In the spring of 2023, Charlotte Wood visited the Coffrin Hall dorm room she had selected for the 2023-24 school year. Wood, a sophomore at Middlebury College with an intended major in neuroscience, was excited to imagine herself living there in the fall.
“The view from [my] window was awesome, overlooking Bicentennial Hall and the green,” she said. This fall, though, it looks much different.
“Now, the view is a huge pit of construction including giant cranes and noisy equipment.”
The construction outside her window, she said, starts around 7 a.m. on weekdays. “Even with shades down and my noise machine going…the construction wakes me up most mornings.”
Wood also cited concerns about the privacy of her single. “Construction workers are able to see directly into my room all day.” She said the construction has “posed some challenges to being able to fully relax in my own space.”
Ranked at #11 for liberal arts colleges in the US and World News Report’s annual “Best Colleges” ranking, Middlebury College sits atop one of the gently rolling hills of the Champlain Valley. In the past few years, Middlebury has grown in popularity among students seeking a reputable education in an idyllic setting. As applicant pools have grown, so has the number of enrolled students. Middlebury enrollment hovered around 2,500 for the past decade followed by a jump to 2,858 in fall 2021 and 2,773 in fall 2022.
Middlebury College has had to scramble for housing solutions for its expanding student population. The result? A very atypical start to the year for some students.
Middlebury’s solutions to their housing shortage include a program for first-year students in Copenhagen, Denmark, and stipends to upperclassmen to take a semester off. The college is also in the process of constructing a new dorm, which will replace the main first-year dorm on campus, and will add 48 beds to the college’s housing capacity.
Emma Cook is one of the 32 members of the class of 2027 who are starting their Middlebury career in Copenhagen. Cook, who is from Ticonderoga, New York, is pursuing a pre-med track at Middlebury with the goal of becoming a critical care anesthesiologist. She also hopes to minor in political science.
Cook was drawn to Middlebury because it “offers a wide variety of academic exploration.” The school, she said, also offered her a generous financial aid package.
When Cook learned about the opportunity to spend her first semester in Copenhagen, she “instantly decided to apply,” and was thrilled to learn of her acceptance in May 2023.
“This is a very special group of people,” Cook said of her cohort. “The group dynamic is truly amazing.”
Cook, who didn’t have the ability to travel internationally much while growing up, is grateful to Middlebury for giving her the opportunity to live in Copenhagen for free. The college paid for plane fare and provides students with a monthly meal stipend.
She’s delighted to be in Scandinavia, a place that has been “one of [her] dreams” to live in, and she’s also excited to be in an urban environment far from home. One of her concerns about going to Middlebury was that it’s a similar small rural community to where she grew up. The college is also only 40 minutes away from her hometown.
“I did not want to be one of the students that returned home every weekend, and being in Copenhagen has ensured that I will not form that habit.”
Although she’s more than 3,500 miles away from Middlebury, Cook said she still feels connected to the school community. She’s met with her pre-med advisor and keeps in contact with Middlebury faculty via Zoom and Outlook.
“One thing that is very special,” Cook said, “is that we have multiple staff specifically dedicated to ensuring that we are succeeding this semester.” These faculty and staff have traveled to Copenhagen to help coordinate the program and teach courses to the 32 first-years. Cook said that she and her cohort have gotten to participate in “social activities, team building trips, and more.”
“I am so thankful to have this wonderful opportunity,” Cook said.
Maia McNeill, who would have been a junior at Middlebury this year, took the college’s offer to upperclassmen to take the fall semester off in exchange for a $10,000 stipend. McNeill is majoring in environmental studies and is one of the 30 Middlebury upperclassmen taking advantage of the offer. She’s spending the fall working at Earth Sky Time, a farm in Manchester, VT.
McNeill said she decided almost right away to take the semester off. She was weighing the decision for about an hour after she read the email from the school. Once McNeill was sure that she would still be able to study abroad in the spring, she filled out the survey to take the fall semester off.
One thing McNeill noted about the process was the tight timeline. The email to juniors and seniors was sent out on July 31st, barely six weeks before the start of school, and the deadline to make a binding decision was August 3rd.
“I had some complications with my financial aid,” McNeill said. She was worried about how the semester off would affect how much she had to pay for her last few semesters at Middlebury.
McNeill said she’s “never really had a good experience” with Student Financial Services at the school. “They were so unhelpful,” she said, adding that they wouldn’t give her advice on what to do about her financial aid and the way it would be affected by a semester off. However, once she was able to talk with the head of Student Financial Services, she got answers that helped her make a decision. The school also ended up giving her an extra week and a half to make a final decision.
McNeill recalled a conversation with an administrator who said he hadn’t foreseen financial concerns like those that she raised.
“There are definitely students who are better set up to take this impromptu semester off than others, which maybe is just a fact of life,” McNeill said, “and not the college’s fault.”
At Earth Sky Time, McNeill works full time in exchange for food, lodging and a small amount of money.
“I’m hanging out and working and farming and baking,” she said. “It’s really fun.” She described the farm, which hosts events and has 17 resident workers, as a “community hub.”
She said that although she misses Middlebury, especially during the fall, she’s happy with her decision to take a semester off.
“There’s never gonna be another time when I’m not working towards something and also getting paid to do that and also I have plans for after.”
While Cook and McNeill are enjoying their semesters off campus, studying and farming, residents of Coffrin Hall, the neighboring Atwater buildings and the Chateau are contending with noise and disruption from the construction taking place to the west of their dorms.
The dorm, when the project was initially proposed, was slated for completion in early 2023, but a number of issues with permitting and funding caused the project to be pushed back. A groundbreaking ceremony took place on June 26th, 2023.
The building is being touted as a “dorm for the 21st century student” and will be “truly inclusive,” vice president of student affairs Smita Ruzicka said in a July 4th article in the Middlebury Campus. The building will also be built to meet green construction standards.
The new dorm will have 148 doubles and 2 singles, according to reporting by the Middlebury Campus, and will open in the fall of 2025. The first class to live in the new dorm will be Middlebury’s class of 2029.
Adelle MacDowell is a Middlebury College student working with the Underground Workshop, a network of student journalists across Vermont partnering with Community News Service.