Residents of the Upper Valley and beyond will have another opportunity in March to bone up on their skills at cooking, digital photography, needle felting, conversational French or any of several dozen free classes that may be offered at Bethel University.
The "pop-up university," which began as a community-building effort three years ago, will soon commence its third semester. The good news: It's entirely tuition-free, there's no application process, and no one wants to see your academic transcript or SAT scores.
Rebecca Stone, a cofounder of Bethel University, says the idea was born in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, which devastated the small central Vermont town. Two years later, the Bethel Revitalization Initiative
put up posters asking residents to suggest ways to make Bethel a more vibrant, connected and livable community.
“Someone wrote ‘Bethel University.' I didn’t even know what it was at the time. I don’t think most of us did," Stone recalls. "But we got enough of this nugget of an idea where people would teach classes to each other. From there, we went on to shape what this program could be.”
Bethel isn't the first community in the country to adopt the pop-up university model. Stone has heard of colleges and universities that have held one-day public learning events, as well as other cities that have offered day- or weekend-long mini-classes. However, often those programs require modest tuition or barter payment. Bethel University is free and open to anyone, from anyone in the area, who wants to attend a class — or teach one.
Currently, BU is seeking "professors," which Stone explains is a deliberately vague title. As she puts it, “Anyone who has something to offer is qualified to teach it.”
They don’t judge anyone's teaching qualifications, and every professor decides the space limitations and length of the class, which can range from one day to four weeks. The only stipulation is that the class has to take place in March and must be held in Bethel.
BU launched in March 2014 with 18 courses, 180 students and 21 professors. It grew in 2015 to 40 classes, attracting more than 418 registrations and 250 students, who hailed from 37 towns and three states. Class topics ran the gamut from "The Roots of Beer" to “Growing a Tea Garden” to "Square Dance Basics" to "Basic Vehicle Maintenance." Bethel University — not to be confused with the evangelical Christian college
in Minnesota by the same name — also held more informal meetups for people who wanted to get together and discuss different topics — or just let their toddlers play together.
Stone, who also works as an independent consultant in community building, taught a class in 2015 called "Introduction to Grant Writing." She was surprised by the number of students who traveled significant distances to attend her course, including from Springfield, Hanover and Rutland, “because this was a skill they wanted to learn, and this was a free opportunity to learn it.”
For one more week, BU will be signing up professors and accepting new course proposals. What's on the curriculum this March?
“Every year we have no idea what we'll get,” Stone says. It's all dependent on who signs up. To date, BU hasn't had to reject any proposals, though they're also not trying to grow much bigger than the 45 classes offered last year. “It just got a little crazy," she says. "There were two or three things happening in a night and people couldn’t decide what they wanted to do.”
Despite its expanding size, Bethel University is still run on a shoestring budget — $1,500 in 2015 — with all classroom spaces, course material and supplies either donated or paid for from a small grant. Numerous local organizations provide free classroom space and support, among them the Town of Bethel, Bethel Elementary School, Whitcomb High School, the Bethel Public Library, the Christ Episcopal Church and the Bethel Village Sandwich Shop.
The sandwich shop, Stone notes, becomes the "student union," where people register, take classes and congregate afterward.
None of BU's professors or organizers gets paid. In fact, the only paid staffer last year was a local high school student who was compensated for photographing every BU class.
Still, the program has some modest expenses, such as books, course materials and advertising. Stone is excited to report that Bethel University is now a finalist for a $5,000 Cheryl King Fischer Innovation Award. Organizers are hoping that past attendees and other community members will click on the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund's website
and leave a comment about why they love BU and why it deserve to win the award.
According to Stone, if they win the grant, it'll fund Bethel University's operations for another five years — not including the spring graduation keg party.