Allegheny College (visited 11/8-9/2015)
One major distinction of this CTCL school is that students are required to declare a major and a minor (or 2 majors) in 2 different areas (Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, or Interdivisional) – hence the college’s “Unusual Combination” tag line. This might be one of the reasons that they’ve been listed in the Top 12 Most Innovative Liberal Arts Colleges in the company of places such as Amherst, Grinnell, and Davidson.
The college has an amazing admissions staff and a friendly, well-spoken president. Students are engaging, engaged, and are comfortable with themselves – and are comfortable enough to push themselves and try new things. “We admit the diamonds, but we also admit the diamonds in the rough.”
- “I have to engage in the work, not just show up and get the A. I can see connections between subjects. They make me think about things and how we can use what we learn.”
- “It’s motivated me to sift through material and find what’s meaningful to me.”
- “I’m amazed at how it’s opened my eyes and at all the opportunities it’s given me.”
- “It taught me the importance of the human connections and that it’s ok to change your mind. Everyone does it.“
Students love that this is a small school (just over 2000 students, 60% of whom come from outside PA). The relationships they build with each other and with faculty are amazing, and despite the size, there’s a huge range of experiences. “We don’t have to give up on things to pursue other things.” One thing that students and professors raved about was the Experiential Study-Away experiences. These are 3-week, credit-bearing trips lead by faculty. One geology professor has taken students on trips as diverse as the Grand Tetons and India.
Allegheny celebrates their 200th birthday this year (it’s the 32nd oldest college in the US). When the President addressed visiting prospective students and families, he said: “We feel a responsibility to carry on traditions set by the people who graduated as well as a generational responsibility for those coming later. You can help shape, build, and make it better based on the gifts you bring. I see remarkable young people being challenged to be better than they thought they could be. The energy and passion they bring is amazing.” From what I saw of the students, he’s absolutely right.
About 130 students complete on-campus summer research each year. “We need undergrads to get involved because there are no graduate students,” part of the reason the school won the 2015 Award for Undergrad Research. One student said that what she likes most about Allegheny is the “academic rigor mixed with opportunities. I’m doing research in a psych lab as a sophomore.” Students all complete a Senior Comp (thesis) to prove that they’ve mastered writing, presentation, and critical thinking skills.
Additionally, 70% of students complete internships. Allegheny provides over $140,000 a year in support to help students do this. They send 20-25 students a year to DC where they’re housed at American University. If the internship is unpaid, they also get a modest stipend for food and basic public transportation.
The college President described the faculty in this way: “They’re scholars, they’re mentors, and often become friends. They’re some of the finest professors who deeply care about the students. We’re walking the journey together.” A professor on one of the panels said, “I teach here because of the students. They challenge me; sometimes they vex me.”
Some of the students’ favorite classes have been:
- Intro to Global Health: “We looked at disparities around the world.”
- Intro to Econ: “It was eye opening. I never got to take classes that interested me. The professor’s genuine regard was amazing. I wasn’t uncomfortable walking into office hours for help.”
- Intro to Communication Arts: “My friends were talking about it so I took it. Now I’m thinking about double majoring.”
- Soil to Plate: “We trace were food comes from. We visited soybean, dairy, and hydroponic farms and then apply what we learned. Our final was to make a sustainable dish and write a paper about it.”
- World Regional Geography: “We looked at different regions and cultures and how we solve problems.”
Sustainability is big here. Recycling containers are everywhere, and there’s a push for locally sourced food. The campus organic farm is in the middle of campus, and the much of what’s grown is served in the dining hall. They also work with local farmers for food. The Environmental Science department ranks #2 in the country, and students can major or minor in Environmental Geology, Art and the Environment, or Environmental Writing. Other unusual or noteworthy majors include Applied Computing, Middle East and North African Studies, Art and Technology, and Global Health Studies. Interdisciplinary work is key – they do it well.
Campus is bursting with activities but town is accessible when they want to get off campus. The free Loop bus shuttles them around town. Favorite campus traditions include:
- Orchesis (a student run dance recital)
- WingFest (including “an intense wing-eating contest!”)
- Local foods dinner (this honors a professor who championed sustainability)
Incoming students take a Freshman Seminar each semester (about 45 are offered each term). These are the beginning of a 4-year series of developing competencies (reading, writing, speaking, listening). Students are encouraged to explore something they’re interested in. “You might discover a different discipline that’s new and exciting.” Some options include: Study of Metaphor, Conspiracy Theories, Political Dissent in American Politics (how minority groups in the 20th C are portrayed in literature and movies), and Africa is Not a Country (notions/portrayals of African countries).
The school works hard to help incoming students with the social-emotional transition to college, and it has paid off with a 92-94% retention rate and a 6-year graduation rate close to 80%. They have early warning systems for students who are floundering; having the Freshman Seminar professor as advisor helps. With 15 students in a class, it’s apparent if you’re skipping, falling asleep, not engaged, unhappy. There’s a lot of talk about the Statement of Community and what people are expected to do. Res Life, Religious Services, the Dean of Students, etc work with students about alcohol use and abuse, health and wellness, study skills, and more. “Coming here is more demanding than in HS. I took classes that challenged me more than I thought they would, but it provides us a supportive environment to learn how to live up to that. I utilized office hours; they want to talk to you. Go to the Learning Commons. The students get it because they’ve been there.”