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Article Title: Larry Mandell: Visionary, Founder and President of Woodbury CollegeEdition: August 2000
Author: Nat Frothingham
Most law school graduates take their degrees and join a law firm.
Larry Mandell did something else. He took his degree and founded Montpeliers Woodbury College, a small, innovative school that over the years has trained hundreds of students to crack open the mysteries of the law.
In the past several months a lot has been happening at Woodbury College. Last November, the college was authorized to grant the bachelors degree. In June, the college took occupancy of a 12,000 square foot addition to its administration and classroom building. At this writing, the college is halfway toward its goal in a $1.2 million capital campaign. And to top things off, this year Woodbury is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
But for all this excitement, at the time of our interview with founder and president Larry Mandell, the college was comparatively calm. It was late July and the college was between sessions, the students were gone and the halls and classrooms were empty. As if to observe this break in the action, Mandell was kicking back a little. Mandell, 53, who has a splendid mane of gray unruly hair was clad in a bright Hawaiian sports shirt and in a wide-ranging conversation he came across as someone who was open, friendly, intelligent and entirely relaxed.
Mandell along with Robert Brower, who is now a counselor and yoga instructor in Middlesex, founded Woodbury College in Montpelier in 1975. It was then known as Woodbury Associates.
But the seed that led to the founding of the college may have been planted a few years earlier when Mandell, then a Boston College law student, took a summer job in Vermont with a law school professor who had a place in Stowe. That professor was working on a book entitled Legal Problems of the Poor.
Vermont, the law, the problems of the poor - in many ways this conjunction of things seems almost prophetic today given the college Mandell has founded and the sort of place it is. Said Mandell about his first encounter with Vermont: "I was up here and I liked it."
Mandell grew up in Willimantic, Connecticut, where his father ran a small bakery that had been in the family for many years. But Mandell was not destined to be a baker.
"I was the middle of three sons in a Jewish family," he said, "and it was clear that we were all going to be professionals." Mandell chose to become a lawyer at least in part he says because he didnt want to worry about making a living.
It turns out that Mandell did practice law. But he soon became interested in making a knowledge of the law available to students outside of a law school setting. In wanting to do this he proceeding from two premises. First, he felt that the law was not all that complicated. And second, he felt that an understanding of the law could be liberating for adult students, many of whom often imagine that their lives are limited or blocked.
As a lawyer who was also interested in teaching, Mandell was concerned about the many adults he saw who felt intimidated by the law. "It was as if someone, a police officer or a lawyer (or another authority figure) had said to them, You cant do that." Mandell describes this near paralysis as "a sense of not knowing." And the deficit in their lives was that there were precious few people in their lives saying to them: "You can!"
This "you-can-do" spirit of inviting adult students to think of themselves in new ways and of giving them the tools to function in todays professional workplace these attitudes of respect and caring appear to define the special quality that is Woodbury College.
When Woodbury started, its first project was to train 17 students who wanted to work for private attorneys as paralegals. In 1984, Woodbury began training adult students to work in mediation. Soon afterwards, the college established a Dispute Resolution Center. Then in 1995, the college expanded its legal and mediation programs to include the interdisciplinary field of conflict management. Today all these activities are carried out under the banner of the Mediation/Conflict Management Program.
As Woodbury College entered the 90s it began to change in other ways. In 1993, the college inaugurated a Prevention & Community Development Program. Here again, the assumption was that adult learners are not powerless in readying themselves to deal with the most intractable social problems that are afflicting community life today: substance abuse, violence, poverty, delinquency, crime, and pollution.
Also in 1993 the College created an Essential Career Skills Program. Here the aim was mastering the skills a professional needs in the modern workplace: writing, speaking, critical thinking, computer literacy. In addition, the program includes general education in such subjects as history, literature, field ecology and human biology. Woodbury is a place that Mandell says has "a strong commitment to serve students who are the first in their family to go to college." It also exists, Mandell says, to offer students a second chance.
Mandell talked about the growing number of men in their late 30s and 40s who have worked in construction but whose bodies are beginning to feel the wear and tear of heavy physical work. These men are redirecting their lives at Woodbury College.
Three-quarters of the students at Woodbury are women and many are single parents seeking careers who are seeking rewarding careers. But there are people with advanced degrees too. Mandell seemed that one student, who had been living in a car, was in a class with someone else who had a Ph.D. They were both learning from each other, Mandell said, and this sense of community is characteric of Woodbury.
"Students dont just attend a course in the evening and rush home," Mandell said. "They come through here and become part of a community of learners."
Mandell ticked off the top achievements of the past 25 years: a paralegal program that is the oldest and largest in the nation; mediation and conflict management training that is hands-on; and a prevention and community development program that is almost unique in the country.
Was he proud of these achievements?
Until recently, Mandell said, he had just been getting up every morning and going to work like anyone else. Then one day, he stopped in his tracks and looked at what the college had become after 25 years. And he said to himself in amazement: "God! Look at this place. Look at all the people who have come through here."
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