small towns.

As a college student, these are stories I wouldn’t have been a part of in any other way. The people I spoke to and the stories they passed on to me have become part of the fabric of my understanding of what it means to live in Addison County, which I constructed in the past purely from interactions with friends, teams, professors, clubs and leisure activities on Middlebury College’s campus.

As a student at a small college in a small rural town, I frequently find myself pondering questions about communities and how we fit into them: When do we stop being residents of the college and start being residents of Middlebury and Addison County? Do we have an obligation to form meaningful relationships with these communities, or is it acceptable for us to withdraw into the bubble of on-campus life for four years before departing with our degrees? Students must also be aware of our transitional status in Addison County and sensitive to the fact that our participation and perspective might not always be welcome.

I’m not fully sure of the answer to these questions and observations. But to me, it’s problematic to live four years in a place without developing a connection with it beyond the one square mile in which you sleep, eat, socialize and study. I know that I don’t want that to be the reality of my four years in Middlebury; working at the Addy Indy gave me the opportunity to ensure it is not.

This summer has been one of my most memorable, enjoyable and fulfilling so far. Thanks to the residents of Addison County for making it so.

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