President Jane O'Meara Sanders was the keynote speaker for the Consortium of Vermont Colleges Annual Bus Tour for High School Guidance Counselors. She addressed the benefits of pursuing a higher education in the State of Vermont. The event was the kick-off for the bus tour, where the counselor explore eighteen Vermont colleges in six days. Guidance Counselors from all over the United States, China and Canada are spending this week on each campus meeting faculty, staff, and students, and learning about each school's unique programs and attributes.
It is a pleasure to be here tonight with you. I was delighted to be asked to welcome you to our beautiful state. Both my husband and I have a deep love for the state of Vermont and all that it has to offer, and I’m sure that at the end of this hectic week, you will understand why!
I understand that you have had the opportunity to visit three of the four Burlington area schools today. As President of the fourth, Burlington College, I would love to spend my time up here singing the praises of my college, but I will have a chance to do that when you visit our new campus on your last day in Vermont. Tonight, it’s probably more appropriate that I speak to you about Vermont as a destination for your students!
Before I do that, I’d like to take a moment to thank you for the important work that you do. As you all well know, advising students on one of their most significant transitions is challenging, to say the least. Striving to honor their unique talents, career interests, individual abilities and personalities requires patience, commitment, and dedication. As a parent of four, I have known the importance of that guidance for many years. Now, as a College President, I am even more impressed. So, on behalf of my colleagues and the entire Vermont the higher education community, let me thank you and commend you.
Now on to the topic at hand: "Why Vermont?" As you know, there are thousands of great colleges and universities from Maine to California where students can receive an excellent education and have an exciting and enriching four years. What makes Vermont a little bit different? What does Vermont have that many other states don’t have?
The Consortium of Vermont Colleges , which hosts this bus tour each year, has the tag line – “Vermont – a great location for education.” And it definitely is. Let me start off with some of the obvious facts, and then go off in a direction which may be a bit controversial – with some of you agreeing and some of you not.
What is obvious is that students coming to Vermont can enjoy, for four very different seasons, one of the most beautiful states in America. Each day as I look out my office window to the beautiful view of Lake Champlain, I gain a new appreciation for the beauty of this state, and can understand why millions of tourists visit just to look at our leaves! If students like the outdoors, they’ll love Vermont. (Although it didn't seem as though this winter would ever end - a condition that was viewed somewhat differently by our students and those of us who had to shovel our driveways!)
Speaking of winter, Vermont is home to Burton Snowboards, where snowboarding - the unofficial state sport - was born. Several mountains to ride and ski, including Stowe, Sugarbush, Bolton, Jay Peak, and Killington are only a short drive away from here and even closer to some of the other colleges you will visit this week.
Other seasons offer magnificent hiking, boating, swimming, rafting, fishing in our various state parks, on the Catamount Trail, and in the Green Mountains. Some of the best wind-surfing in the northeast is just fifteen minutes away. A bike path runs along the edge of Lake Champlain through the islands and almost all the way up to Canada, and south for many miles as well.
You are now in Burlington, the largest city in the state. A population of 40,000 people belies the truly extraordinary offerings of the area. Rated as one of the ‘most livable cities’ in the United States for many years, it is rich in cultural resources. Its downtown, filled with sidewalk cafes, restaurants, clubs, galleries and shops, is the place to meet up with friends. Just last month, one survey found Burlington to be the happiest city in the nation - (that might have something to do with all those downtown gathering places…). Mardi-Gras, the Jazz Festival, First Night, and Winterfest are only a few of the events offered during a year-round arts scene unrivaled anywhere! For folks interested in big-city life, Montreal is only an hour and a half away, Boston four hours, and New York, less than six hours.
But it is not just Burlington that enjoys this surprisingly large bounty of cultural offerings. Excellent theater can be found in every corner of the state and students often participate with visiting actors at places like the Weston Playhouse or the Waitsfield Round Barn. Every town has a town center where people gather to listen to music, to dance, to attend a festival or to discuss public policy and vote.There are fabulous bookstores, art galleries, coffee houses, cinemas, and live music venues in even the most rural towns. There are opportunities to participate in team sports, such as hockey, football, lacrosse, basketball, soccer, or crew.
