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Remote Desert College Nurtures Students’ Bodies and Minds

In this remote stretch of desert near Death
Valley, the young man who has to wake up early to milk the cows
could have gone to Harvard or Yale or Berkeley.

So could the fellow who has to move water wheel lines
several times a day over a dusty alfalfa field, or the one on horseback tending
300 head of cattle.

Instead, almost all 26 students at the all-male Deep
Springs College
turned down top universities to go to a liberal arts school where manual labor
is sometimes considered more important than academics.

The college, about an hour due east of Bishop, Calif.,
is unusual not just because it’s one of only a handful of all-male colleges in
the nation.

It also might be the only college in the United
States that requires students to do manual

Mornings are spent in the classroom, and the afternoon is
devoted to assigned tasks from dishwashing to butchering livestock.

The student body is self-governing, with students holding
meetings to determine who gets admitted, what courses are taught and which
professors will teach them.

What the school offers is a break from middle- and
upper-middle class lives, and a reprieve from the exhausting rat race of high
school extracurricular activities and resume-building.

“It sort of felt like I was on a conveyor belt to get a
degree in four years and go out and get a well-paying job,” said
20-year-old Max Hare, a Monterey, Calif., native who recently graduated from
Deep Springs. “I didn’t want that.”

Hare will attend Stanford this fall, and said he plans to
work at a butcher shop there.

Students in the two-year program undergo a wide range of
experiences and problems that they won’t encounter anywhere else.

“It’s just a rolling piece of problem-solving,”
said Gary Gossen, a visiting professor emeritus and former president at Deep
Springs. “The idea that life is a piece of cake goes out the window

Deep Springs
College was intentionally located
in the middle of nowhere, on hundreds of acres in the Deep
Springs Valley,
a 30-minute drive from the Nevada-California border.

It’s so remote that the school’s mailing address is in
nearby Dyer, over the Nevada
state line, and the school’s most frequent visitor is the careless motorist who
runs out of gasoline. Students will provide a small amount of gasoline in
exchange for a donation to the school.

“It’s a place full of folk tales,” said the
college’s just-retired president, Ross Peterson.

The school’s founder, the late Lucien Lucius Nunn, wanted a
place where students would be secluded from society, a place for personal

Nunn, a pioneer in electrical engineering whose company’s
greatest accomplishment was the design of the Ontario Power Plant at Niagara
Falls, built an in-house education system to produce electrical engineers for
mines throughout the West.

That effort later became the Telluride Association, a
nonprofit organization that continues to provide scholarships and free
educational activities promoting Nunn’s philosophy of self-governance and
social responsibility.

He expanded his philosophy by founding Deep Springs College
in 1917 on “three pillars” of academics, labor and self-governance.

The school has largely remained the same since, with
students maintaining a herd of cattle, an alfalfa farm, dairy cows, chickens,
pigs, an orchard and a garden.

Attending takes self-discipline, and many students and
faculty said the school is not for those who can’t be alone. Students aren’t
allowed to leave the valley during the semester, and a no-alcohol policy is

There’s no cable television, although marginally reliable
Internet access is available.

Tuition and room and board is free for students, a $50,000
value paid for through endowments. Although there are no admissions
requirements, the school is highly selective, taking 11 to 15 students each
year out of 200 or so who apply.

The school stresses the importance of a life of public
service, and the most popular career fields for graduates are teaching in
higher education and working in media as a writer, editor or publicist.

After students graduate, the most popular destination to
complete four-year degrees is Harvard, followed by the University of Chicago,
Yale University and Brown University.

Each student has a different story about what attracted them
to Deep Springs: A change of pace; the solitary, reflective nature of the

For Los Angeles native Abram Kaplan, watching a cow being
slaughtered on his first visit to the school sealed the deal.

As he and students lingered around the animal, a
philosophical debate erupted about when the cow turned from an animal into a
piece of meat.

He was just visiting the school at the time, but the debate
showed him the college was exactly the environment he was looking for.

Instruction starts early in the morning, in intimate
classrooms of five to eight students small enough that there’s no place to hide
if they haven’t done their work.

Classes are heavy on discussion and debate in topics such as
advanced molecular biology, energy and the environment, or “Herodotus
multiculturalism and universality.”

The course selection changes each semester. But public
speaking and freshman composition have been required for students throughout
the college’s history.

After classes, students have buffet-style lunch consisting
mainly of food killed or cultivated on the ranch.

After lunch, they work.

Every student starts at the bottom, on the Boarding House
Crew, washing dishes and cleaning up after peers. Other jobs include mechanic’s
assistant, dairyman or librarian.

During Kaplan’s two years, he served as baker, cook and as
the feed man responsible for maintaining the animals.

In the evening, students have dinner and then usually go to
committee meetings, where they decide what classes will be taught and which
students will be admitted.

Sometimes, evening entertainment consists of student
speeches about personal lives, a current events topic or advocating a position.
Other times, students go for a jog, a bike ride or play soccer or other sports.

But because they can’t leave the valley and because the options
for activities are limited, some students feel constrained.

The issue of whether to include women in the student body
has loomed heavily over the school’s 90-year history, particularly in the past
few decades.

In the early 1990s, the college Board of Trustees, made up
of current and former students and faculty, considered making the school coed,
according to Andrew McCreary, 20, one of two current student members on the

But at the time, facing a financial crisis and polls showing
the school’s alumni evenly split on the issue, the board feared alienating half
of its donor base, he said.

The board vowed to revisit the issue after the school was on
better financial footing. Now, after a capital campaign raised more than $15
million, most people believe the board can bring up the issue in the next
couple of years.

Katie Peterson, one of the few female faculty members at the
college, describes herself as a staunch feminist and would like to see women
enroll. But the male-only aspect of the school breeds gentlemen, she believes.
Peterson is not related to the college president.

Despite the prestigious reputation of schools where Deep
Springs students go, Peterson said she believes students are often disappointed
after they transfer.

“They’ll never have an experience as honest or as
thoughtful as they will have here,” she said.

Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal,

– Associated Press

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