On February 8, 2016

Local pop-up university lauded, growing in its third year

BETHEL—A one-of-a-kind university popped up in central Vermont in 2014, and it has been attracting interest across Vermont and the nation. Bethel University (BU), a “pop-up university,” offers free mini-courses to anyone and everyone. Classes meet in the town hall, the school, the library, and in homes and businesses all over town on topics as diverse as bread baking, dodgeball and auto mechanics. Anyone can be a “professor” and teach a course on any topic under the sun, and anyone interested can take those courses for free.

BU’s offerings more than doubled between its first year and second. Last year’s university drew students and “professors” from 37 towns and three states. Fifty-four “professors” offered courses ranging from public speaking to grantwriting, wine tasting to BBQ, novel writing to line dancing.

Bethel University has gained attention far beyond Bethel. Last year’s university drew media coverage across the country. Bethel University was also recently named a finalist for the Cheryl King Fischer Innovation Award, by the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, celebrating innovative and cross-cutting community projects.

Bethel University will pop up again this March. “Meet-up groups”—informal gatherings for people interested in a certain topic or hobby—initiated in 2015 and will be back this year for those who don’t want to teach formally. Course proposals were due by Jan. 31 and can be found online at https://betheluniversityvt.org or in hard copy at the Bethel Village Sandwich Shop, Bethel Public Library, and Bethel schools.

A sampling of classes includes Rope Making and Knot Tying with “professor” Mark Luttrell, Upcycled Crafts with Barb Nickerson and Mary Griffin, Introduction to Tarot with Amy Danley-White, Basics of Photography with Ken Goss, The Roots of Beer with Stephen Morris, Line Dancing for Beginners with Sid McLam, and Muffins and Makeovers with Mothers and Daughters with Ele Griffin.

Registration for classes begins in early February, and Bethel University will run from March 1-31. Like last year, the program will conclude with a communitywide “graduation” celebration on April 3 with food and fun, plus a showcase of the session’s courses, featuring photos, artwork, and a few surprises.

Bethel University is organized by the Bethel Revitalization Initiative, a group of Bethel citizens working to make Bethel a more vibrant, connected, and livable community. Organizers believe the Bethel University model is one-of-a-kind. Other cities in the U.S. have offered one-day events, and some schools and colleges have used this model for events run by faculty and staff. Strafford, Vt., has offered a similar “Cabin Fever University.” BU is part of a growing national trend of pop-up community projects, including pop-up parks, restaurants, and retail ventures. But this may well be the first time a city or town—particularly a small, rural community—has created a free pop-up university to engage residents and spark community development.

Planning team member Marc DiMarzio said, “We’re a small community, but there are so many different personalities and backgrounds represented in Bethel. We can all learn something from one another, and sharing knowledge benefits everyone involved. BU is a great way to foster this and make Bethel an even greater place to live.”

Bethel University is organized completely by volunteers and supported through small grants and donations. Numerous local organizations offer free space and support for the program, including the Town of Bethel, Bethel Elementary School and Whitcomb High School, the Bethel Village Sandwich Shop, the Bethel Public Library, and the Christ Episcopal Church.

For more information visit betheluniversityvt.org.

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