Service groups interact with the Upper Valley community

by Savannah Eller | 8/30/19 3:00am

The “Dartmouth bubble” is a term heard frequently around campus among students who feel shut-in by the College’s close-knit community. For many, Dartmouth can seem like a world unto itself, disconnected from the usual distractions and connections that living in society entail.

“The terms are so intensive that students tend to get caught up in the 10 weeks that they spend here,” said Becky Milner ’21, “and it can be hard to take a step back and realize that there’s a whole world happening outside of campus.”

Despite the effects of the “bubble,” Dartmouth is nonetheless deeply connected with the surrounding region.

The College and Hanover are at the center of the Upper Valley — a series of communities that span along the Connecticut River in both New Hampshire and Vermont. Dartmouth and Hanover serve as the heart of this New England region, with the surrounding towns of Norwich, Lebanon, Hartford and Claremont making up its core.

Since the inception of the Upper Valley as a concept, the place and its residents have remained tied together through geographical and cultural commonalities. Its boundaries are hard to define; a 2016 study by Garret Nelson, a former post-doctoral fellow in the geography department, found that maps of the Upper Valley drawn by residents in an online survey could vary widely. Yet the existence of the region as an intangible concept is strong.

Lebanon city manager Shaun Mullholland agreed that the specificities of the physical Upper Valley region vary according to the resident who defines it. Mullholland said he personally conceives of the region in economic terms. He said the towns included in the region are tied together through shared commercial hubs and transportation routes and differ from areas to the south more closely connected to Boston.

Dartmouth as an institution holds a unique position in the Upper Valley. According to Mullholland, the College and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center are the largest drivers of the Upper Valley’s economy, employing the most people in the region.

“Dartmouth is a quintessential, key focal point of the Upper Valley and is the engine for a lot of our businesses,” he said.

The College and the surrounding town of Hanover stand out for population diversity and the many cultural events and opportunities available to students and residents. Hanover is also one of the wealthiest parts of the Upper Valley, according to a 2019 DHMC Community Health Needs Assessment. While the median income in Hanover is $113,925, in Lebanon — a mere 12-minute drive away — the median income is less than half that figure at $56,448, according to this same Health Needs Assessment. Norwich and Lyme also have median incomes of above $100,000, in contrast to the majority of the upper valley region. While 15.2 percent of residents have an income below 200 percent Poverty Level in Hanover, 25.7 percent do in Lebanon, and 31.7 percent in Dorchester, NH. Housing prices are also higher in Hanover, according to Mullholland, who said that several communities in the Upper Valley have housing prices that preclude low income residents.

Within the Upper Valley, economic disparity is also sharply visible between the region’s wealthiest communities and those with fewer resources, according to Mullholland. He said that the issue was one that many in the area are trying to address, but that little headway has been made.

This context is important for students of Dartmouth to be aware of, said Hanover town manager Julia Griffin. Playing an active role in the community in which students have chosen to live is not difficult and should be a priority, Griffin said.

“Don’t assume you’ve gone to the back end of nowhere with nothing to do,” she said.

Students like Milner and Julia Snodgrass ’21 agree. Both became part of volunteer groups run through the Dartmouth Center for Social Impact during their freshman year. The DCSI has a branch of programs called Youth Education and Mentoring Programs tailored to help students get out into the Upper Valley and find connections to the wider community.

Milner became a mentor with Directing Through Recreation, Education, Adventure, and Mentoring, or DREAM, a YEM afterschool program for elementary school children in the Upper Valley. The program pairs Dartmouth students long-term with a child living in a low-income housing community in the Vermont towns of White River Junction, Wilder or Windsor. Each Friday, Milner meets with her mentee to spend time together and have fun, an experience which she said has helped her stay grounded and made her aware of what was going on beyond the insulation of campus life.

“I think most of the time I do feel a little separate, but doing DREAM has made me much more aware of the issues that the larger Upper Valley faces,” Milner said. “Before, I knew that there was poverty and substance abuse issues in the region, but I hadn’t really internalized it.”

Snodgrass became involved with Outdoor Leadership Experience, another YEM program for Upper Valley outreach. As an OLE participant, Snodgrass volunteers to lead outdoor programs for fifth through 12th graders in Canaan, NH. OLE mentors help children develop leadership and outdoor recreation skills such as canoing, rock-climbing and hiking.

She said the program was a perfect fit, as she had always had a passion for the outdoors as well as “engaging with people from different backgrounds.”

Students also have academic opportunities to become more involved citizens of the Upper Valley. Several classes offered in different academic departments include excursions or projects in the region. Called Social Impact Practicums, the classes benefit from funding and organizational help through the DSCI and other on-campus partners.

LATS 37, “Migrant Lives and Labor in the Upper Valley: Latinx Studies for Community Engagement” was one of over a dozen of these classes sponsored by the DSCI in spring of 2019 to connect the undergraduate learning experience with needs identified by nonprofit organizations in the Upper Valley. The course brought students off campus to meet and engage in projects with migrant workers on local dairy farms.

Spanish professor Douglas Moody said he developed the class in 2017 as a way to teach students about the immigrant experience and to interact with people who are affected by immigration issues. Students in the class spend time with Upper Valley migrant workers to help them practice English.

“It’s an opportunity for students to have real world experience,” said Moody.

However students choose to engage with the Upper Valley, Snodgrass said it is vital to be open to the possibilities the region offers.

“It’s important not to take for granted these four years in this little ‘bubble’ and instead work to expand your reach and immerse yourself in the surrounding opportunities,” she said.

This article is a part of the 2019 Freshman Issue.