Helen Ard, '17, helps clean plastic bottles for the South Mountain College project called "Up-Cycling" on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014. The recycled water bottles will be part of a portable greenhouse. (Chester Toye/B&W photo)

South Mountain College offers nontraditional educational experience


For some students, the transition from home to college is simple.

For others, however, it can mean uprooting their lives and entering a whole new culture. This was the case for first-year South Mountain College student Anna Li, who moved to Bethlehem all the way from China. South Mountain College is an academic program within the College of Arts and Sciences where students take part in specific projects and classes, in addition to regular classes.

The members of the college have recently started their capstone project, which they hope will benefit and educate the Bethlehem community. The SMC students have decided to look at the idea of the interaction between food and waste. While the project is its early stages the students goal is to explore the cycle of growing, preparing and transferring food.

“South Mountain College provides me with an opportunity to discover different ideas,” Li said. “(Its) small community provided a relaxing environment for me. The social environment of Lehigh is not so welcoming, and my friends in South Mountain College made me feel at home.”

Karen Huang, ’17, said she was first drawn to SMC because she got the impression that it would allow her to integrate various topics into meaningful projects.

“I want to be able to create a project that is meaningful to me and my classmates,” Huang said. “It feels like I have a purpose.”

Huang also described the program as experimental, experiential and self-directed. This is because with SMC, students explore different topics according to what they are interested in.

According to Dr. Joan Ramage Macdonald, the director of SMC, the students chose to learn about creativity during one semester. One student built a boat, while another built a Koto, a Japanese stringed instrument. Another year, students combined a series of essays and published a book.

“(South Mountain College) gives students (an) intellectual community and a regular living-learning community, as well as an academic experience,” Macdonald said.

Huang said the most important thing SMC has taught her is that, if you want something, you have to have initiative to take it.

“South Mountain College enables you and empowers you to go after what you want to learn about,” Huang said. “If you’re a typical student just going to classes and doing research, you don’t get the ability to explore on your own.”

Students’ exploration and research is the main purpose of SMC.

“We were the mountaintop long before the Mountaintop,” said Benjamin Wright, professor of religion studies.

Wright also said everything that Mountaintop is supposedly about, such as having students go up the mountain and develop their own projects, is what South Mountain College has been doing since the day it started in 2007.

“South Mountain College is a unique program that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Wright said. “Our graduates have gone on to do some really interesting things.”

One thing about the program that is sometimes controversial for some is that students do not receive letter grades. Instead, SMC students receive narrative evaluations.

Wright said the program allows students to explore directions that might fail without penalties that are attached, such as grades. Without the fear of failing, narrative evaluations allow students to explore and perform research based on their interests.

SMC welcomes students to join the program or just take classes to try the experience without committing to the program. SMC is limited to students in the College of Arts and Sciences. Students outside of the college may still join or take classes, but only with permission. Students interested in joining or looking for more information should contact Macdonald through email or by stopping by her office. Macdonald can also answer questions for students interested in living in a SMC community house.

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