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Riding high at Telluride

Rachel Harmon reflects on her experiences at the prestigious summer program

Photo courtesy Rachel Harmon (click to enlarge) Rachel Harmon (second from right) joins hands with fellow students in the 2009 Telluride Summer Program at Cornell University.

This past summer, senior Rachel Harmon was nearly 800 miles from home, participating in the prestigious Telluride Association Summer Program at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. From June 28 to Aug. 8, she studied the topic of the U.S. prison system (Empire of Prisons) with some of the brightest rising high school seniors in the country. The Telluride Association is a nonprofit organization that holds annual summer programs at three college campuses: Cornell, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of Texas at Austin. The Telluride Summer Program gives full scholarships, which cover room and board, to those accepted. From approximately 1,000 students who applied, only 64 in all were selected. Gargoyle reporter Kevin Kuo interviewed Harmon about her experiences in the program.

Free time with Rachel Harmon (on the tree branch in black shirt) and fellow students at the Telluride Summer Program. Photo courtesy Rachel Harmon (click to enlarge)

What is the application process to get into the Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP)?

The application process is involved to say the least. You have to write about five single-spaced, two-page essays and provide a list of books you have read in the past year. If you become a finalist, someone in the area who has some connection to the Telluride Association interviews you. A history professor at the U of I interviewed me.

What are the major and minute differences between Telluride and Uni?

I would go so far as to say there are little to no similarities. It was a completely different world.

What were the seminars like at Telluride?

We had seminar in the house from 9 to 12 every morning, with a small break in the middle. The format of TASP is such that you take one seminar focused on one topic, which is a current topic or highly examined by the academic sector. My seminar was the Empire of Prisons; it served to critically examine the prison-industrial complex and the role that imprisonment plays in maintaining imbalances and injustices in our society.

What activities did you take part in after the seminars?

After the seminars we had lunch, and then the world was ours. We played volleyball in the backyard, napped, or jammed to the music. We went off campus pretty often to swim in the gorges, go shopping, eat, etc. We even went to a nearby town and worked with Habitat for Humanity for a day clearing brush and getting nice and sweaty.

What were the teachers like?

I had two professors, Tamar Carroll and Barry Maxwell, both of whom currently teach at Cornell University. They taught me so much about myself and helped me on the lifelong expedition to find my own voice and discover its power. They were also just two of the most knowledgeable people I've ever met.

What were the students like?

Rachel Harmon (back row, fourth from left) with her Telluride classmates. Photo courtesy Rachel Harmon (click to enlarge)

Every single one of them was special in their own way. I had never met such a diverse — not only in the racial or ethnic sense — group of people who came so close together. We had artists, musicians, economists, philosophers, and people who were so painfully full of love and empathy.

Was there any specific person whom you met and made friends with?

Everyone there.

What is a special memory that you have of Telluride?

The last night I spent at Telluride, our factotum told us to put on sweaters and pants and asked us to walk silently to an open field. None of us knew what was happening, but we just went along. When we finally got there, they asked us to line up into two equal lines about three feet apart and face each other.

They explained to us that each of us would walk through the middle of the line, with our eyes closed, and everyone would whisper into their ear one thing that we appreciated or loved about them. I couldn't stop crying when I got halfway through the line. It was then that I had to deal with the fact that I was leaving and that one of the most beautiful things that has ever happened to me was ending.

What have you learned from participating in this program?

I learned that to learn you need to continually revisit your perception of the world and your place within it, of yourself and the place of the world within you.

What would you tell future applicants to this program?

You will learn something every day, in the same way that we physically grow every day, and because it happens so often, and it is so gradual, you will not realize the ways in which you have been transformed until you return to measure yourself against a familiar standard. This is undoubtedly one of the best things you can do for yourself, if you decide to make it that.


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Thank you, Rachel, for sharing in such an open and evocative way how participation in the Telluride summer program impacted you. It sounds like a very worthwhile experience, and I hope that hearing about it from you will inspire others to apply. I hope you'll also be inspired to share more with the Uni community of what you learned about the history and politics of imprisonment.