PITTSFIELD — Rebecca van der Meulen never went on grand family vacations to theme park resorts or aboard cruise ships.
Instead, she spent her free time volunteering for Hancock Shaker Village and working on independent film projects, while her parents, Sharon Smullen (an Eagle contributor) and Henry van der Meulen of New Lebanon, N.Y., spent their resources investing in their children's education.
"My parents always explained that we were not going to Disney because we're getting a good education, and a good education costs money," van der Meulen said. She and her brother, Isaak, both attended Berkshire Country Day School, a private school in Stockbridge. And while they had the choice to attend a public high school, she said both chose to attend, and subsequently graduated from Buxton School in Williamstown.
"They're not teaching to the test ... they teach you more about how to learn ... how to write a good paper by putting your cohesive thoughts down on paper in a constructive manner," said van der Meulen, who turns 18 this month.
Rebecca says having small student-to-teacher ratios, flexible curricula, and the autonomy to pursue independent projects has allowed her to explore her passions — ranging from agriculture to metal arts to filmmaking to dance — and build the kind of work ethic she needed to find success in them. For example, when Buxton dropped a film course due to low enrollment, van der Meulen proposed and independent study and used the school camera and film equipment to produce promotional films for the school, and work on her own projects.
The young woman's potential grabbed the attention of the admissions staff at Ithaca College, which granted her admission and a full-ride to the School of Communications through the prestigious Park Scholar academic and global leadership program.
While she plans to pursue a bachelor of science degree in cinema and photography, van der Meulen said the program appeals to her because she's also required to pursue credits outside of the communications field.
"I'm the type of student who did hundreds of different things in school," she said. "If it's available, I'm not going to pass up the chance to learn something that's available to me because I might not get the chance to learn it anywhere else," she said.
van der Meulen can take a situation by the horns, literally, as she recently had to do to clip a ram's hooves at her part-time Hancock Shaker Village job; she plans to keep up her studies in agriculture.
She also plans to create a documentary about youths involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as inspired by her participation in this summer's Artsbridge program in Williamstown, and gain more worldly experiences through Ithaca's study abroad and H.O.M.E. first-year multicultural living community programs.
Asked if she had any advice for other students this coming school year, van der Muelen said, "Don't be afraid to try new things — that's what I've pretty much lived by. New things are new opportunities to explore."