College-age students to return to Potash Hill

Contemplative Semester plans a program of contemplative space, mindfulness, and academic Buddhist study for young people searching for meaning and calm in a world of climate change, smart phones, and a global pandemic

The former Marlboro College campus, which remains the home of the Marlboro Music Festival in July and August, will soon have students again.

Potash Hill (, the nonprofit that purchased the campus of the former Marlboro College in 2021, has diligently worked to see that its grounds and buildings continue to be used by various groups for events, workshops, classes, retreats, and creative programming, according to Potash Hill Managing Director Brian Mooney.

Mooney said that, in early December, Potash Hill signed an agreement with Contemplative Semester (CS), a new academic program created by a group of eight professional practitioners.

One of them is the part-time coordinator of CS, Shea Riester, a native of Brooklyn, New York. He is a licensed clinical social worker/therapist specializing in Somatic Experiencing and Emotionally Focused therapies.

In a parallel vein, the 33-year-old Riester works as a youth social worker, a conflict resolution coach, and a restorative circle leader. Having done his professional training at New York University, he is still Brooklyn-based but is familiar with northern New England from time he spent at Morning Sun Mindfulness Center, a Buddhist community in nearby Alstead, New Hampshire.

'Young people are really struggling'

"Contemplative Semester comes out of a lot of direct requests from young people saying they're wanting something more, wanting more support, wanting to go deeper into these practices," Riester said.

The idea for this semester of mindfulness study and practice - which is exclusively for those ages 18 to 25 - is the yield of Riester's professional experiences and those of his co-founders.

Explaining the program's rationale, he said that "young people are really struggling. I don't know if you've seen any of the articles about young people's mental health, but it's kind of at an all-time low in terms of rising rates of depression and anxiety and suicidal thoughts."

Riester attributes that to fallout from the pandemic - in part. "It's also [the fact that] we're going on a decade or more of young people having smart phones as the norm," he said. "Then add climate change to the mix."

Moreover, given the tendency of social media to generate feelings of social disconnection, isolation, and ill ease, Riester said that "it's a really hard time to be a young person."

He and some other CS organizers "know this firsthand because a lot of us are [also] staff members on Inward Bound Mindfulness Education retreats for teenagers," he said.

On these twice-yearly retreats, Riester said he and other staff have seen that "in the last few years, there are more and more mental health struggles; more teens in crisis."

Young people say that they are not ready for a three-month silent retreat, he said, but they "love contemplative space and feel the need to go deeper into mindfulness, but also be connected and in relationship with young people and with adult mentors who've been on this path a lot longer."

Such input and articulated need led Riester and colleagues "to create this program which has been a dream for over a decade."

Some mental health professionals, says Riester, have coined the term "the age of insecurity." Working with young people, he adds "that's so palpable - the feeling of insecurity and dis-ease [sic] that young people have [about their futures]."

Structured around 'the Noble Eightfold Path'

Described on, the September to December course on Potash Hill promises "a journey deep into mindfulness meditation, beloved community, and earth connection. [...] Together we'll co-create the beloved community we want to see in the world. Through small groups, relational practices, cooperative living and plenty of time to play, you'll be invited to know and be known by your peers on a profound level, building an intimate community and lifelong friendships."

Rooted in Buddhist precepts and practices, CS draws from Buddhist wisdom incorporating daily meditation, four week-long silent retreats, mindfulness and compassion practices, experiential inquiry, small group dialogue, journaling exercises, and lectures on a range of topics focused, in turn, on connections with nature, on ethical leadership, on collaboration and cooperation, on communication and creative expression.

"The 14-week curriculum is structured around the Noble Eightfold Path that countless human beings have traveled to transform anxiety and suffering into happiness, peace, and freedom," one sees on the website.

All of this, it's said, is "applied to what it means to be a young person alive today [...] Get the space and time to discern what's yours to do in the world, and leave ready to step into a powerful life of love and leadership."

The tag line on that page reassures: "And yes ... there will be dance parties!"

A Marlboro connection

When asked how the organizers found Potash Hill, Riester explains that the founders of Contemplative Semester are in different ways connected to William Edelglass, who lives adjacent to Potash Hill and was on the faculty at Marlboro College.

CS faculty member Jessica Morey, in particular, has known Edelglass for many years, so when they were searching for program facility, Riester recalls that he urged them to "check out Potash Hill."

Potash Hill welcomed the idea and, Riester adds, "has been generous and kind about how to accommodate us so we can make this work at the price point we can do it at."

A Buddhist teacher, Edelglass is affiliated with both Emerson College and Smith College and is director of studies at the Barre (Mass.) Center for Buddhist Studies, which functions as a partner organization for Contemplative Semester.

Edelglass will be visiting faculty for the Potash Hill program, as will be well-known mindfulness/meditation teachers Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein.

"I'm excited about the way we are organizing ourselves," Riester said. "It's fully collaborative; we're shaping the semester that way."

To organize their work, "we use sociocracy, a system of governance that a lot of cooperatives and cohousing groups use; we're going to use that system during the Contemplative Semester, too. Students will have a seat at the table."

The aim, Riester adds, is that all 40 participants -10 faculty, 30 students - will be part of a community, with all voices heard and valued.

Potential for academic credit

CS is conceived to encompass "well-embodied education, deep mindfulness, and meditation, but it'll also involve academic-style learning."

As far as Riester knows - with the exception of a couple of college study abroad programs and the curriculum at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Contemplative Semester is unique.

"We're the only program offering in-depth work for this length of time" that has potential to earn academic credit, which it will as long as a credit-earning arrangement in the works with Hampshire College comes through, he said.

"We'll know soon," says Riester. "We had to submit syllabi to Hampshire" for accreditation review.

"Earning college credit is essential for many young people, he adds: "We're hoping that [being able to offer it] will make this semester more accessible to young people" from a range of backgrounds.

Mooney said that Contemplative Semester "will be working primarily in the Serkin Center for Performing Arts, and the 2,500-square-foot dance studio in particular. They'll have two dorms and a few cottages. The Campus Center will be a social hub and a cafeteria."

In effect, "they will have a mini-campus on the north side of Potash Hill," he said. "We're thrilled that we will again have college-age students on Potash Hill."

The cost of the semester is $13,400 for tuition, room, and board. Contemplative Semester has already received grants to allow the program to offer scholarships for students in need.

For program, faculty, and application information, visit

This News item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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