What should I bring to COA?
On a long, early morning run I pondered my own first days at the College of the Atlantic and was therefore well-prepared when a recently admitted student asked for a list of what things to bring.
Footwear. A strange item to list first on a list like this, perhaps, but hiking boots would be a great investment. This is a practical and philosophical recommendation that has little to do with being “outdoorsy.” Practically and philosophically, we spend more time than other people doing things and such doing will invariably bring you into Acadia National Park, a planning office, an historical society, a mine, a boat, an outcrop of granite, a restaurant, a tree, a roof, a field of grass, a field of mathematics, a business, a forest. You need footwear that can accommodate that diversity. Bare feet are great on the lawn, but they tear easily on the 600 million year old Ellsworth Schist that is our bedrock. From personal experience, if you had to have one pair of shoes, I’d recommend hiking boots.
Other clothing. I’m not the most elegant dresser (see above), but, if you had the chance to invest in one additional piece of clothing, I’d suggest an impermeable outer layer. It need not be fancy, expensive, breathable material because we’re more interested in keeping the moisture out than your perspiration in.
The practical: winter. It’s cold. But it’s absolutely beautiful. Come with the mindset of embracing winter by getting outside and you will adore the ten-week winter term. That shell layer is key, even if it’s a five-dollar nylon poncho. You can borrow layers from friends or from the Free Box; you can purchase them from Bar Harbor Barter and Swap, thrift stores, or Cadillac Mountain Sports.
The philosophical: think of this as a reminder to develop thick skin. Constructive criticism – even on the tail end of passion and hard work – is crucial for any successful human ecologist.
Cooking gadgetry. Food is a very important part of the COA experience. The food served up in TAB is excellent and thoughtful, but we’ve purposefully kept Saturdays and Sundays off the meal plan in order to force you to think about consumption, food, and community cooking on at least those two days. There will be students from approximately 35 countries and 40 states at the College next year and food is a great way to explore that geographic and cultural diversity. You don’t need to buy or bring any cooking gadgetry because the kitchens in campus housing have gear and you should be thinking about packing efficiency. That said, if there’s that special garlic press you just can’t live without, by all means bring it.
Postcards. When my mom dropped me off here in the fall of 1988 she cried like a baby and left me with several dozen self-addressed, stamped post cards. This was before the miraculous and disastrous invention of the mobile phone. In most cases the separation between the modern parental unit and child can be difficult. Mobile phones have exacerbated the problem. There will be times where you’ll be cold, confused, hungry, scared, challenged and otherwise uncomfortable – physically and metaphysically. That’s the point. Let your folks or guardians or whomever know how you’re doing by all means, but write it down on a post card and resist the urge to call or text.
A map of MDI. You are about to embark on a collegiate adventure that is situated on one of the most beautiful places on Earth: Acadia National Park, which makes up about 65% of the 105 square mile Mt. Desert Island. Explore it. No car? There is a trailhead directly across from the Community Garden on campus and you can get everywhere from there. No excuses. Yes, many classes will get you out and about, but this is your president telling you to find time to stop thinking and stop working and just enjoy the outdoors. I feel so strongly about this that we’ve bought all of you maps, so don’t go out and buy one.
Willingness to interact with people you don’t know. I’m not saying everyone needs to be an extrovert. Introverts are great. I consider myself one. But one key element of doing human ecology is doing it with others and engaging with humanity in all of its forms. I’ll never forget the day I walked into a convenience store in New Orleans with my best friend (and later, best man in my wedding) and he started a long conversation with the cashier – a dreaded stranger, egads! – that lasted into the night, that had everyone involved rolling in delightful and illuminating laughter, and forever reshaped my conception of self and other. Human ecology is an alembic for turning strangers into colleagues. Plus, life is so much more fun when you engage.
Gumption (or, in my own parlance, scrappiness). From Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (bring the book if you have it. You can borrow my copy if you don’t): “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing (a motorcycle in need of repair, for instance, or any other project) going.” Bring what gumption you have. Prepare to gain it and use it on some of the world’s most difficult challenges. That’s what we do here.
Your sense of adventure. It’s ok if you don’t have hiking boots – we’ll find a work around. It’s ok if you’re quiet – you’ll gain confidence in speaking with others. But, without a sense of adventure or at least a willingness to cultivate one, you will find it difficult to succeed here. And I’m not talking about the adrenaline junkie sense of adventure (although that can be good too), I’m talking about the passion and curiosity for pushing your understanding of yourself and the social, natural, and built environment you operate in – that’s human ecology and that requires a hunger for adventure. The adventures you’re about to embark upon are of mind and of body and, most of the time, both. Bring a sense of adventure and other things will fall into place.
See you next fall,