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This unusual Charleston college produces educated artisans
Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: As colleges are starting classes in new ways, online, in-person, or a hybrid, a familiar question is being asked again: Is college worth it? Are there jobs on the other end? And other questions: Do you remember shop class? Do how to make anything with your own hands?
A four-year college in Charleston, South Carolina, is connecting those dots, and making its mission to teach traditional skills to carry students through life.
Jeffrey Brown shows us this unusual place where students have started the year full-time in-person and with no cases of COVID reported.
This piece was filmed before the pandemic, and it's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: Iron and fire, not your typical college materials, but all part of the daily life of the American College of the Building Arts.
Colby Broadwater: This is a student-built staircase.
Jeffrey Brown: Retired Lieutenant General Colby Broadwater is its president.
Colby Broadwater: This school exists to fill a void in the United States. We have no one that's teaching these skills and crafts to young men and women who want to become an educated artisan.
Jeffrey Brown: The school, housed in a restored 1897 trolley barn, is small, under 100 students. This is a place where the president's dog is named Palladio, after the great Italian Renaissance architect.
Man: Big day for us here in Charleston.
Jeffrey Brown: It's even been the focus of the popular PBS series "This Old House."
Man: So, you ready to install the gates today?
Man: We sure hope so.
Jeffrey Brown: Part trade school, part traditional liberal arts college, it awards a bachelor of applied sciences degree. Everyone is required to take a variety of science and humanities courses.
Students choose from seven areas of concentration, including stone, plaster and brick masonry, timber framing and architectural carpentry. The tuition, under $10,000 a semester, with 85 percent of students getting some kind of financial aid.
But, most of all, it's hands-on work, taught by master craftsmen like blacksmith Jack Brubaker.
Jack Brubaker: Most often, I find myself being asked, how do I do something?
Jeffrey Brown: Something very practical.
Jack Brubaker: And, oftentimes, rather than say, do this, it's like, well, there's this way, this way, and this way, and to a broader experience and yet choose their path.
Jeffrey Brown: Another requirement, architectural preservation, to study the methods and regulation of restoration.
Professor Christina Rae Butler:
Christina Rae Butler: Trades, I know, because I went to trade school, are physically and mentally difficult, but we...
Jeffrey Brown: You went to trade school?
Christina Rae Butler: I did, yes, for carpentry and new construction.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Christina Rae Butler: And then I got a degree in preservation, because this school didn't exist. I would have come here, because it marries two fields that have been separated.
Jeffrey Brown: And the setting in Charleston, Butler says, is crucial.
Christina Rae Butler: It is the largest historic district in the United States. So, it's a great laboratory for students, because we have so much protected, built environment right in the heart of this city.
Jeffrey Brown: In fact, one particular part of Charleston's history led to this school's existence.
After Hurricane Hugo battered the city in 1989, local officials and residents found there were few craftsmen in the U.S. who knew how to rebuild to proper standards.
A small training program grew into a school and, by 2004, into the college. Today, it lures a mix of students. There are fresh-out-of-high schoolers, like 18-year-old Iris Howe, who's learning to carve stone. What did her friends back home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, say when they heard her choice of college?
Irish Howe: They were like, what? You're stone carving? Like, how they did it long ago, before they figured out how to do other stuff?
I'm like, yes, exactly that.
Jeffrey Brown: This is still a largely male population, but Iris hopes more young women will get as excited as she did when she first visited.
Irish Howe: I just saw people working with their hands and kind of creating things that would outlive them. I thought that was really cool.
Jeffrey Brown: There are also older students like 31-year-old Ken McCummings, who served eight years in the Marine Corps. A junior with a concentration in timber framing, he has two small children at home and wants to put his artistry to work for a living.
Ken McCummings: That's the beauty about the school. You dip your toes into every aspect of it, the way the craftsmen used to be.
The main drive for me was understanding every aspect of this industry. I can go into design work. I can be a laborer that cuts elegant joinery for a structure. I can also be the guy that's involved in every step of the process, working with the homeowner in order to complete a major project. I can go anywhere.
Jeffrey Brown: Clearly this isn't for everyone. You have to like getting dusty and sweaty.
Peter Thuronyi: When we started this side right here, it was about 11 inches sunken down.
Jeffrey Brown: Even working in graveyards.
Students routinely hone their craft in the community, and senior Peter Thuronyi was part of a team that restored box tombs in the historic Circular Congregational Church, dating to 1681. He'd attended to a traditional college and decided it wasn't for him.
Peter Thuronyi: With younger people, I think we have a desire for, as things become more and more digital and electronic and up in the cloud, we crave things we can touch and see.
And the most amazing thing about this kind of thing is, once you're done with what you do, you can look at it and say, that's what I did.
Jeffrey Brown: The question is whether this school is a model for others.
The good news here, much touted, is that every graduate comes out with a job.
Joe Whisonant : It will overlap each other and be seamless.
Jeffrey Brown: As a student, Joe Whisonant helped restore this gate at a private historic home. He now works for a local iron design company.
Joe Whisonant : This is a separate piece.
Jeffrey Brown: Having won a prestigious fellowship at a famed French workshop, he saw how artisanship and craft are valued more there.
Joe Whisonant : I feel like the work over here is more based around the monetary value of it and getting the money and making it fast, instead of making something that's unique and truly great.
Jeffrey Brown: Do you think that's changing at all?
Joe Whisonant : I think it is. I feel like the school is a testament to that. That mind-set of making things by hand and craftsmanship is starting to take America by storm.
Jeffrey Brown: As we close the gate on this story, that's quite a hope.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Charleston, South Carolina.
Judy Woodruff: Cheering on those young people. A hooray to each one of you pursuing that. And you're all going to have a job. That's the best part of all.