Bethel's Free University Re-Imagines Education, Unites Community

Feb 24, 2015

Many have heard of pop-up galleries, boutiques and restaurants, opening up seemingly out of nowhere and closing just as fast. But, how many have heard of a pop-up university?

The town of Bethel is about to start its second year of Bethel University, a pop-up community school that offers a wide variety of free classes open to anyone, Bethel resident or beyond.

Rebecca Sanborn Stone, one of the original organizers of the program, joined Vermont Edition to talk about this year’s offerings.

Stone says the program will offer a range of courses. “There’s really something for everyone," she says. "We have everything from growing a tea garden, to dodge ball, to how you can go solar. There are craft courses like needle felting animals and making up-cycled crafts.” Other courses this year include Zumba and auto mechanics.

So, how does it work? Stone says that they get by with limited resources by being flexible. “Our main goal is creating a forum for people to be able to share what they love and what they know about, and equally creating a forum for people to learn and meet their neighbors,” she says.

"Our main goal is creating a forum for people to be able to share what they love and what they know about, and equally creating a forum for people to learn and meet their neighbors." - Rebecca Sanborn Stone, organizer of Bethel University

A group of 12 organizers come together each January and open up a call for proposals. Stone explains that anyone in or out of town can propose a course. This year, Stone says that the professors come from seven different towns throughout the state.

Once the course proposals are in, the group matches professors to dates, times and locations throughout town and then opens registration. The professors determine how often to meet throughout the month of March. “French and Spanish classes meet multiple times throughout the month, and the needle felting meets only once,” Stone stays.

Funding for the university is limited, but this year Stone says they received a grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, along with donations from local business and sponsors. “Beyond that,” she says, “everything is donated. We have a great group of volunteers that are putting in many hours to make this happen and we have great donations from many organizations and businesses in town.” The town of Bethel, the public library and schools have all offered up their spaces for classes to meet.

Stone says the creation of Bethel University was “a long and winding path,” but that after Tropical Storm Irene, the community wanted to live in a different kind of place, one where neighbors were familiar and supportive.

Stone explains that after Irene, the town revived their community festival, and there the Bethel Revitalization Initiative put up a poster saying, “What do you imagine for Bethel?” In the months after that, a group of volunteers state down to make one of the suggestions happen. “Bethel University was by far the most popular idea,” Stone says.

Stone's involvement in Bethel University stems from Tropical Storm Irene as well. “When Irene hit, it took us several days to realize how bad the damage was in town. And that was a real wake-up call for me, to say, I really [should] know that someone’s house was swept down river a half mile from my house. So I had a really strong personal motivation to start getting to know my neighbors,” says Stone.

"It’s not something that can be changed in a year, or by one event, but there have been so many small little projects, so many instances of collaboration, trust and community-building popping up that [Bethel is] really an exciting place to be right now."

In its second year, Stone says Bethel University is already making the community stronger. “It’s not something that can be changed in a year, or by one event, but there have been so many small little projects, so many instances of collaboration, trust and community-building popping up that [Bethel is] really an exciting place to be right now.”

Stone also says it's helped to build collaboration between the town government and residents. “People are using public spaces more, they are getting out, they are learning about local businesses and offerings in the community, and there’s just a really palpable sense of energy,” says Stone.

Bethel University holds a graduation after the month of classes, which Stone says is both a celebration of those involved and the town itself. This year, she hopes students from the new public speaking course will deliver talks.

What class is Stone looking forward to this year? “The one that sounds the most fun to me is dodge ball,” she says, laughing.

Learn more about Bethel University and register on their website.