A Unique Educational Experience

College of the Atlantic
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

When he graduated from College of the Atlantic (COA) in 1992, the world held a great deal of promise for Darron Collins. For the young man, it was the culmination of ‘an unforgettable adventure in education’ that began four years earlier when Collins enrolled as a student at a college in Bar Harbor on Maine’s picturesque Mount Desert Island.
Collins would become one of 2,100 alumni of COA and credits his many tremendous experiences at College of the Atlantic with giving him clarity and the ability to plot his own course in life.

During his time at the college, Collins developed many new interests. Being awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship enabled him to travel outside the United States to pursue independent study, and this saw him visit the Amazon Basin, Chile and New Zealand. After returning to the U.S., he attended New Orleans-based Tulane University where he achieved his master’s and doctoral degrees. His Ph.D. in cultural anthropology saw him living and working in Alta Verapaz, in north-central Guatemala. Because of a passion for nature, Collins then began a decade-long career with the World Wildlife Fund as a managing director responsible for handling large conservation programs in Latin America and later in Mongolia.

In 2011, the next leg of Collins’ lifelong adventure began when he accepted the position of president at College of the Atlantic. He embraced the role with the same enthusiasm he had as a student almost twenty years earlier. “I intend to be here for a long time,” says Collins, describing his current role and past as a COA student and graduate. “I came first when I was a student back in 1988 and graduated in 1992, and they were four tremendous years. I absolutely love this place.”

In countless ways, College of the Atlantic is unlike many other institutions of higher learning. Everyone receives the same degree: a Bachelor of Arts in Human Ecology. “It is a self-designed degree that is interdisciplinary, problem-focused and is experiential,” says Collins, “so I designed my own degree around my interests in wildlife conservation.”

Conceived in 1968 by Catholic priest Father James Gower and his friend, entrepreneur Les Brewer, COA officially opened its doors in 1969. The intentionally small college’s first year saw thirty-six students in attendance and a unique curriculum. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to human ecology – the study of people and their interaction with social and physical environments – COA presented a unique learning experience that is highly interactive, free from the constraints of traditional departments and has a focus on environmental sciences, humanities, the arts, socially responsible business, sustainable food systems and international studies.

Today, College of the Atlantic receives approximately 500 to 600 applications per year. It currently has 330 students, and the plan is to cap it at 350 for the benefit of students, staff and faculty alike. While President Collins acknowledges additional students would mean more revenue for COA, he prefers to keep numbers as they are, as he has for the past five years.

“We are our size for a reason, and we’re going to stay there,” he says. “We want to work to build the curriculum around individual student interests, continuously involve students in the future of the college, and emphasize adventurous, expeditionary learning and that becomes very hard to do with large numbers. College presidents don’t make many ‘draw in the sand propositions,’ but that was one of mine. We are a small community by design, and that is part of being at College of the Atlantic.”

Although the number of students is kept relatively small, the student body feels much larger due to the fact that there are undergrads from forty states and forty countries. In larger colleges and universities, there is often a marked difference between American and international students; at COA, students are connected through their shared interest in the environment.

“There’s a very serious attempt at integrating and having one student body that is globalized,” comments Collins. “This is refreshing and another reason why being at about 350 students makes sense for us.”

The students learn in small groups of twenty students or fewer per instructor. The college has thirty-three full-time faculty members and ten lecturers. By keeping classes small, students receive more attention and are much more active in the evolution of the college itself. Individualized, personalized scrutiny of the curriculum of the individual student benefits his or her own overall college experience, particularly when students are actively involved in research they design.

Another unique aspect of College of the Atlantic is its location in Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine. Although some instruction happens indoors, much takes place outside. The front of the college faces the Gulf of Maine, while its backyard is Acadia National Park. The 49,000-acre park is known for its rugged beauty, with rocky beaches, woodlands and the highest peak in the East Coast: Cadillac Mountain. The park is home to countless species of wildlife from seabirds and whales to bears and moose. It also features a great variety of plants and other vegetation and granite cliffs carved by glaciers.

“We spent a lot of time in those two places and working among the communities here on Mount Desert Island,” states Collins. As many of the students take on project-oriented learning, this benefits them after they have graduated from COA and embark on their professional careers. Recent grads are more often asked what they did in college, rather than what grades they received in which classes. Since COA students are encouraged to embrace numerous areas of education and create a balance of learning by thinking, reading, contemplating and doing, they develop portfolios which serve them exceptionally well when they leave and pursue the wider world of employment.

Students experience incredible adventures first hand. Recently, students traveled to the Danish island of Samsö to learn how that island became energy independent with renewables. They returned from that unique classroom to then implement some of those sustainable energy solutions here along the coast of Maine, working with island community members, engineers, entrepreneurs and anthropologists. Trips like this further human ecology and the relationship between human beings, our natural and social environment.

At COA, students usually approach their education from one of three directions: arts and design, humanities or sciences. “The basic strategy is for students to design their own curriculum around what their interests are, and admittedly those interests evolve over their time here.” In this way, students develop a deep understanding of their subjects – such as marine mammals – and are not educationally constrained and graduate from College of the Atlantic inspired to continue their journey.

Following graduation, about forty-five percent of alumni pursue higher degrees in a variety of programs ranging from ecology to medicine, from law to environmental chemistry, while some go directly to work in fields as diverse as art, design, policy, education, government, higher education or resource management. “Teaching and education is something that is represented by a significant number of alumni. Wanting to change the world and the relationship between human beings and the environment by working in education makes a lot of sense,” says Collins.

As they are equipped with an entrepreneurial spirit, others pursue their own businesses or become artists or musicians. Still others enter law, environmental policy work, natural resource and protected areas management or the nonprofit conservation world. Regardless of their choices after COA, the experience also sees students fostering strong mentorships that attest to the quality of their work and commitment.

Collins says there are several misconceptions, namely that COA only offers courses in the sciences and marine studies, which is not the case. Although all students receive a degree in human ecology, COA has offered a curriculum involving the arts, humanities and sciences from its inception. Students approach this relationship between human beings and the environment from many different angles.

Collins was recently in Japan’s Hiroshima Prefecture to brainstorm with locals of a sister school partner, a new alternative college in Japan based on the COA model. This may even lead to the development of a wider partnership circle across Asia. “Whatever comes out of the trip, it is certainly confirmation and external verification that we’re doing something right, and the world is watching.”

COA is one of the most beautiful colleges in the world, and Collins says much of the success of the college comes from its diversity. “There are just so many different kinds of institutions, and I think our model works really, really well for a large number of people. It’s not for everyone, but I want to make sure we’re reaching those people, and our location makes it an excellent place to have a college.”



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