Nervous but optimistic: Incoming Hampshire College students on why they’re attending this fall

  • Charles and Polly Longsworth Arts Village at Hampshire College, Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

  • Jake Pehle, 18, will be one of the 15 first-year students to attend Hampshire College in fall 2019. SUBMITTED PHOTO


Staff Writer
Friday, June 07, 2019

AMHERST —  Fiona Marks, 16, has wanted to go to Hampshire College ever since she was in the 10th grade. So she applied early decision last year and was accepted. 

But then Hampshire leaders announced on Jan. 15 that they were seeking a “strategic partnership” to keep the college afloat financially. And on Feb. 1, the school’s trustees voted to accept only 77 students this fall — those who had been accepted early decision, like Marks, and others who had been accepted the previous year.

As those decisions caused turmoil on campus, Marks felt like she had been excluded from a community that had just welcomed her. But then Hampshire’s top leadership resigned, and trustees voted to pursue independence for the college. That was a turning point for Marks.

“When I found out that there was going to be a commitment to doing this in a more progressive way, and really listening to the people who were there ... it made me feel a little more comfortable and excited to go there,” Marks said during a phone interview Monday. “I’m hoping for the best, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Marks, of Ithaca, New York, is one of 15 out of the 77 accepted students who have decided to attend the college this fall. The challenges those students will face include diminished services on campus and uncertainty over Hampshire’s future. But two of those 15 students who spoke with the Gazette say the college’s alternative pedagogy and reputation for experimental, hands-on learning drew them to attend despite those concerns.

“I feel like my values are very matched there,” Marks said. “I go to an alternative high school, so I really care about progressive education, and what I know about Hampshire and the learning there really matches what I want my educational experience to look like.”

That is also the case for Jake Pehle, 18, who attends the independent Pacem School in Montpelier, Vermont.

“My school did not have grades or tests, so it seemed like a natural extension,” he said. “And I was a little bit nervous about going into a testing environment.”

The popular Facebook page Only in Northampton has dubbed Pehle and Marks’ class “the most loved, tiny class ever at Hampshire College.” And Pehle said he has felt that love.

“The main thing keeping me there is probably the community I met as part of this drama, and going to an accepted students day in April,” he said. “The community was extremely supportive and welcoming.”

Pehle does have some concerns about what to expect this fall, particularly when it comes to faculty, he said: “I heard about certain members getting cut, but I never found an actual list of names.”

Marks said the possibility of cuts to services isn’t an ideal situation, but she’s not overly worried. “It seems like I’ll be taken care of,” she said.

Limited services

Earlier this year, the college told incoming students that they should expect reduced or eliminated services when classes start. An email sent to accepted students immediately following the board’s decision to admit only a bare-bones class this fall stated that affected services could include “certain support services, team sports, clubs, study abroad, and social and affinity services.”

“College dining options likely will be limited, and we probably won’t require you to purchase a full meal plan,” the email read. “Student work opportunities on campus will be limited and therefore can’t be guaranteed to you under the current circumstances. Other services and benefits previously offered by Hampshire and traditionally offered by other small, private colleges also might not be available.”

In an email Monday, college spokesman John Courtmanche said that each division of the college was allowed to make its own choices about how to balance resources and deliver the services necessary to support student needs.

Because the college will have only 600 students next year — down from 1,175 this year — housing options will be consolidated. Courtmanche said the college has offered students spaces in the college’s apartment-style “mods” as well as the more traditional residence hall Merrill House. One usual first-year residence, Dakin House, will be closed.

Outdoor programs, recreation and athletics will still be offered, with a more limited schedule. Facilities like the equipment room, fitness center, bike shop and climbing wall will remain open, though some varsity athletic teams might not be able to meet the number of roster spots needed to compete in the school’s athletic conference, Courtmanche said.

The college will not reduce the hours of operation or on-call hours for its health and counseling services, and the school’s Title IX services, survivor support services and violence prevention education will not be compromised, according to Courtmanche. He also said that Hampshire plans to maintain spiritual-life services like the Jewish Student Union and the Muslim Student Association.

Courtmanche said that current staff are assuming expanded positions to retain services and programs to support international and domestic students of color. And the director of the school’s Center For Feminisms/Queer Community Alliance will continue to oversee both centers, taking on “additional responsibilities in the area of survivor support services and violence prevention education and outreach,” he added.

As the new class waits for classes to begin this fall, Pehle and Marks are in the middle of busy summers. Marks said she is planning to work at her local food co-op, possibly picking up an internship and making lots of pottery. Pehle also plans to work this summer and aims to get his driver’s license so that he can drive a car down to Hampshire.

New student orientation begins on Aug. 30, and, until then, the incoming students will likely be keeping a close eye on developments at the college, which plans to announce a new president this summer. Hampshire expects to hear from its accrediting agency by mid-June, having been asked to “show cause why it should not be placed on probation or have its accreditation withdrawn” over concerns that the college might not be meeting some of the agency’s standards.

Asked how he feels about the upcoming fall semester, Pehle paused before responding: “I’m nervous,” he said, “but I’m optimistic.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.