Greta Lawler ’23 NEWS Reporter
This winter, from November 16 to December 16, Mercersburg students and faculty participated in an exciting pilot program, The Mercersburg Intensive. Guided by the theme “Making a Difference,” nearly every Mercersburg faculty member as well as some staff members designed and taught a course of their choosing. In the end, students selected from a menu of 49 unique options.
Though experiences of the Intensive varied depending on the course, students and faculty seemed to largely agree on the merit of the experience. Clara Getty ’21 took “The Fine Art of History: Life Reflected,” in which she rendered a portrait of Lady Liberty that depicted the struggle between freedom and democracy. “I really enjoyed having so much time to simply create; it was meaningful work but not especially mentally draining, which was perfect for that time period.” Sarah Grady ’22, who took “Blankets for Charity: Project Linus” and spent the two weeks making blankets for a non-profit organization, said, “Knitting was a much needed break from the fall classes.” Others felt the Intensives could have been slightly more demanding. Gordy Simon ’21, took “Police Powers and the Use of Force.” “The experience was great and I feel like I learned a lot about my topic, but I think Intensives being pass or fail took away a lot of people’s motivation.”
Some faculty members, like Tom Thorne and Jim Malone, used the Intensive as an opportunity to teach students about topics that piqued their own curiosity. Thorne, who taught “Race and Sexuality in the Ancient World,” said, “I was really excited to talk about these aspects of the ancient world that we ordinarily cover pretty quickly.” Malone led “Difference Makers” but he said it could just as well have been called “Cool Stuff that Jim Malone Wants to Talk About and Learn About.”
Other teachers helped students connect with their families during the Intensive period. Andy Schroer, a mathematics faculty member, co-taught “Spice it Up: Food and Your Culture,” and argued that the Intensive was a good use of student time. “It gave them time to be with their families and also learn an important life skill: how to cook.” Wendy Valenteen, a language faculty member, also taught a food-based Intensive, “Understanding a Hispanic Culture through Its Cuisine.” “It was great for the students and for me to understand the immigration process, the reasons for immigrating, and the rough times and the good times an immigrant experiences here in the US,” said Valenteen. Other courses saw students create podcasts, write screenplays, compose music, learn about the mathematics of voting, study films by Black American directors, examine bias in big data, develop financial literacy, and write children’s stories in Spanish.
Students and faculty largely agreed that Intensives were an engaging and valuable use of time; nevertheless, some expressed concern that the three weeks spent in Intensives could have helped round out the nine week winter term. Valenteen said, “It was an interesting way to fill in that ‘awkward’ time between breaks, but it did, however, take away time from the winter term which would have been beneficial to have.” Nate Jacklin, history department member, agreed: “I also would have liked to have ‘finished’ the fall term and started the winter term instead of having only nine weeks to complete a yearlong class.”
Despite this concern, the students and faculty interviewed said they would be interested in teaching or attending another Intensive, especially after COVID, when courses can be taught in person. Nikki Walker, science department chair, taught “Medical Conditions in Underserved Communities.” She said, “It was hard to do virtually during a pandemic. I would have loved for them to have been able to actually go out and talk with people. We did our best with online interviews, but going out, volunteering, and being with the people would have made it that much better.” Corbin Kelley ’24 said, “I hope that the school continues to give us the opportunity to take part in other courses and Intensives, because I would definitely do it again.”