Between Classes, We Fight Fires and Help Operate the College

Article excerpt

I was eating lunch in the cafeteria when the siren went off. I jumped up and dashed outside as the truck pulled up. My classmates and I clambered on, and the truck roared off.

Twenty minutes later, I was raking a fire line on the side of a mountain, coughing from the smoke as the forest fire raced up the steep embankment.

At moments like this one in my senior year of college, I sometimes wondered if I had been getting away with something for the past four years.

My friends at other colleges hated their one-size-fits-all majors. Their classes were hard - but not as hard as getting an appointment to meet with a professor.

I created my own major. My classmates and I called our professors by their first names and often went to their homes for dinner.

I graduated just over a year ago from Warren Wilson College near Asheville, N.C., one of five colleges in the United States with a student work program. Each of the 725 students works 15 hours a week to operate the college. Students help teach children in Head Start programs and drive horse-drawn wagons to bring compost to the campus garden. Students work as carpenters, "webmasters," clerks, and farmers.

I served on the natural-resources crew, tending the 600-acre forest that is part of campus. The crew maintains more than 20 miles of hiking trails, plants trees, and mills wood. It also provides firewood (from fallen trees) and grows shiitake mushrooms under homemade, thatched-roof shelters. The natural-resources crew is the first group called to help the National Forest Service fight fires.

I learned in college that education could take place both inside and outside of the classroom. Every student completes 100 hours of community service before graduation. I worked in elementary schools, helped rehabilitate wild animals, and served at food banks. …