VASSAR COLLEGE (visited 7/25/13)
I was less than impressed with the mediocre tour and presentation at Vassar than I expected to be; I guess they figure that they don’t have to try too hard to attract students. Our tour guide, a senior Film and Psych major from Connecticut, was sweet and knowledgeable about the school, but the tour was a canned, rushed presentation that didn’t allow his personality to come through. I tried to take notes and get pictures, and I was constantly running to catch up with the group (and I’m a quick walker) because he was moving us along so fast. I stayed for only about 20 minutes of the admissions info session (in my defense, I did have to leave to get to the next college in time for my appointment which had been moved up at the last minute), but the information presented was both a repetition of what we got on the tour and not delivered well. I was a little discouraged that I didn’t leave with a better impression of campus.
However, I was impressed that the students on the tour were from all over and interested in a diversity of things (one was interested in both music and econ, for example). Vassar definitely attracts these types of students; so many tours I’ve been on have only attracted relatively regional prospective students. Antonio (the tour guide) described the current Vassar students as open and cooperative, but did say that people who are super-focused on only one thing wouldn’t do well here. There is a very low transfer rate which indicates that students are both self-selecting and that the admissions people are good about selecting students for admission. Currently, 44% of the student population is male (the college went coed in 1969 and the population is inching upwards toward the 50% mark) and 35% self-identify as students of color (although there wasn’t a single non-white student visiting that morning). They have an active ALANA (African, Latin American, Native American) center on campus that sponsors many events throughout the year.
Almost all students (about 98%) live on campus for all four years, not surprising given the fact that once they hit junior year, students are guaranteed a single room, and seniors live in townhouses and apartments where they can cook and clean for themselves. Freshmen live in doubles and triples, but they aren’t “forced triples.” Those are larger rooms (often corner rooms) built as triples. Although many of the dorms are older buildings (including some of the original college buildings), the interiors have been renovated. The largest dorm has 300 students in it. Interestingly, bathrooms are gender neutral. Freshmen are put into Fellow Groups with 10-12 other students. Fellows are like RAs but have no disciplinary function and sign confidentiality waivers. There are also Faculty Fellows in dorm apartments.
The college was founded in the 1800s by Matthew Vassar, a brewer. It remained technically single-sex until 1969, but did allow some vets returning from WWII to take classes; their degrees were granted by the SUNY system because technically the males couldn’t matriculate at Vassar despite taking the classes and finishing the requirements for their degrees. Around the turn of the century, Rockefeller (who had an estate nearby), provided $10,000 for the “first academic building.” He didn’t like that there was no “academic building” even though the classes were housed in the main building. The stipulation for the donation was that the building was completed on time and under budget – and he wanted his change back. The school did finish the building both on time and under budget, and gave him a check for a dollar and change which he cashed the next day. The building now houses the PoliSci department among other things.
Many of the classrooms are set up in a round-table format. Our tour guide’s favorite classes have been TV History and Criticism and Social Psychology. The admissions rep who gave the info session was an alumnus; his favorite classes were about carbon (looking at everything from coal to diamonds) and one on prisons. The average class size is 17 with most capped at 30 with very few exceptions: only 2 classes (Intro to Art History being one) have 50 students. Vassar students only need to complete 3 core requirements: a freshmen writing class, a quantitative analysis class (psych can count for this), and a language requirement (which is the only one students can test out of). Their psychology department is strong, particularly in child/developmental psychology. In the daycare on campus, they have an observation lab with 2-way mirrors and cameras so students in both psychology and education can observe how children play. Professors are accessible and want to teach and be involved on campus; 70% living on or directly next to campus. The tour guide said that he only had one instance in which a professor didn’t respond quickly to an email.
I had dinner on the evening of my tour with a friend who is currently teaching in the Anthropology department at Vassar; she lives in a campus-owned apartment which is about a 5 minute walk to her office – and that’s less than five minutes to her classroom and lab. She took me through the building that has the Anthro department (along with many others including Econ). It was a labyrinth of half-levels, short halls, and interesting twists and turns. She said it took forever to figure out the most efficient way to get through the building, and she has a lot of empathy for new students who are trying to figure out where there classes are when Room 2 is around the corner from Room 35. Many of the buildings are beautiful and old (although not all are as difficult to get around!). One of the turreted buildings houses the geology department and a Natural History Museum along with an art gallery that’s older than the Met. Arts are strong and active on campus. The theater department puts on 6-10 productions a year; there are 30-35 additional student-run productions. Students don’t have to be a music or theater major to be involved in these areas.
Campus is pretty and safe. Security patrols all the time and the only time our tour guide has ever heard of anyone using the blue lights is when a curious parent pushed it. There are a few things to do directly off campus – some stores, bars, coffee shops, and a plethora of Thai restaurants. Downtown Poughkeepsie is not far away with other options of things to do. Anyone can have cars on campus (about ¼ of the students have one), but parking is way out of the way. There are shuttles every half hour as well as a town bus stop on campus; students ride free with their ID. I tried to get the tour guide to talk more about extra-curricular life on campus, but got very little information before he went back on script to tell us about the buildings we were walking by. He did tell us that each dorm hosts two off-campus events a year such as Paintball, Halloween events, or theme parties (one included people dressing up like Gatsby). These are open to everyone. There are also a variety of clubs and organizations, and they have 12 women’s and 11 men’s DIII sports teams, including an equestrian team. Their crew team has been downgraded to a club sport recently.
The Library might be the most impressive structure on campus; it was built specifically as a library, not converted from something else, and they’ve purposefully made sure that it was not open 24-hour a day because they want students to have some balance. The focal point is the Tiffany window depicting the first woman to receive a PhD in Padua in the 1600s. She’s in pink (the rosy dawn of women’s education) and gray. They have since darkened their colors to burgundy and gray because they were “getting laughed off the sports fields.” They do have a chapel on campus that offers a variety of services, but there is no religious requirement (and the school is no longer affiliated with any denomination). There is currently quite a bit of religious diversity and a variety of student-run religious groups.