Recent national reports have found Vermont to be the healthiest state in the nation and the greenest state in the nation. Stewardship of the environment is not a trend here in Vermont; it is, and always has been, a basic tenet of life. Maintaining and protecting the environment is important to Vermonters, and our colleges offer some of the best environmental programs in the country.
In other words, we have a pretty high quality of life - enjoyed by full time residents, students, and visitors alike.
All that is pretty obvious, but it is not by accident. Let me give you a few of the reasons we do enjoy this excellent quality of life - and why students might especially enjoy attending college in Vermont.
Now, we all recognize that a significant part of a student’s learning experience takes place on campus. And during the course of your travels, you will hear from each college about its own unique educational experience. I think you will be impressed with the exceptional quality and range of offerings and will advise a number of your students to enroll in some of our schools.
But we also know that students learn and are shaped by the social, political and cultural environment which surrounds them. And, in that sense, Vermont is probably unique in the country and can offer students some experiences and opportunities that are not easily available in other states.
I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that our country today faces very difficult problems: high unemployment – which directly affects our graduates, a large deficit – which impacts our student’s financial aid, two wars, global warming and other major environmental challenges – to name just a few.
Further, there are some very contentious cultural issues being debated in this country. How do we address the issue of immigration and undocumented residents? Is nuclear power safe, or should we move to other forms of energy? Should gay people be allowed to marry and enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples? Frankly, there is even debate in some states about whether college students should be allowed to vote.
Vermonters are fully engaged in these and the many other issues facing our country. An informed electorate, an educated populace, open and civil discussion about the hard questions is a way of life here. Students at every campus have the opportunity to meet with community members and engage in respectful dialogue about the issues they care about, to learn from different perspectives, and to realize that democracy can work quite well when people take the time to think critically, to really listen, and to decide based on the common good.
Vermont was the first state in the country to pass a civil union law. It was contentious but it was not mean; the debates were long and considered; not everyone agreed with the outcome, but it was a bonding experience across party lines and a very proud moment for our state. For, perhaps even more than the decision, the humanity of the discussion, made us proud to be Vermonters.
Our state, from its very inception, has been a leader in protecting civil rights and civil liberties. We were the first state to abolish slavery, the first state to legalize gay marriage with a statute, the first to have a female Lieutenant Governor - who went on to be Governor. I think that’s a record and a continuing experience that students can benefit from.
One of the great social issues facing our nation is health care, and right now, Vermont is poised to become the first state in the nation to guarantee health care to all as a right, through a Single Payer plan. The entire nation will be looking at Vermont – and observing closely what happens here. Students interested in social policy will be able to learn a great deal from the Legislature, legislators and local elected officials.
Energy is another very important issue facing our country and Vermont is leading the nation in terms of energy efficiency and many aspects of energy policy. Vermont, in fact, is the only state in the country that has legal standing in terms of whether the life of a nuclear power plant can be extended – and Vermont has voted to shut down its only nuclear plant within the next year. For those students interested in the environment and energy, Vermont is a great place to be.
Vermont has always been a home for independent and progressive thinkers. I would be remiss if I did not mention leadership as a reason and a cause. Our congressional delegation is, we believe (and I'm speaking completely objectively here...) is the best in the nation. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my husband, Bernie Sanders, is the Independent Senator from Vermont…). Vermonters take their elections seriously and choose wisely for the good of the nation as well as the state, regardless of party. For instance, the Stafford educational loan program is named after one of our former senators, Bob Stafford, who was a Republican.
Today, you have begun what I hope will be a memorable and thought-provoking exploration of Vermont higher education. With twenty-four higher education institutions throughout the state - more per capita than anywhere else in the nation - our campuses house over 42,000 students from all over the country and across the globe. Our colleges range in size from 100 to 12,000 students, and teach just about everything you can imagine. We have strong inter-disciplinary liberal arts and creative arts programs, competitive professional programs in engineering, medicine and law, innovative offerings in language, international relations, environmental studies, fine-furniture making, game design, film making, and much more. The list is endless.
Throughout this upcoming week, you will have the opportunity to visit each of our schools, meet with our wonderful faculty and staff, and learn about what makes each institution unique. I look forward to welcoming you to Burlington College, the last stop on your whirlwind tour, at the end of the week. I’m hoping you will all still be standing and inquisitive, and I promise a good celebration of the successful completion of your journey!
So happy travels everyone. I hope you enjoy Vermont as much as we do!