MILLSAPS COLLEGE (visited 4/22/13)
Millsaps is the most wooded campus I’ve ever seen. Lots of campuses have trees; Millsaps has TREES – to the extent that it’s hard to see the buildings sometimes! Seven gardens and several statues are scattered through campus. One statue is of Gandhi; students have a tradition to fist-bump him on the way to an exam if they want an A. One of the gardens has both the “M-Bench” (rumor says that if you kiss your girlfriend/boyfriend on the bench, you’ll get married) and Major Millsaps’ tomb (and yes, he’s really there. He and his wife didn’t have their own children, but wanted to be buried among the students who studied at the institution he helped to found). The campus is gorgeous and feels calm, even with students walking around.
Campus is small, easy to get around, and safe. There are very few blue lights, but the tour guides don’t feel like that’s a problem. They can call 1234 from any phone on campus to get help if necessary, but they didn’t know anyone who had ever needed to call. The campus landmark is the Bell Tower; there’s no bell in it, but it is wired for sound. Someone once hacked in hip-hop music that played all over campus. The three-story “Academic Complex” is the only unattractive building on campus. Students can swipe into several buildings over the weekend to work there. Both tour guides like to study in the classrooms because of the whiteboard access. The Bowl is their main quad with a large student center on one side (which houses the Post Office, Career Center, the main dining hall, a grab-and-go food station, the nurse and more). The Seal is located in The Bowl. One of the tour guide’s favorite traditions happens on the last night of Orientation (night before classes start): “Reverse graduation” welcomes freshmen into the campus community. They walk the over the seal in the opposite direction that the seniors do on graduation and they get greeted by upperclassmen and faculty.
The freshmen dorms leave a lot to be desired. All the freshmen live in these traditional cinderblock buildings. However, it’s not one of the things that the tour guides said they’d improve. “It was a bonding experience.” The nice thing about the dorm rooms was the divider in the room with the beds on one side and desks on the other which allows one roommate to sleep in relative privacy and darkness if the other one is still up working. Another nice thing is the Baco Courtyard outside the freshmen dorm with grills and other amenities. After freshmen year the students can move into suites.
Millsaps is a member of Colleges that Change Lives and it’s clear why. The admissions rep talked about “our scholars” not “our students.” This is the first college I’ve visited that requires all students to complete Senior Comps comprised of a paper and both a written and an oral exam. We asked the students what they thought about them; although they may not like them, they appreciate having to do them. One of the tour guides said that they’re actually a good way to pull together everything they’ve studied over the four years. Most people are really well prepared, and the students see them as a “unifier” or a “common enemy.”
The admissions rep said that choosing a college is like a choosing life partner: you want to pick someone who will challenge you to be your best self but who is comfortable to be around. Millsaps works hard to be inclusive both through their mission and through their admissions process by selecting students they believe will live the mission. They’re intentional in making sure that all people on campus feel valued; one person described it as “a big hug of a school” and their welcoming attitude is seen even in the little details like adding visitor’s names to the reserved parking spots in front of the admissions office. This is one of the few colleges I’ve heard mention sexual orientation during their “diversity spiel.” One person told us that “A lot of the “–isms” are not a big deal here. People want to know: ‘Are you a smart person? Are you a good person? Are you going to help us to raise money for philanthropy?’” They’re clearly doing something right with an 80-83% Freshman-to-Sophomore retention rate over the past 10 years. Students who leave either are looking for a bigger experience (they don’t leave for a similar school) or because of family or academic reasons. Interestingly, males leave more often than females.
Impressively, everyone who gets into Millsaps gets some sort of scholarship, most falling in the $10,000 to $18,000 range. The major scholarships usually go to students applying Early Action; students offered these usually score a 30 or better on the ACT (or an SAT equivalent) and a 3.9 GPA. They will super-score for both the SAT and the ACT; if a student retakes the test after the scholarship decision has been made, the student has to formally appeal for Millsaps to reconsider the scholarship amount. For admissions, students can apply Early Action or Regular Decision, with a rolling cycle after that if beds are available. They look to bring in about 230 incoming freshmen and another 40 transfers. International Students only have to take the TOEFL if the scores are borderline (under 21 ACT).
Campus activities are what you’d expect of a campus like this. Greek Life (6 frats and 4 sororities which have “sorority lodges”) is fairly popular and inclusive (many parties and activities like the Fashion Show are open to the community), but not mandatory to feel part of campus. Freshmen rush during the second week of classes after they’ve had a chance to settle in. Student Life Committees plan lots of typical types of events and will bring in big name speakers like Myrlie Evers. Students also take advantage of being in Jackson. The admissions staff took us to lunch at a trendy new tapas restaurant frequented by the students, and several students joined us so we had more time to get their perspectives on the school and town. They love First Thursday in the artsy rehabilitated center downtown. The reservoir about 20 minutes from campus is also popular to hang out, study, kayak, and more. A large percentage of students are active in the broader world, as well. There is a stopped clock tower on campus which the students have pledged not to restart it until the clean-up from Katrina is complete, but “more hurricanes keep hitting, so it’s going to take a while.” Lots of students go on alternative spring-break trips to help the rebuilding efforts.
The Millsaps athletic teams (9 DIII teams each for men and women) play in “The Brain Bowl,” in which Rhodes, Birmingham Southern, Hendrix, Sewanee, Oglethorpe, Centre, and Barry also play. Their players are “Renaissance student athletes,” and 98% of them graduate in four years. They emphasize the experience of playing over winning. About 40% of each incoming class declares intention to play, and approximately 35% actually play when they get to campus. The students say that fans rally around the football stadium. There’s a plaza with a fountain just outside the stadium which attracts people before games and hosts lots of events (activity fairs and the like).
Although there’s no consortium in which students can take classes at nearby colleges (except for ROTC students who do their work at Jackson State), students can enroll in Dual Degree programs such as the 3-2 (BS) in Engineering and Applied Science with Auburn, Columbia, or Vanderbilt; a 4-2 (BS/MS) with Columbia; a 2-2 (BSN) or a 3-2 (BS/BSN) with the University of Mississippi; or a 4-2 (BS/MSN) with Vanderbilt. There is also an Honors College. Students get invited after sophomore year and complete a three-semester program in which they develop an honors thesis proposal in addition to comps and participate in a symposium at the end. About a dozen students participated this year. Finally, they also offer a Ford Fellowship in which invited students can develop a syllabus and co-teach a class.