José Ferreras was 11 when his grandfather died on Thanksgiving Day. A few weeks before, Ferreras had fallen into an argument with the older man, who was sick with Parkinson’s. He didn’t have a chance to apologize.
“This man, he was the only male figure that I truly had in my life,” Ferreras said. “My father was never around, and I was never really close with my brothers or my cousins, so I just really had my grandfather.”
Now 19, Ferreras is a creative writing major at Southern Vermont College, a 500-student liberal arts institution in Bennington that enrolls many low-income and first-generation students. An aspiring writer, the rising sophomore said he hopes to tell his story -- which includes, by his account, reminiscences of his grandfather, moments of childhood bullying and an uneasy adolescence that took place across a string of working-class Brooklyn neighborhoods -- “in order to help others.”
Ferreras’s writing career is launching earlier than expected, thanks to a publishing initiative announced Thursday at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt. The Shires Press Series, a collaboration between Southern Vermont College and the bookstore, will allow full-time students at the college to write and publish books.
The series, approved this spring by Southern Vermont faculty members and administrators, requires students to take four classes, including a course in book publishing that will address conceptual aspects of publishing, such as design, as well as the vicissitudes of the contemporary publishing industry. (The other courses are a writing course, a humanities elective, and a publishing "practicum.") During the two-year sequence, students will complete a manuscript.
SVC will then pay to have five copies of each book printed from ShiresPress, an independent publisher housed within Northshire Bookstore; officials estimate Southern Vermont's cost per student at less than the price of a MacBook computer.
At Southern Vermont, 65 percent of students are the first in their families to attend a four-year college. Half the student body is eligible for Pell Grants. And in a state with remarkably little diversity, 23 percent of its students are nonwhite.
President Karen Gross said the book-publishing venture held special resonance for the college given its demographics.
“For families, a book published by their children will be a profound symbol of the value of a college education,” Gross said. “Seeing your child’s name on the spine of a book is truly an emblem of educative success.”
Southern Vermont offers 15 bachelor’s-degree programs. Roughly 40 percent of its students major in nursing or radiological sciences and 20 percent study criminal justice, Gross said. Other popular majors include psychology and business. About 10 percent of students major in humanities fields, which at SVC include English, creative writing, communication, and a general program in liberal arts.
Officials created the publishing project in part to encourage students to study humanities. The initiative, Gross said, makes visible a link between humanities education and the work place.
“The parents of first-generation students rightly ask, will there be employment, will there be work force readiness at the end of this college process,” Gross said. “Students in the humanities who participate in this program will have a remarkable ‘deliverable’ that they can not only put on their résumé but that they can share with their employer.” A student could point to a completed book as evidence of being able to navigate through a complex project that requires commitment and vision, she said.
Jennifer Burg, who chairs the Hunter Division of the Humanities at Southern Vermont, said she hopes the publishing series also attracts students outside the humanities division.
“I don’t know if people would expect students who you may not identify as college material to value having their name on a publication the way we would folks at an Ivy or people in graduate school, but from my experience with our students, I think that’s something they would prize,” the English professor said. “I think everyone has a story to tell, but I think that our students really have remarkable and surprising stories to tell.”
Gross said she expects the series to publish 10 books by students each year.
Southern Vermont officials think the publishing curriculum will encourage cooperation between Northshire Bookstore and the college by bringing speakers from the bookstore to campus and by sending students to visit the store.
“I think the future of higher education requires that colleges partner not only with each other but also with businesses in their community,” Gross said.
Northshire Bookstore has been a community institution in Manchester since 1976. ShiresPress, the bookstore’s publishing arm, is a more recent development. Debbi Wraga, the bookstore’s publishing coordinator, said the press, which launched in 2008, had published more than 550 authors, ranging in age from 11 to 99. The press publishes mostly fiction, although it also prints cookbooks, poetry and other genres.
Gross said that if the publishing venture is successful, she hopes local residents will participate by taking classes on evenings or weekends. “In a town like Bennington, which is a town with no shortage of issues in terms of economic growth, the capacity of its citizens to write books and be guided in that process is a way of breaking down the town-gown problem,” she said. “For that audience we expect we would pay for the publishing.”
Although two years will go by before any SVC students publish a book -- they’ve got to get through the curriculum first -- Ferreras is ready to get started.
“Writing is everything to me,” he said. “Words help you grow.”