campus encounters

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Washington and Lee

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W&L’s iconic building

Washington and Lee (visited 11/3/16)

“At the end of the day, I want the students to say, ‘it changed my life.’ I want it to be transformative. If they can say that, we’ve done our jobs.” The size of the school facilitates a lot of what they do, and “the faculty we bring on understand the pedagogy. Having famous faculty doesn’t help if they don’t want to know the students and work with them.”

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Some of W&L’s academic buildings

Washington & Lee is a traditional Liberal Arts and Sciences university, “underscore the AND.” They combine professional programs in the Williams School of Commerce, Politics, and Economics and Journalism (both interdisciplinary programs) with a liberal arts education. “Students don’t apply to the business program as they might in larger schools. I don’t want the Williams School to be a Venn diagram with the Liberal Arts: I want it to be completely immersed. We’ll teach things like Business of Contemporary Arts (co-taught by a Tax Accountant and Art Historian), Land in Lakota Culture, Economics, and History (co-taught by Anthro and Economics professors), or Cybersecurity (co-taught by a PoliSci professor and a lawyer).” Along the same lines, they won’t offer a 3+2 engineering program because they want the students to have the full undergraduate, liberal arts experience. Students in these programs are interested in the liberal arts and complete the foundations/distribution requirements, including the language requirement.

wl-6Students who thrive here are curious, high-horsepower students. They’re near the tops of their graduating classes; they’re keyed into community and engagement. Loners/people who have an affinity to work alone won’t do so well here. Students seek out professors and like to argue/discuss points from class. “Teachers will instigate conversations that are uncomfortable for students. It makes us grow,” said a student on the panel.

wl-treewalkLast year they admitted 1200 of 5100 applicants. Just over half of the class of 465 were admitted through ED (I or II). Crossovers include UVA, William & Mary, Chapel Hill, Georgetown, Dartmouth, and Davidson. The Johnson Scholarship is awarded not just for outstanding academics but to those students who they believe will bring transformative leadership skills to campus. “We want them to be change-makers.” They bring 200 finalists to campus for 3 days and will end up awarding 70 scholarships.

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The first floor of the Hillel building with the cafe in the back

“We want to have a broad range of students. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion does a lot of outreach. We’re concerned about affordability and accessibility. We meet 100% of financial need and do not include loans.” Almost every state is represented (there’s no one from ND in this freshman class); VA, TX, NC, GA, MD, FL, and NY have more than 20 students. Almost 10% are first-gen. Although only 17 of last year’s freshmen self-identified as Jewish, they do have a relatively new, large Hillel building; the E-Café inside is Kosher Dairy. They also have Salaam, a Muslim Student Association.

“We’re different because we have a sense of who we are,” said W&L’s President. “We produce citizens of honor who are ready to go out and make a difference.” Whatever they’re doing is working: they have a 98% retention rate, and 90% of students graduate in 4-years. He went on to illustrate a couple things that make them stand out:

  • wl-statueHonor System: “It’s a system, not a code saying that we will abide by the standards of the community.” This plays into exam schedules, too. Students can self-schedule their finals within the week, although some professors ask that their exams be done on a specific day. Others will give a take-home final and ask that it be brought back within 24 hours.
  • Speaking tradition: people will greet you when you walk around.
  • Their endowment allows them to provide “robust services” to students: they have an MD running Health Services, a psychiatrist on staff, deans for every class. There’s a lot to be said for community building, support, etc.
  • Freshmen all complete alcohol education and “bystander education.”
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Junior Village in the background beyond the stadium

Lexington is very much a college community: VMI is next door with 1700 students, and the law school has another 350. They have a loose connection with VMI in that they will attend speakers and some other events happening at the other campus. All the seniors live off campus which helps mesh town-gown relations. W&L now requires all students to live on campus for 3 years – but only for 3 years! They recently built a “Junior Village” with has a café and dining hall; a pool is being built. Some Greek housing is in town, and there are 6 sorority houses near the football field. Usually sophomores live there. Rush is in the spring.

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Sorority Row

“I was surprised how integrated students are,” said our tour guide. “I was a little bit wary at first because of the 17% diversity rate, but it doesn’t matter. I wasn’t sure how the speaking tradition would play out, but people do talk to each other. I was shy. I didn’t know how to do that, but now I see that people go out of their way.”

wl-patioStudents tend to be more conservative but not exclusively, and there are a lot of liberal professors. “But everyone is civil. They talk about the issues, not about the people. Professors expect us to be able to have conversations and back up opinions, and students do.” A lot of people talked about civil discourse and the learning community while we were on campus. “I say community and opportunity a lot,” said one student. “It seems cliché but I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s not just about what we learn but the skills and experiences.”

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Originally a stable, the doors are now left open because the story says that Lee’s horse Traveller haunts the building and will shake the doors when they are shut.

The average class size is 15. Only 5% have more than 25 students. “A few classes like organic chem and a popular geology class on climate change get higher.”

“There’s no one way to do a W&L education,” said the president. “We see some strange double majors. They get jobs because they’re unique.” The Core accounts for about 1/3 of a student’s curriculum. “We push against the idea that every class has to count for something. We want them to explore.” There is a Phys Ed requirement: “I can say with absolute certainty that every W&L grad knows how to swim.”

Students have a lot of school spirit. “We may be DIII, but we have football!” They have tailgates and an annual Lee-Jackson lacrosse game which both draw huge crowds. The Thanksgiving Dinner even draws community members.

© 2016

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