Postscripts: Finding kids who have the right stuff is Pearson’s mission at Hampshire | Guest Columns

April is traditionally the month acceptance letters for colleges are sent out, and so it is for one of the least traditional colleges in this country where Daniel Pearson, of Stonington, is director of admissions.

Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass., which opened in 1970, has no grades and no majors. It has no required courses. Neither does Hampshire welcome, never mind consider, SAT or ACT scores from applicants.

It is also part of a five-college consortium which enables its students to take classes at Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts.

Hampshire looks for students who, through application essays, recommendations and initiative, display a readiness, in Pearson’s words, “… to see their education as a period of discovery and exploration.”

Once a newsroom colleague of mine, Pearson, who is 50, has been Hampshire’s director of admissions since last September, and has a higher education background rather more conventional than what Hampshire represents.

He grew up in Mystic and attended Fitch High School in Groton, where his mother taught history and his father taught English, introducing him to the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

He graduated from Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, one of the nation’s star colleges, and earned a Master of Letters (M.Litt.) degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

He worked in admissions at Connecticut College and then the Mystic Museum of Art, taught private school and wrote — three novels in six years, as yet unpublished, essays, journalism, magazine pieces and lately a short story series that he published and sold at Bank Square Books in downtown Mystic. He is a superb writer.

At Hampshire, he follows in the footsteps of the late Van Rensselaer Halsey of Stonington, known as “Court,” who, after teaching history and working in admissions at Amherst College, was intrigued by the new educational philosophy of Hampshire College and joined the founders , becoming the first director of admissions and associate professor of American Studies, admitting the first class in 1970.

Pearson did not know Halsey, but locals may remember Two Sisters Deli in Mystic, and then New London, run by his daughters, Cindy and Kate Halsey.

Fresh from completing the reading of some 275 applications among the 2,050 submitted for the coming academic year, Pearson says he was drawn to Hampshire by a friend from Bowdoin, Fumio Sugihara, “who pioneered multi-cultural recruitment at Bowdoin but then has worked primarily at alternative schools including Puget Sound, Marlboro, Juniata, and Bennington. These are all colleges known as ‘Colleges That Change Lives,’ which comes from a landmark book by Loren Pope which discusses alternative and lesser known schools that produce very successful graduates.

“Hampshire is a college that changes lives. Fumio is dean at Hampshire. He reached out to me because he and I have similar philosophies but also Hampshire has a very young staff that needs someone in person to guide the office.”

Besides overseeing the admissions office, Pearson’s territory for recruitment includes parts of the South, Far West, Pacific Northwest and Alaska, as well as Puerto Rico and all US territories/protectorates.

Typically, he is at his Hampshire office from Monday to mid-day Thursday, staying off campus. In Stonington, he lives alongside Quanaduck Cove with his wife, Alexa. They have a teenage daughter, Isla.

“When I was at Connecticut College the most asked question I received in information sessions was: What percentage of students get into their first choice medical school?” he says. “To me that totally defeats the point of a liberal arts college. But with the cost and competition for college, families increasingly want defined vocational outcomes.”

As one assessment of Hampshire has it: “The college is known for its alternative curriculum, self-directed academic concentrations, progressive politics, focus on portfolios rather than distribution requirements, and its reliance on narrative evaluations instead of grades and GPAs. Sixty-five percent of its alumni have at least one graduate degree and a quarter have founded their own business or organization. Alumni include recipients of the Pulitzer Prize; the National Humanities Medal; Emmy, Academy, Peabody, Tony and Grammy Awards; and MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. The college is also among the top producers of Fulbright Students.”

Among Hampshire’s notable alumni are Ken Burns, whose Florentine Films (“The Civil War” and “Country Music,” and many others) are PBS documentary staples; the writer Jon Krakauer (“Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air”); the actor Liev Schrieber; and Naomi Wallace, a playwright who is an Obie Award-winner and a MacArthur Fellow.

Hampshire’s founding philosophy may well be inspired, and undeniably progressive, but just three years ago, Hampshire, in financial crisis, was faced with finding another school with which to partner in order to survive.

However, the plan to merge was opposed by students and faculty, the president and members of the board of trustees were ousted or resigned and after more tumult a $60 million capital campaign was undertaken, led by Ken Burns, which has already raised $30 million to help right the ship and keep the school independent.

Published statistics put the enrollment at about 750 students, 61 percent women and 39 percent men, 60 percent white, 20 percent Black or Hispanic and the remainder Asian, Native-American or of two or more races. They come from 43 states and 12 countries.

Tuition, room and board is about $65,000 a year, with 95 percent of the students receiving financial aid.

Hampshire does not possess the physical beauty and Ivy-infused pedigree of the other schools in the consortium and retaining students is an issue — roughly a third leave after the first year.

So what do Pearson and the others in admissions look for in an applicant?

“Given so much freedom they can abuse, we need to know they’ve done the research and know the model,” he says. “It has to be about academic and intellectual pursuit. We’re getting students of different backgrounds, children of tech giants in San Francisco and first-generation kids from El Paso, Texas.

“Some Hampshire things that are interesting: The most popular student club is blacksmithing — a student this year is making a suit of armor for his final history project. The campus is a working farm. There is a graffiti wall open to all students. James Baldwin once taught here. The campus radio station is in a yurt.”

Hampshire College. Not for everyone, but where Dan Pearson has found an educational idea worth sustaining and, so far, is surviving.

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at maayan72@aol.com.

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