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New book: CCV instills hope in higher ed

 

WEYBRIDGE — Many young people today are deterred from higher education by the rising cost of college, and they choose to stay out or drop out, observed an article published in January in The New York Times. And the college degree that might have raised young citizens onto an equal starting point is not achieved.

This report does not stand alone in the scene of people’s dimming hopes. When a four-year college degree becomes burdened by ever-growing stakes, the question becomes, is there another path? One, perhaps, less traveled by?

 

Independent photo/Caroline Jiao
IN HIS NEW book, “Kind of a Miracle,” Weybridge author Doug Wilhelm shows how Community College of Vermont reimagined the potential of higher education when it was founded 54 years ago and is vitally important to the future of the Green Mountain State today.

 

Weybridge author Doug Wilhelm explores one of those paths in his recently published book, “Kind of a Miracle: The Unlikely Story of the Community College of Vermont.” The book employs an oral history method to document the various struggles and successes of CCV throughout its first half century. It features not only founders, ex-presidents, faculty and staff, who all worked hard to will the institution into being but also many students who benefited from the college’s universal access and its carefully catered programs.

Wilhelm acknowledges the significance of historical and present-day social context for understanding the opportunities and hope the Community College of Vermont brought to the community.

“To me this was a really interesting story, and an important one,” he said.

“One of the biggest causes of the big division across America is there’s a big gap in wealth, obviously, and an opportunity to earn a good living,” he said. “A lot of people feel they’ve been left behind. There’s a lot of anger about that. And it’s understandable.”

CCV was started in 1970. As an entry point into higher education, for many Vermonters it draws a picture of possibility.

“I think this is the story that matters,” Wilhelm said. “Especially now, when we have so much division, and so many people in this county believed that there’s no opportunity for them. They can never climb above their situation in life.”

The statistics on the CCV website show that 94% of students are Vermonters, and most students are adults with many other life commitments.

“In my time at CCV, many of the students were at the college for job reasons — to get jobs or keep jobs or advance in their jobs. Toward the late ’90s more students were starting at CCV with hopes of earning a bachelor’s degree elsewhere.” Bette Matkowski, the former dean of CCV who is featured in the book, told the Independent.

Judy Joyce, the current president of CCV, acknowledges the importance of making sure the courses align with what students need.

“These are students who grew up in Vermont and plan to stay in Vermont,” Joyce said. “They want better for themselves and families, to get jobs with good benefits and higher pay.”

Wilhelm said it’s easy for many to dismiss community colleges for their universal accessibility.

“There are always people who would look down on any community college, ‘Oh, that’s not a real college, that’s too easy, anybody can get in.’”

Amidst these prejudices, he believes community colleges like CCV can instill hope in people who he said haven’t had many advantages in their lives.

“They’re much smarter than they think they are!” he said. “Creating opportunities is not just accepting students if they have a high school diploma, it’s helping them believe in themselves and discover that they are smart and they can learn and perform on a college level. And if you can do that, then the whole world opens up to you.”

In a rapidly changing world, Wilhelm believes there is a necessity for higher education to reinvent itself.

“College is too expensive, it’s more and more unaffordable,” he said. “In today’s world, you don’t just need to learn between 18 and 22. You need to keep learning because knowledge keeps evolving very fast, and people need to have the opportunity to go to or go back to college at different times in life. They may change careers, they may need new education or training in their careers, and CCV works that way. They have been at the forefront of that idea of learning through life — the opportunity to learn in different stages of life.”

After acquiring much success in writing novels for young adults, Wilhelm felt drawn to write a very different genre — non-fiction. When CCV turned 50 three years ago there was interest in getting the story told, Wilhelm said, so he took up his pen.

The opportunity felt like a good transition from his long-time career in writing books for adolescents.

“I came to a point where I think I needed to do something different,” Wilhelm said. “It just felt like a time to change. I had the opportunity to do a couple of non-fiction books about Vermont subjects. I did one about Vermont non-profits. And then this came up.”

With a background as a former reporter at the Boston Globe, Wilhelm thought the approach of an oral history would really work.

“It brings a number of different voices into the story,” he said. “It was people who made this college, you know, it was very much of a grassroots project. There was no model for what they did.”

Wilhelm said his biggest challenge when writing the book was “conveying the honest passion that people who created and shaped CCV brought — and still bring — to the work.”

His aim was to capture their sense of mission without sounding like he was just promoting the college.

“That’s the main reason, I think, why I chose to do so much with the oral-history approach. Just let people speak for themselves,” he said.

Matkowski appreciated the way Wilhelm captured the community college as she knew it.

“Doug’s book was very emotional for me,” she wrote. “It brought back so many memories.”

At the end of the day, the story of CCV is a story of hope.

“To me this is a great Vermont story,” he said. “People invented this college from scratch. They were creative, they were stubborn, they worked incredibly hard, and they were resilient under a lot of pressure, and these are qualities I really admire in Vermont people. Vermonters tend to invent solutions, and this is one that the whole country should know about, especially when higher education is trying to figure out how it could reinvent itself for a different world, and CCV has been reinventing college for 50 years.”

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