The 26 students at Deep Springs College, on the California-Nevada border, do not watch television. They often get up before dawn. They spend their Friday nights in committees, figuring out how to run their school. When they go outside — which they do often to milk the cows, bale the hay, or sow crops — they see only mountains and desert, because there are no other human inhabitants for 100,000 acres.
And, many graduates say, they would do it all again.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” Eric Vandenbrink ’07 said.
Vandenbrink, like two other Yale undergraduates and three students in the Yale Law School, is a Deep Springs transfer student. Deep Springs is a two-year, all-male program. Its graduates have permeated many elite universities: Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Cornell and Wesleyan. The school typically sends one student to Yale each year, said Gary Gossen, the dean of undergraduate affairs at Deep Spring.
Many of the now-Ivy-League students, he said, had already turned the elite institutions down once, in favor of the school in the desert. After all, to many high school students, Deep Springs is intriguing. Gossen said much of its appeal is due to the three pillars of the school’s philosophy: academics, labor and self-governance. It also offers all students a full scholarship for both years.
“The scene is part monastery, part summer camp, part extremely intensive farmer’s college tutorial,” he said. “And if there is a buzzword that might characterize the place, it’s ‘radical democracy.'”
The Deep Springs students are responsible for governing the school themselves. Even with such issues as alcohol and drugs, Gossen said, the students are in charge.
“The administrative staff doesn’t ever poke around in the dorm to see if there are infractions,” he said. “There are no monitors, no policemen, no proctors. Students are totally free to regulate themselves and they accept this responsibility.”
Much of the regulation is done in committee meetings, which are on Friday nights and run entirely by the students. Among other responsibilities, the committee raises funds for the school, is involved in teacher hiring, and reviews current students to determine whether they can return for a second year.
But self-governance is not the only way in which students have a direct hand in their own experience. Labor is another of the school’s pillars. Each student has rotating jobs, ranging from “general labor” (a crew responsible for digging ditches or repairing fences) to “student cowboy” (who keeps an eye out for calving heifers from the late afternoon until sunrise each night). They work, on average, 20 hours each week.
That labor was part of what attracted Vandenbrink to the school, he said.
“At [a traditional] school, you go to class, you do your homework, you turn it in. That doesn’t change anything anywhere,” Vandenbrink said. “At Deep Springs, if I was cleaning dishes and I screwed up, other people would get sick. There were real-world, tangible effects.”
Philipp Kiep ’07 said the labor and self-governance together gave him self-confidence he brought to Yale.
“It’s the knowledge that you can solve problems on different levels,” he said. “You can deal with dying animals or with people who are having a fight.”
The isolation of Deep Springs is also important, Gossen said, and is even written into the charter. Unless they are attending a religious service, doctor’s appointment or are on official school business, students may not go into the nearest town, a 45-minute car ride away. Isolation is something the students have chosen to maintain, Gossen said, naturally aided by the school’s location in a desert valley in the Inyo-White Mountains, just east of the Sierra Nevada.
“The spirit of the desert pervades the place,” Kiep said. “It makes a lot of things make sense.”
The desert used to naturally isolate Deep Springs from the rest of the world, Kiep said, when the school was founded in 1917. Now, Deep Springs tries to continue that policy despite the encroachment of media, transportation and the Internet. The incredible aspect of Deep Springs is that it allows students to create their own two-year-long experience, Kiep said. That ability is better fostered under some degree of removal from the world.
As much as they took away from Deep Springs, though, the current Yale students do not think it equipped them with everything they needed for university life, particularly how to handle Yale’s classes.
The problem is not that Yale academics are too difficult, they said. Deep Springs more than prepared them to transfer.
“I remember taking Shelly Kagan’s ethics course as a freshman,” John Mangin Yale ’01 LAW ’07 said. “All the students were complaining about how demanding Kagan was, how hard the class was, and compared to stuff I did at Deep Springs, it was not particularly demanding or daunting at all.”
The problem, the students say, is the size of the classes.
Vandenbrink signed up for Introduction to Microeconomics, he said, and had to drop the class. He was not used to being unable to participate.
For Kiep, the challenge has been in his science courses. Because he attended alternative middle and high schools before Deep Springs, he never was in a classroom with more than 20 people, he said. Now, he has to figure out how to learn alongside 150 others.
But it is not only classes that seem large to the Deep Springers.
“The Saybrook dining hall is bigger than the biggest room at Deep Springs,” Vandenbrink said. “I’m learning how to be in a place where you don’t recognize everyone’s face, you don’t know everyone’s name.”
Other than that, the transfers say, the adjustment has not been that difficult. To Mangin, his transfer to Yale did not even seem like a transition. The two institutions are so different, he said, that Yale was not the continuation of a college experience begun at Deep Springs — it was an entirely different experience.
And after spending two years in the desert with the same group of male peers, many aspects of university life are quite welcome.
That was even true for Gossen’s son, who attended Deep Springs and is now at Harvard.
“He was delighted to be here, and also delighted to get out of here, because it’s a very intense, extremely isolated place,” Gossen said. “And there are no women.”