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From Deep Springs desert to College Hill

The path from high school to Brown is less direct for some than others. Some students might take time off to travel or work, but a few head to the California desert to a small institution called Deep Springs College, where they farm alfalfa, herd cattle and read Nietzsche with around 26 other young men.

Sean Eldridge '09 spent one year at Deep Springs before transferring to Brown in January. After a summer in an alcohol-soaked social atmosphere at a pre-college program in Ohio, Eldridge was attracted to Deep Springs' substance-free policy. He said the policy, which prohibits nicotine, marijuana and other narcotics as well as alcohol, showed him that "people were really there to learn."

Eldridge said he is the only Deep Springs student currently enrolled at Brown, though a handful of others have left the California desert for Providence over the past decade. Associate Professor of History Robert Self attended Deep Springs for one year in 1986.

The two-year all-male accredited college was founded in 1917 by electrical engineering pioneer Lucien Lucius Nunn. When he founded the school, Nunn envisioned it would attract and shape the nation's future leaders. In addition to academic seminars, students are required to participate in a manual labor program at the on-site ranch. Each student must farm alfalfa, milk cows and herd cattle.

Deep Springs students typically spend two years at the college, but they do not receive a degree. Instead, they put the credits they earn towards a degree at another college or university.

Deep Springs students practice democratic self-governance - the farm is completely run by students, and all important decisions, including faculty hirings and student admission, are made in democratic meetings that include the entire student body.

The school's unique educational philosophy and eccentric reputation - it is often described as the most competitive school in the country - have attracted media attention. Articles in Vanity Fair in 2004 and the New Yorker in 2006 focused on scandals at the school that, according to Vanity Fair, have included sexual relations among the students or between students and professors, and a floundering endowment.

Eldridge said Nunn founded Deep Springs in part to separate bright young men from alcohol and women, which he saw as damaging temptations. Eldridge said the student body has voted on a number of occasions to allow women to attend, but the board of trustees always vetoes that vote.

Despite media interest in the school and efforts to incite intrigue, Eldridge said most Deep Springs alums are proud of their institution.

Self said he remembers taking classes on feminist literature, Dante, the politics of technology and basic chemistry. "The concept was great," Self said of Deep Springs, even though he "wasn't prepared to embrace the monastic life."

"It wasn't the right fit for me," he said.

Self finished his undergraduate studies at Oregon State University and received master's and doctorate degrees from Washington State. Roughly 70 percent of Deep Springs alums eventually earn a Ph. D., Deep Springs student John Moriarty wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Eldridge was a dairy boy at Deep Springs and rose at 4 a.m. every day to milk the cows for the students' breakfast. After morning chores, Eldridge attended classes in philosophy, literature and classics. In the afternoon, he had duties on the ranch - planting and harvesting eight fields of alfalfa and herding a few hundred head of cattle. In the early evening, he would serve as the budget and operations trustee, managing the alumni annual giving rate.

Donations fund the school, which has an annual budget of $1.2 million and does not accept student tuition, valued at $50,000. The endowment is currently at $8 million. "It was weird just arriving at the place and be already fighting for its survival," Eldridge said of the school's finances. But he said alumni generosity is "extraordinary."

Deep Springs and Brown share similar ideologies, but the schools differ in many ways besides their geographic settings, Eldridge said. "After Deep Springs everything else is downhill," he said. "I have so much more time."

Though he hasn't had difficulty adjusting to Brown academically, Eldridge said the College Hill social life is vastly different. Since coming to Brown, Eldridge said he has remained a "tame animal."

"Socially it is incredibly different," he said. "Interactions were very complicated at Deep Springs. You have peers who are your classmates and board members, and you certainly get very close." Of Brown, Eldridge said, "It has been nicer to have a more diverse community."

Eldridge said he hopes to enter national politics after his time at Brown. He said he was inspired by the Deep Springs precept "to serve humanity."

"I can't say I prefer one over the other," he said of Brown and Deep Springs. "The great thing about Deep Springs is you get to decide where you want to go to college twice."


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