Willamette University (visited 7/18/13)
In case you’re wondering how to pronounce the name of the school, the phrase to remember is “Willamette, dammit!” I had high expectations for Willamette; several years ago, three of our students matriculated and loved it. There’s a lot to be said for the school, but it just didn’t stand out for me as much as I thought it might, but I think that’s because my expectations were extremely high. It is a strong liberal arts school, and clearly the kids love it.
Three students talked to us at lunch which was a good way for us to get a variety of perspectives in a short period of time. Kelly, a rising senior from the Bay area, was majoring in American racial studies and is thinking about becoming a professor. Christina is an anthropology major who works as a tutor at a Native American High School. She wants to go to grad school. Liz is a Politics and Gender Studies major. She came here because the Politics program is stronger than in other places. She’s involved in Greek Life and Pan-Hellenic, started the women’s rugby team, and interned with the governor. The state capitol is literally across the street (the university sold the government the land) and the Capitol is used as a classroom. Out of 1850 undergraduates, 350 had an internship/took a class/did something with the state government last year. Other signature programs are the Center for Asian Studies and the Center for Democracy and Public Policy.
The students raved about the personalized educational interactions between teachers and students. The students’ class sizes range from 6 (politics), 7 (seminar), and 8 (French) to 30 (Intro to Psych and Econ/Stats) and 28 (astronomy). Their favorite classes have included a Native American class, Feminist Politics, and Social and Environmental Justice. Writing is a major component of all the classes. In the Freshmen Seminar, students have to use the writing center. All seniors do original research (although not all of it ends up as a thesis; they can do scientific research and posters presentations as well). Approximately 12 students a year can get a Liberal Arts Research Collaboration grant to help with their projects. All students start their senior project with the equivalent of a grant proposal that they complete in their junior year. “The first draft is brutal – it’s the hardest paper they write.” During the senior year, they work on their research all year and have to do oral presentations at the end of the year (and yes, parents are invited!).
During our tour through the science building, Professor Williamson, a chemistry professor, came out of his lab to talk to us. There are eight professors in the chem department, and all teach an intro section. They graduate 21-25 students a year from the Chem department. The science faculty as a whole tend stick around; there’s very little turnover because of the community and because they can do real teaching and research with the students. The physics department offers a 3-2 physics/engineering program with Columbia. The school owns a 300 acre farm and forest used as a lab and classroom for interdisciplinary science studies. They hold a yearly bake-off at which everything has to come from the farm itself.
We asked Michael DeSita, the Dean of Academics (who had been there for a total of three weeks when we spoke to him), “What’s different about this place?” He said he asked the same thing when he was deciding to come here. As an example, he said that on Preview Day, a group of seniors run around naked. People actually go out and applaud. Students say that one of the traditions that make Willamette unique is that students get “Millstreamed” (thrown into the stream) on their birthday. Academically, the university has a partnership with Tokyo International University which built Kaneko Commons on campus. 150 Japanese students come in every year from TIU for a study abroad experience (and 60% of WU students study abroad across the world). Sushi Tuesday in their dining commons is highly popular!
Music programs are strong on campus; one-third of students participate in some sort of music group so this is a great place for those who want a strong music program within a Liberal Arts Framework.There are several a capella groups, and the Portland Chamber orchestra includes both professors and students. There’s a professional sound-recording studio on campus.
Willamette is loosely Methodist but without any religious requirement (or paraphernalia around campus). All groups of students feel comfortable and welcome on campus, according to the tour guides. There’s a lot to do on campus, and since most students live on campus for the first two years, students really form a community. Although housing is guaranteed, seniors generally get apartments off campus but they’re still close to campus and active in events. Retention hovers around 90% which speaks well for their programs. There’s a lot to do on campus including DIII sports (in the Pacific Northwest Conference) and club athletics with good student/fan turnout for the games.