From Field to Classroom: Work Outdoors and Earn College Credit With Vermont Youth Conservation Corps | Paid Post | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published February 8, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Ashley McGrann at Northern Vermont University - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Ashley McGrann at Northern Vermont University

When Ashley McGrann applied for a summer job with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps' Food and Farm program last year, she knew she'd be getting paid to clean and pack veggies and lead a crew of young people. But once she started, the 25-year-old was surprised to learn that her work could also translate into college credit.

A new partnership with the Community College of Vermont allows VYCC Crew Leaders to earn up to 12 college credit hours for the work they do on the organization's Farm or Conservation crews in addition to their wages. The nonprofit also provides coaching and administrative support to set them up for success.

For McGrann, this was an exciting perk. She'd always aspired to go to college but had no idea how she'd get there. In January, thanks to the boost she got from VYCC, she started her first year at Northern Vermont University.

"I don't think I would be coming to college — and I definitely wouldn't be going to college in Vermont — without the credits and help from VYCC," McGrann said.

As VYCC staffs up for summer 2023, hiring people 15 and older, it's letting potential Crew Leaders know about that 12-credit educational option — one of many unique benefits the VYCC experience provides. Others include help with identifying student loan options, access to career coaching and sometimes housing. Conservation Crew Leaders often camp with their crews while working in the woods; VYCC provides all equipment. Some Farm Crew Leaders, like McGrann, are also able to live on the farm.

"The VYCC experience is transformational for so many Crew Members and Leaders," said Leah Mital, VYCC's Executive Director. "For some, it reinforces the path they are pursuing, and for others, it shows them new paths for work, service and how they want to live."

Growing skills

Ashley McGrann behind the root washer - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ashley McGrann behind the root washer

VYCC is part of a national network of nonprofit service organizations that trace their roots to the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps. This federal program put Americans to work during the Great Depression building campsites and trails and planting trees, but it's evolved over the years. The current National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, founded in 1985, includes more than 150 locally run organizations like VYCC that offer jobs and training.

VYCC operates programs spring through fall: Conservation crews work on projects that take place on public lands across the state, looking after water quality, forest health, state park construction and sustainable trails. McGrann worked as a Crew Leader on the Food and Farm Program, which combines sustainable agriculture and food security.

She was assigned the role of Postharvest Project Lead. Throughout the season, which lasts from March to October, McGrann oversaw all the washing, packing and quality control of the food that they grew on the farm.

"I was basically the food safety police," she explained.

Every week, she also packed the Health Care Share, which is a program that connects families managing food insecurity with fresh, local food through their health care provider. The harvest includes fresh beans, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes; all of them are also available at the VYCC farmstand on its Richmond property.

Vermonters who travel Interstate 89 will recognize the barn where McGrann worked every day. Known as the West Monitor Barn, the large red-painted structure overlooks Route 2 on the way from Burlington to Bolton Valley Ski Resort.

Farming is in McGrann's blood. She grew up in eastern Kentucky on a very small vegetable farm. After graduating from high school, McGrann began traveling around the country and working with many different conservation corps. Her lifestyle was hectic.

"I was living in tents and moving weekly," she said. She applied to VYCC looking for more stability and a return to her roots.

"Coming to the farm was like coming back to my childhood," she said. "I got to live in the farmhouse and sleep in the same bed every night. That had a huge impact on me."

While she enjoyed working on the farm, she didn't see agriculture in her future, which is why VYCC's college credit benefit was such a welcome opportunity for her.

Making the Grade

Cam Farwell and Ashley in the wash station prepping potatoes to plant - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Cam Farwell and Ashley in the wash station prepping potatoes to plant

McGrann first heard about the college credit program from VYCC Chief Program Officer Daniel Schmidt, who met with Crew Leaders last summer to share the news. Schmidt's role is all about member experience. It's his job to think about how Crew Members can translate the skills they learn outdoors into future careers.

He said forming the curriculum with CCV didn't take too much additional work — the experience at VYCC already translated well to credits. "We worked with CCV to create a curriculum based on our existing Crew Leader training and the learning that happens throughout the season. We do the evaluations, then CCV does the paperwork."

At the end of the season, students can either go to a state university or get those credits transferred out of state. Whether or not the Crew Leader immediately wants to go to college, they still get the credits for working with VYCC, and those credits can be accessed anytime.

Students are evaluated on skills including effective communication, conflict management and their ability to work in a professional environment.

"At VYCC, a big part of what we do is learning. This is not a job where we expect people to come in and have all the skills and knowledge, like how to build a trail," Schmidt said, adding that VYCC provides young people with the tools to learn skills. "Then we pay them to learn those skills, which is a unique thing. They get paid to learn."

Taking the Next Step

After hearing about this opportunity, McGrann was one of the first to express her interest. VYCC's Alumni Manager met with her biweekly to help her fill out college applications and showed her how to apply for scholarships.

McGrann's experience illustrates VYCC's commitment to helping its Corps Members and alumni continue their work and figure out what comes next. Alumni Managers will review how they convey their time at VYCC on a résumé, share job postings, and connect them with potential employers and other alums working in their fields of interest.

"Out of all the conservation corps I've worked for, none of them supported me in the way VYCC did," McGrann said. "The staff are fully invested in you and your future."

In addition to the credit hours McGrann earned, she also qualified for in-state tuition to study environmental science with a focus on ornithology. She's specifically interested in bird migration patterns and how they correlate with the weather. Even if she doesn't see herself on a farm in the future, McGrann's experiences have taught her that being outside is her passion.

After her first few weeks of classes, McGrann said it's been an adjustment going from living and working outdoors to being in an academic setting, which she hasn't experienced since high school. But she's really enjoying this new phase of her life.

"I feel like my life has aligned to this moment," she said. "This is exactly where and when I'm supposed to be, and I couldn't have accomplished that without VYCC."

Fast Facts

  • Open positions: VYCC is currently hiring for all positions for the 2023 season. From trails to food and farm, you'll work together and learn a lot.
  • Tuition benefit: The tuition program is for Crew Leaders only, who can earn up to 12 credit hours through CCV.
  • Where to apply:
  • Application deadline: Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. See website for position options and deadlines.

This article was commissioned and paid for by Pomerleau Real Estate.