By Samantha Kolber (MFAW ‘14)
Born the youngest of five into an Irish-Catholic family in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Jane O’Meara Sanders (BA ‘80) has been in public service for over 35 years, since she graduated from Goddard at age 30. She came to her studies and career unconventionally, attending the University of Tennessee at Knoxville but leaving after a year and a half to get married and have children.
After moving to Vermont and then divorcing, she took a job counseling youth in Burlington, but she knew she needed to finish college. She found Goddard’s Experimental Program for Further Education (GEPFE), a radical program designed for those with little or no college background. Sanders studied social work and graduated with her bachelor’s degree 1980.
She met her husband Bernie Sanders while he was running for Mayor of Burlington; the rest is campaign history. During her years of political and service work, she kept ties with Goddard, first serving as a board member (1992-1993), chair of the board (1993-1996), and then as provost and interim president (1996-1997) following Dick Green’s resignation.
In March 2016, Samantha Kolber caught up with her on the campaign trail to ask a few questions about the role Goddard played in her life and work.
Samantha Kolber: Tell us about your Goddard experience.
Jane Sanders: It was a wonderful experience. I came to Goddard’s weekend program, which provided fantastic support for people like me with families. There was so much encouragement for experiential learning and independent direction with the support needed to make it academically rigorous. It was an absolutely life changing time for me. I started at a time when I was ending my marriage, which is a difficult time. Goddard was one of the best experiences of my life, educationally.
SK: How did your Goddard experience inform your life after Goddard? What did you take away?
JS: Goddard instilled confidence in me as a person, as a woman, and enabled me to recognize that that’s what we need to do with everybody. All my work after that was shaped by how I was treated at Goddard. It’s how I learned to treat others, with real respect and confidence that they will find their own way.
When I went back [to school] for my PhD, it was because I had been on the Board of Trustees; Goddard was having trouble with accreditors, with governance, and with their finances. I was there because I was the compromise choice for both faculty and the board. We worked very effectively together to get the College back on its feet, to get through the accreditation process and get out of debt, and get back on track with a governance process. At the end of that, the Board said “you’re good at this, we want to support you to get your PhD,” and so they sponsored me.
SK: How did you find Goddard and GEPFE?
JS: I was looking for a college to go back to part time, and I kept on looking at all these programs with classes and I thought, I’ll never graduate college. So I started to look up independent study and found out that Goddard had that. It was wonderful; it was in my state of Vermont. It fit beautifully.
It’s a wonderful school. Goddard was a pivotal moment in my life. It is a college that I think still has great impact on the rest of the world. When you look at the people who have come out of Goddard, we are all doing significant work–at least everybody I know. It’s a network that carries out across international lines.
SK: We are known as an activist college, and it is especially great when we see graduates working in activism or social justice, like your work now with the campaign. You are a Goddard role model.
JS: Goddard is a model for building community and encouraging innovative thinking and commitment to sharing our knowledge and working together.
SK: Bernie’s campaign has a focus on higher education, and I’d like to think that you’re influencing some of that, is that true?
JS: I would imagine, yes. We’ve always talked about these issues going back to when he was mayor (of Burlington, Vt.) and I was the director of youth services. Higher education was always a concern; the cost has become a larger and larger concern every year and so his plan to have public colleges and universities tuition free and to substantially lower student debt are two pillars of a plan that really resonate with the American people.
SK: I see connections between the Occupy Wall Street movement from a few years ago and Bernie’s movement now. What do you think?
JS: I think there are. They [OWS] really focused on inequities, having the power structure built upon corporations and Wall Street and special interest. I think that helped a lot in terms of people being a little bit more receptive to what Bernie is talking about. A lot of people turned away from it because it was activism, just like a lot of people turn away from Black Lives Matter activism. They’re significant critiques of today’s society, and without them, a lot of people would be unaware of how we are moving into an oligarchy where fewer and fewer people control both our economic and our political life.
SK: Hopefully that won’t happen.
JS: Hopefully not! That’s what we’re working for.
SK: What advice might you have for today’s Goddard student?
JS: I would say participate in our democracy. You are in a democratic school and if we want to keep a democratic country, you need to have as much of a voice outside in the world as you do inside the college community. I would encourage them not only to vote–that is a basic they can’t skip–but also to participate fully in their local state or federal community…put their own unique abilities to work for the betterment and the transformation of our country so that we can have once again what is escaping us: a government for the people, by the people and of the people, to rest the power with the people as opposed to those with special interests.
I hope Goddard is doing well. We need it. It’s an institution that has touched many lives, and many more than the people who have actually attended.
SK: Exactly, because everybody does work that ripples out.
JS: Yes. I’m very happy to be part of the Goddard community.