“What did you do over your Febmester?”
I looked around the room full of new acquaintances. One had traveled to Africa. Another had ridden on horseback across part of Patagonia. A third had trekked through Nepal. How could I match that? I’d simply enrolled in another college for the fall semester. Like many of my friends and classmates, I had never wanted to be a Feb. But I’d wanted to go to Middlebury since I first skied at the Snow Bowl. The stories you never hear are about the Febs who spent the fall working retail or starting college elsewhere, or who eagerly applied early decision and then sat at home while the rest of their friends left for their schools of choice. You hear about the Febs who went off to save the world; for many Febs, for many reasons, world travel is not an option. Although I later took a semester off to “follow my passions,” I simply wasn’t ready at 18. I had never left home on my own, and I wasn’t comfortable asking my parents for the money for such a trip.
When new Febs arrive at Middlebury, the initial exuberance quickly clashes with the reality of the situation. Regular first-years have a hall of peers, an FYC and a Commons system for support. New Febs do not. They are scattered in whatever space is available, often a long way away from potential new friends and sometimes with upperclassmen with whom they have little in common. Whatever integration they get into the Commons system feels like an afterthought at best. Middlebury, of course, has a way to spin this. Febs, they say, are independent-spirited leaders. What they really are, though, are first-year college students dealing with the same struggles as any other new student – sudden freedom, course loads, the omnipresence of alcohol – but with a lot less official support.
Febs are different than typical first-years in at least one way. We are almost exclusively white. There is a simple reason for this: the College only reports the diversity statistics of fall admits. Former Director of Admissions Bob Clagget said in a Campus article published in March 2010 that “we tend not to offer February admission to American students of color unless they specifically ask for it.” By taking in a lily-white February class, Middlebury looks much more diverse than we actually are. And in a time when Middlebury is straining to put forward a more diverse face, the Feb program is shockingly, publicly, unabashedly racist. There are country clubs in Mississippi with more minority members than the Feb classes.
Middlebury College is renowned for its language programs. February admission makes it difficult for students to take full advantage of these programs. Most introductory language classes start in the fall, and intermediate classes take place over J-term. By the time Febs arrive, they must either wait until their second semester to start a new language or take an accelerated option. For many Febs, this makes going abroad in language programs difficult, as they cannot achieve the required level of mastery by the spring of their junior year.
Although Febs tend to form a more tight-knit class than do the fall classes, this is out of necessity. By the time they come in midway through the year, the fall class has solidified their social circles, often centered around a common hallway or team experience. Many Febs also experience a sense of inferiority, as though they must overcompensate for whatever quality they lacked to allow them to come to Middlebury in the fall. These factors create an unnecessary distance between Febs and the rest of their classmates that often persists throughout the college experience, especially in the final semester when the rest of the class with which they identify has moved on.
The original public justification of the Feb program makes little sense. It is difficult to buy the argument that Febs are necessary to fill the beds of students abroad in the spring when the incoming classes merely serve to replace the outgoing Febs.
This is not to say that I am not grateful for my experience at Middlebury. I love this community, and the people who make it special. If I were to go through the college experience again, I would do nothing differently. Obviously, we should not prevent students from taking gap semesters or gap years if they so choose. But unless the only issue that Middlebury cares about is appearing more diverse on paper than in reality, the Feb program creates far more problems than it solves. It is time to phase out the program in favor of more integrated classes.