Food talks mark expansion of alternative college in Northside


Saxifrage students hold a practice dinner before launcing the program. (Photo courtesy Saxifrage School).

On Tuesday nights in the Northside, at an hour when most coffee shops have long since closed their doors, the tables of Buena Vista Coffee are still perfectly lit.

The Central Northside coffee shop, best known for its pastries and espresso, becomes an after-hours classroom to the growing Saxifrage School, an alternative four-year college founded by Northside local Timothy Cook.

Cook’s alternative college, though still in its “start-up stage,” has expanded dramatically since arriving to the Northside in 2011.

This spring, the Saxifrage School worked to bring a self-designed lecture series, entitled “To Your Health!” to the Northside campus.

On Tuesday nights throughout March and April, Buena Vista Coffee has played host to student guests and dinner lecturers on food-related topics such as “The Food We Eat,” “The Money We Spend,” and “The Soil it Comes From.”

“[We want] the series to be about health—health in personal lives and in the lives of our community,” said Cook.

Every dinner lecture consists of one “pretty excellent” four-course meal, which Cook said emphasizes the importance of local and organic farming to the series.

The student tuition fee of $15 per lecture covers the cost of meal ingredients, many of which come from local farms. One recent Saxifrage lecture featured menu items from Clarion Farm Organic, a local farming co-op of mostly Amish growers.

After the meal, a guest lecturer presents his or her topic and engages students in an informed dialogue during what Cook deemed the “dessert discussion” portion of the evening.

The next Saxifrage lecture, “Art in Place,” will take place on April 17 and feature local artist and Carnegie Mellon University professor Jon Rubin as guest speaker. Rubin’s projects have included Conflict Kitchen, a take-out restaurant that serves cuisine from countries where the United States is currently engaged in conflict, and The Waffle Shop, a late-night breakfast joint in East Liberty that produces and broadcasts a live-stream talk show starring its customers.

“[Rubin] has a number of interesting public art engagement projects,” said Cook. “He’s really, really talented.”

The Sprout Fund awarded a grant to support the Saxifrage School lecture series and fund the school to offer scholarships on a case-by-case basis.

“We want to leave it open to all who are interested,” said Cook, who explained that the lecture series represents a vital step in the Saxifrage School’s journey toward accredited college status. Each “To Your Health!” lecture has so far allowed for a total attendance of 12 people and have been filled to capacity—a trend which Cook expects to continue.

“This is a very small example of our future,” he said.

Within the next two years Cook hopes to develop several longer academic programs, including a gap-year for students wavering between high school and college “to figure themselves out and broaden their horizons.”

“A large number of students are unsure why or what they are attending college for,” said Cook. “[Our program] would be a really excellent way to learn a skill set and expand exposure to a field of study.”

The Saxifrage program would also be less expensive than a traditional four-year college. Cook anticipates that tuition costs for Saxifrage students would total $5,000 over the course of four years, while the Huffington Post asserts that one year at a private university could cost up to $45,000.

“[The gap year program] would be a prototype concept for our four-year college,” said Cook.

While he explained that the Saxifrage School is “not at that point yet,” Cook remains hopeful that the perceived success of this spring’s lecture series will create momentum for “dramatic growth” in the school’s future.

Francesca Fenzi is a seniora at Carnegie Mellon University.

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