Non-traditional. That’s me. And that is how I ended up being a part of Chester College of New England’s Class of 2002, the very first graduates to walk away with a B.A. degree from this tiny slice of magic in New Hampshire.
I came to Chester College at the invitation of David Crouse. David and I became good friends at Bradford College, the 200-year-old school I’d chosen to finish a very slow lurch toward an undergraduate degree. I had studied at a couple of community colleges in Texas, my home, and found I wanted to study writing seriously. I had two years left, so, at the age of 34, I moved across the country and settled into the work.
But in November of my first semester at Bradford College, it was announced that the college would be closing at the end of the academic year. I was devastated. So were the faculty. This is how I came to bond with David Crouse. Our family grew tight as we watched the curtain draw to a close.
Everything in my life was suddenly in disarray. Depression swallowed me. I left my fiancé, who had moved across the country to forge a new life. The band I’d been playing with for over seven years fell apart. I lost a music journalism gig that was helping to pay the bills.
In an attempt to gain perspective I moved to Maryland and married a woman I barely knew. I was going to attend Salisbury University. I took a job in a bookstore and waited for the semester to begin.
But I chickened out. For many reasons. One being the thought of disappearing into a pool of nearly 8,000 students at Salisbury University.
So I moved back to Boston—alone–to try to figure things out. How had I become so lost? I took a job in a bookstore while I stayed at a campground north of the city. I enrolled in classes at UMASS Boston, deciding it was better than not going to school at all. Only then did I call David to tell him I was back. He said, “I’m having a party soon. I really want to see you.”
It turns out David was celebrating a new job he’d taken at a small school called White Pines College. A lot of people from Bradford were at the party—teachers, students, everyone. I told David how unhappy I was at UMASS, and how I couldn’t even get into a writing class. He told me, “Come to White Pines and we can finish what we started.”
So I did. Another young woman from Bradford’s writing program did, too. Corry Nolan, the other writing major in the class of 2002. I spoke at the graduation. My first story was accepted for publication in The Beloit Fiction Journal. I went on to attend the MFA program at Texas State University, where I worked with major authors like Tim O’Brien and Barry Hannah. Upon graduation from that program David called me up and asked me if I could take a half-time position at Chester College. I was newly married with a child due any day (with my original fiancé, by the way). I said yes immediately, despite the half-time pay and the need to feed my new family. I’ve been back at Chester since 2006, and there’s no place I’d rather be.
This narrative represents just over ten years time. I find that fact unbelievable. In that time I have seen our program develop from a tiny collection of young writers meeting in the woods to a world-class program. There is nothing like it in the country. The students I have seen in my classrooms over the years are just now growing into themselves (just like I am). Amazing things are happening among our writing alma mater. Jessica Bryant is in New Mexico running a writing center. Mark Cugini and Laura Spencer have created one of the most exciting literary journals in the country, Big Lucks. Mathew Ostapchuk was just named to the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award editorial committee (Matt will also be U.S. poet laureate one day, mark my words). Chris Sumner has made nearly heroic contributions to Chester College’s new admissions materials, giving our college a real voice. Beth Ann Miller was just accepted into every graduate program she applied to. And I can promise you both Stephanie Smith and Chelsea Paige, two of this year’s graduates, will publish the projects they are working on within the next few years. I could go on. The list is long. Our graduates are moving into amazing lives.
And then there’s me. Ten years on I am not only a better teacher, but I am somehow an apiarist (I help care for Chester College’s bee hives), an editor (I just launched a web based literary project with colleague Jenn Monroe, and with help from students Meg Cameron and Kyle Petty), and I’m putting the finishing touches on a book I hope to place next fall. It tells the story of my time working in bookstores after the shuttering of Bradford College, and inevitably explores my time as a student at Chester College of New England. Studying at Chester helped to make me whole again. People love a feel-good ending.
We are young as a college, but we are real. Our faculty this spring alone has seen the publication of three books, including Eric Pinder’s children’s book If All the Animals Came Inside published by Little, Brown & Co. No small potatoes. Our students continue to publish, win prizes, astound. But we need time. With the news of a potential closure of this institution we all know exactly why we are here. I’ve heard that Faith Preston’s dream was for the college she founded to be a literary school. If this is true, I’d say we are making her proud.
Ten years ago I crossed a stage (finally) and moved into a future that is still happening. Despite recent news, I am incredibly optimistic about the future. Because I know if you work hard to build something you believe in, it can never really go away. You can’t kill an idea, especially if you know the idea is honest and true. It takes time to nurture something so powerfully important. Chester College is worth the effort. For Faith Preston’s vision. For our students and alumni. And for faculty who give everything they’ve got to create a more perfect education for anyone ready to accept a challenge.
By Christopher J. Anderson, Class of 2002
Assistant Professor of Writing and Literature
This is the first in a series of posts written by Students and Alumni of Chester College about who they are and their experiences at CCNE.
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I came to Chester College three years after graduating high school. I waited to attend college until I knew I was ready for it, and until I found a college that suited my personality quirks. I found Chester College accidentally, back when it was still White Pines College. Exploring back roads with friends, we drove by, and I almost missed it—but I did catch one, small road sign.
The first words out of my mouth after seeing the campus for the first time, whipping around uncomfortably in my seat, was “Is that a college?” The place was small—little more than a collection of houses with a handful of new construction. The unassuming campus was attractive, so I looked it up online when I got home.
As it turned out, they offered a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. They also didn’t have any sports teams, or fraternities, or costumed mascots. The place was like an artist’s retreat, free of the distraction of “college life” and the outside world. I completed my application within a week. After an interview and a tour of a campus under construction, I was accepted—and I spent nearly two-week’s pay of my meager income to put down my deposit.
I moved onto campus the same semester that White Pines College became Chester College of New England—and I haven’t left the college community since. I lived on campus for two years, and took a job working in the college library to fill an unexpected vacancy. After one more semester on campus, I took a leave of absence to get my finances straight, continuing to work in the library in the evening.
After my semester off as a student, I returned as a commuter, taking on more responsibility in the library as was needed. I finished up my last year and a half, and moved straight on into grad school—a program that allowed me to retain my position in this community. With my first year of grad school under my belt, I was asked to fill a recent vacancy teaching poetry to our freshmen; that semester I was also offered a full-time position as Assistant Librarian. Just before finishing my graduate work a year later, I was given the opportunity to take over Library Services for a time.
I’m still on campus, working in the library, helping students one-on-one with their poetry and research projects. I have given a third of my life to Chester College because I believe in what the school was when I first applied, and I believe in what the school has become today. I am grateful for the time I have spent here, and for the classmates, faculty and students I have had the pleasure of meeting.
I’ve been a resident and a commuter, staff and faculty; I am a proud alumnus who wants this school to survive, whatever the cost.