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Has this “small college” lost its “big heart?

While many colleges and universities nationwide often pride themselves on a massive student body and campus to match, Castleton has always maintained a smaller population of students in order to form what is often referred to as a tight-knit community. Almost any publication involving the college features what has become its tagline of sorts: “The small college with a big heart,” which was coined as a result of the exceedingly cordial staff and student body.

Lately some students like Castleton senior Jessica Pehm have begun to question if there is a downward trend in the kindness and civility of Castleton undergraduates.

After spending four years at Castleton as an active member of the music department, Pehm interacts with students from all over the spectrum on a daily basis.

“I think that when first years come in, you can definitely tell that they are freshmen because of the way they act,” said Pehm asserting that she has no intentions of being mean, just honest. “In general, I think the first years definitely are still in the high school mentality.”

This high school mentality that Pehm mentions is something that, while you may not find it in a textbook, is for the most part widely understood. If nothing else, it is recognized as a distinction between the way that grade school students act as opposed to those in a higher learning environment.

But is this a fair stigma? In reality, only two months pass between a student being a high school senior and a college freshman, not leaving much time for personal growth.

Pehm goes on to offer a theory as to why this change in attitude has seemed to intensify in recent years.

“Kids today are getting in a lot more trouble than we did because it’s just the way things progress. With students going through so much more at an earlier age, it gives them a different attitude,” she said.

Freshman Nichole Gay’s assessment of her class interestingly does not differ much from Pehm’s.

“I thought I was going to notice a bigger difference between the way my peers acted coming from high school to college, but it pretty much stayed the same,” Gay said. “The upperclassmen seem to be so much older than us when in reality, they’re not.”

Gay, who early on experienced some hostility for being an out lesbian, initially feared that she may have chosen the wrong college.

“It’s never easy to be singled out for just being who you are, and I almost considered leaving Castleton,” Gay said, “but I’m glad I didn’t. Even though I had a rough time, people have surprised me. A lot of my classmates are friendly, helpful, and intelligent.”

Whether nice, mean, or somewhere in between, the question still remains: Is this increase in rudeness and bad behavior due to a lack of stability in the Castleton community?

“Do I think that the incoming classes are getting worse attitude-wise? Yes. Do I think it’s a problem that directly relates to the college? No. Castleton really has no influence on the way people come into this school. But on that note, there are things we can do to try and stop the trend,” Pehm adds.

To make students aware of the slight changes in attitude, Dean of Academics Joe Mark included a section about values entitled “The Castleton Way” in his summer registration speech to incoming freshmen and their parents.

Later he sent an e-mail to faculty members and administration asking them for help to “nip [the decline in behavior] in the bud.”

These actions included leaving cell phones on to interrupt class, coming late/leaving class early, and chatting during class.

“I still describe the typical Castleton student as nice and decent,” Mark’s e-mail stated adding that “a growing number were being a little rude occasionally, were addressing their faculty in disrespectful ways, etc.”

Mark and the civility group created to help instill the importance of civility in students believe that Castleton’s culture will not decline to the level of “larger society.”

Pehm agrees.

“At the end of the day, we are a community,” Pehm said firmly, “and it’s just as much of our responsibility to educate the first-year students on how to act as it is for them to listen to us. Castleton has the ability to change people, and that, if nothing else, is a comfort.