Not a City on a Hill
Williams College offers an education for all
Paula Consolini, here with Williams College students, is the director of the Center for Learning in Action. “The students are eager to use what they learn.”
Photo Scott Barrow
This year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Williams College in Williamstown the number- one National Liberal Arts College. Founded in 1793, Williams is one of the oldest colleges in the country (and the largest economic entity in the northern part of the county). Up until the last decade or so, it had a certain impenetrable mystique within the local community, one that faculty, staff, and students have worked diligently to erase.
“If you look historically at Williams and other colleges built on the monastic tradition, yes, the main metaphor is this inward-looking college on the hill,” says assistant to the president for community and government affairs James Kolesar. “But Williams is actually right in the middle of the town. The health of the college is intertwined with the health of the community.”
In fact, Kolesar adds, the community is a rich learning ground for the nearly 2,100 undergraduates who attend the college—many from New York, Massachusetts, and California, and others from as far away Tanzania and Uzbekistan.
“Students are more interested in being out in the world, learning ‘in’ the world,” he says. “Community service is outdated. It’s about community engagement and solving things. And we want to be conscious of reaching out beyond the boundaries of this town.”
The real push to connect with the non-Williams community began with the students themselves, when they formed extra-curricular groups and were itching to get out of the “purple bubble” (named affectionately after the college’s mascot, Ephelia, the purple cow). To that end, the faculty, administration, and students developed the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA), an experiential learning hub that provides practical learning opportunities via coursework and extracurricular projects. Paula Consolini is the director of the center, now in its third year.
“The students are eager to use what they learn. And in a way, they are our greatest resource we can offer,” says Consolini. “They put their minds and their energies into a place they call home for four years of their lives.”
Throughout the year, Consolini estimates that around 700 undergrads utilize CLiA, either for extracurricular experience or because they are deeply enmeshed in experiential-learning courses like Fieldwork in Public Affairs and Private Non-Profits, BioEYES: Teaching Fourth Graders about Zebrafish, and Learning Intervention for Teens, to name just a few.
Conversely, there are at least 350 organizations—including the Christian Center, the Berkshire County Sherriff’s Office, Berkshire Farm Center, MASS MoCA, Brighton Elementary School, Berkshire Community Action Council, Barrington Stage Company—that work with the Center.
New Hampshire native Anna DeLoi is heading into her junior year at Williams. Since her freshman year, DeLoi has been working (through CLiA) once a week at Berkshire Children and Families’ Kids 4 Harmony program in Pittsfield. She is an assistant violin teacher to third- and fourth-grade children who attend the program after school.
“Working with the kids brings a totally different perspective to the study of music,” says DeLoi. “A huge part of our job is to get the kids excited about music. We’re putting ourselves back in that place where the spark came from. It’s a powerful social-development model.”
This year, DeLoi hopes to increase her engagement with the budding musicians by working with them more than one day a week. She and her students both benefit from a mutually enhanced education, one she couldn’t get “by studying theory in a bubble.”
Bursting the protective bubble is something that Williams President Adam Falk has been zeroing in on since 2010 when he began his tenure.
“I grew up in a college community in Chapel Hill. One cannot flourish without the other,” says Falk. “It’s all based on proactive communication with the community. Early on, I was very focused on building up reserves of trust. It makes collaboration easier. It’s essential to have that.”
Falk says that instead of telling the community what it needed, Williams has taken a non-traditional approach, reaching out to organizations, local schools, town governments, and non-profits, and asking—not telling—them what they needed. The result is that Williams is utilizing its resources, including creating a $5-million endowment for Mount Greylock Regional School District to help with operational costs. Also, the college is heavily invested in the reconstruction of Spring Street (Williamstown’s “main drag”), erecting a new bookstore, renovating the Williams Inn, and opening up The Log (an eatery/nightspot) to the public. Nearby, performances at the ’62 Center for Theatre & Dance are free, and the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) offers free admission and programming to anyone who wants to swing by for an exhibit, a talk, music, dancing, even badminton. The challenge is getting people there.
“One of the key tenets of my job is to have the museum act as a portal for the college and the broader community,” says WCMA Director Christina Olsen. “When we try something new, it takes a few years for something to take off.”
Olsen is noticing an across-the-board increase in community attendance to museum events, especially the Thursday WCMA at Night, an open art-making series. “It can’t be a flash in the pan,” she says. “It’s a long-term commitment.”
Entertain and engage
The community can tap into a myriad of Williams College offerings, including free musical performances at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance and exhibitions and programming at its art museum.