Winter Study can be a time for students to reach beyond their comfort zones. One unique Winter Study opportunity is the Independent Study 99 courses. Available to sophomores, juniors and seniors, the independent study program provides the chance for students to design and pursue personalized projects that challenge and reward the students who create and execute them.
Geosciences major Jordan Fields ’17 decided to do his 99 project in the areas of anthropology and economics. A Vermont native, Fields wanted to understand the unique culture surrounding Heady Topper, an American Double India Pale Ale brewed by The Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury, Vt.
“Heady Topper has been ranked as one of the best beers in the world by regular consumers instead of experts,” Fields said. “People would line up outside of the brewery as early as 5:00 a.m. just to buy this drink since it’s produced in limited quantities and only distributed within a 25-mile radius of the brewery. As a Vermonter myself, I wanted to know why this brewery hasn’t expanded its productions nationwide despite its fame.”
Even though Fields said that his project wasn’t too academically rigorous, he believes that he brought new ideas to the fields of anthropology and economics.
“I learned that the people of Waterbury really believed in supporting their community. They believed in helping small businesses, like The Alchemist.”
Moreover, Fields attributes his 99 experience to helping him write his thesis and apply for a postgraduate fellowship.
Danielle Grier ’18, an economics major, wanted to expand her interests in international development and traveling with her 99 project.
“[Rehaan Vij ’18]told me about Parivaar, which is a residential educational institution located in India for impoverished, homeless and/or parentless children. He showed me a video that he had made about the institute after staying there for two weeks during high school and told me that he wanted to go back.”
Grier and Vij drafted a 99 proposal with the goal of immersing themselves in a completely different culture and situation to make them critically examine their beliefs and understandings.
Their project was funded by the Gaudino Fellowship, which is awarded to two to four students at the College during Winter Study for collaborative projects focused on “direct encounter with otherness and self-reflection.”
In order to achieve these goals, Grier said that she and Vij spent 10 days at Parivaar, where they completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, including complete silence of the mind and body, 11 hours of daily meditation and guided teachings of the Vipassana and ended the trip by attending an upper-middle-class wedding
“Though it may sound cliché, the biggest takeaway was how similar we all are regardless of race, language, culture et cetera. I formed meaningful friendships with the Parivaar children despite our language barrier and different backgrounds because, in the end, we are all people who have fears, hopes and dreams.”
As for history major Ben Williams ’18, his 99 was the initial component of a larger project. “As a child, I spent a third of each year in Burma [Myanmar] because of my parents’ work dealing with ethnic resistance groups,” Williams said.
This influenced Williams to start a project that would transcribe the oral history of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), a political organization of the Kachin ethnic group.
“Most of the academic work surrounding my project is done by anthropologists, but they don’t publish their entire interview transcripts or acknowledge their primary resources. My goal was to put together the oral history of the KIO in English and allow others to study this organization from the perspective of people directly and indirectly involved,” Williams said.
Before creating his 99 proposal, it was difficult for Williams to pursue this initiative because the Kachin State was located in a war zone and no academic institution sponsored a project there.
Instead, Williams worked as a teacher at a Myanma charity school and eventually got in contact with ethnic resistance and armed organizations scholars living in Myanmar. While still teaching, Williams decided to defer his spring semester at the College and remain in Myanmar to pursue his project.
By the end of his time overseas, Williams had accomplished a lot.
“I was able to compile 810 pages of primary resources on the KIO, which I am trying to get published this year,” he said. “I consider this work valuable not because of its contribution to knowledge, but because of its help to people in need. I hope to give a voice to people who are voiceless.”
When reflecting back on their 99 projects, all three of these students gave a common response: They were pushed out of their comfort zones.
“Some students are afraid of doing a 99 because of a bad grade or a difficult professor, but doing one provides better academic opportunities,” Fields said.
Grier put this sentiment aptly when she advised, “Doing something that scares you is often the most rewarding.”
Ben Williams offered this honest advice: “Fear of the real world or being lonely ar de some of the things holding people back from studying overseas. First of all, be smart because some of those things are probably true. Secondly, just as Shakespeare said, ‘Assume a virtue, if you have it not’ because courage brings itself rewards.”