Sewanee: The University of the South
With nicknames like “The Domain” and “The Mountain,” I expected campus to feel more mountainous than it does – but Sewanee sits on flat on top of the Cumberland Plateau, its 13,000 acres making it the 2nd largest college campus in the country.
“This isn’t a place where students are absorbed into the surrounding city. They’re really here. They need to be a good classmate, teammate, reliable lab partner.” The “town” of Sewanee is only about 2 blocks long but has basic essentials (store, post office, etc). We asked the students panelists what they would say to people who are afraid they’ll be isolated on a mountaintop:
“Valid point! If you are really afraid, this might not be the place for you – but they do keep us incredibly busy! And Chattanooga is 45 minutes away.” (Nashville is just over an hour; Atlanta is 3).
- “They don’t put a group of 18-22 year olds on the top of a mountain and hope they figure it out because that’s terrifying. There’s so much to do here. It’s not an issue.”
- “This is an academically rigorous place. We spend a lot of time doing work. Those students you saw in the library earlier weren’t staged: they’re really in there studying. Plus, you can leave. You can have cars. That’s how we meet people. Upperclassmen will yell down the hall, “Freshmen, we’re going to Walmart! Get in the car!””
“I found it refreshing. I think college should challenge you. I never had a problem getting off campus, but I find there’s so much to do that you may not get anywhere else. You just have to look a little more sometimes.”
- “It creates a stronger community to go after what you’re passionate about instead of looking elsewhere and not connecting to people here or spending time with people who love the same things. My friends at other schools say that they don’t have the freedom to go after what they love.”
Sewanee has a reputation for being preppy. In large part, it lives up to that – but that’s not the whole story. “Understanding our brand can be a barrier. Students have to buy into being on a mountain. There’s a large outdoorsy contingent [the Outing Program runs over 200 trips a year], and many of our students are Pell-eligible,” said a rep. “Our students of color often come from a city [including 10 Posse students a year from the DMV]. Things like food or barbers/beauticians that signify comfort aren’t as readily available. We need to provide access to that especially if they don’t have a car. We have zipcars; if they don’t drive, people will teach them.”
“Spaces are important. They evolve each year. If there’s something we aren’t doing, we own up to it and change. There’s now a Q&A House for LGBTQ+ students.” Students agreed that the college has become more responsive in the past several years. “Students feel empowered.” They even have an amazing music room tucked into the 2nd floor of the library. Inside is a top-of-the-line speaker system, amazing acoustics, and an archive of 25000 vinyl records! Students can come in to research or just listen to music. There’s a large construction project going on that will incorporate the Wellness Initiative with the Student Commons. “Right now they have the green spaces, but you also need indoor space.”
Campus is gorgeous: the buildings are made of (mostly) locally-sourced stone. The chapel which normally seats 500 (1000 at the holidays when they reconfigure the space) is the focal point of campus; the Rose Window is inspired by Notre Dame in Paris. Sewanee is the only Episcopalian supported campus. Historically, this was a draw but is less so in recent years, although about 1/3 of the students self-identify as Episcopalian. They have an interfaith house and Jewish and Muslim associations. There’s a Theology School, but there is little other religious influence other than that. Nothing is mandated, but services are offered. The chapel is used for large campus events such as signing the honor code, “gowning,” and graduation.
One of the biggest surprises is the Tennessee Williams Center: upon his death, Williams bequeathed the bulk of his estate to Sewanee to honor his grandfather, an Episcopal priest and alumni; his grandparents “kept him alive – he almost sold his typewriter three times to pay for food. They’d send him money.” The gift from about 20 years ago came “out of nowhere,” said the center’s Director. They renovated the old gym into a spectacular new center, and royalties from his plays bring in $1.2m a year. “We’re running a mini-conservatory. Students do everything: act, sew, direct, do lighting, and even learn how to sweep a floor properly.” The 8 graduates from 2018 are all working in the business. Students can do their own productions – they pitch ideas to the Student Production Board, secure the rights to the play, do the PR, tickets, everything. Cabaret sold out so quickly that they added more shows.
We asked the student panelists about what surprised them at Sewanee and what they wished people knew:
- “I wish people knew that it’s as big or as small as you want it to be. People think they need this huge school to make friends, but there are only so many people you can be friends with.”
- “I wish people realized that Sewanee students are competitive in the real world. It’s so much more than a name. We’re intellectual.”
- “A lot of people don’t know about Class Dress – we don’t wear sweatpants to class. It’s an unspoken ‘dress nicely’ policy. We don’t do the ‘rolled out of bed look’ but don’t be worried about it. It’s not a huge deal!”
- “I wish people knew how much we love Sewanee. I want to do 4 more years here!”
- “There a large Greek life here (70% participation) but the wonderful thing is how inclusive it is. Events are open to everyone. You never have to be a member to do something. It’s just like another club.” Another panelist agreed: “I get to have as much fun without paying any of the dues.”
Academically, Sewanee may be best known for their English Programs and The Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary review. Students work as Interns where they actively review submissions and pass on opinions to the editors. They bring on Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners (such as Arthur Miller and Anne Patchett) to work with students in the Summer Writer Conference. Students can minor in Shakespeare Studies and earn a certificate in Creative Writing.
Sewanee offers multiple certificates, electives, and minors that they don’t make into full-blown majors (the most unusual of which is Southern Appalachian Studies). The Babson Center for Global Commerce is the “house of business,” working itself into liberal arts in interesting ways. “It’s more horizontal in nature than vertical. Employers need the critical thinking and persuasive skills from a Liberal Arts degree.” They only offer a minor (the largest one on campus with 10% of students completing it) to provide students a comprehensive education, combining passion with practicalities. “My job [Director of the program] is to expose them to what it means to go to work.” They bring in speakers like Delta’s CEO to talk about the company culture, a newspaper CEO to talk about digital transition, women in STEM, etc. Carey Fellows (29 honors students are selected each year) take 2 extra classes and a semester-long internship in junior year.
As I walked around campus, I passed a class entering some of the wooded areas across from the quad; I watched for awhile as they did measurements, testing, and more. Not surprisingly, the Earth and Environmental Systems department is strong, and their academic building is amazing! “It’s like home,” said the Director of the program. “Maybe too much so!” They offer a certificate in Watershed Science and majors in several other areas (including Forestry and Geology).
Campus is steeped in traditions, creating a distinctive Sewanee culture:
- Lessons and Carols, based after King’s College in Cambridge, is a big deal on campus and in the community. The University Choir sang for us for a few minutes; the director told us how students can earn a music minor through choir membership. A world-famous opera singer (the winner of the Pavarotti Competition) is teaching students as an Artist-in-residence. They also bring in adjuncts for any instrumental lessons “even bassoon.”
- Honor Society/ Getting “gowned”: Students earning Honor Status for 2 straight semesters earn their Academic Gown and the right to wear it around campus to class and other events. Professors also often wear their gowns to teach.
- The Sewanee Angels: the tradition says that angels live in the Domain to protect its beauty and the people who live there. They become people’s guardian angels; as students and staff leave the gates, they tap the roof of the car to let the angels know they’re leaving so they’ll have an angel who will always guide them back.
- As with lots of other colleges, Sewanee has a “Don’t walk on the seal” tradition. “If you do it by accident, you can streak the quad to reverse the curse,” said our tour guide.
- Hiking the Perimeter Trail, a 20 mile loop around campus. “It’s a right of passage. It’s an all day trip that often starts and ends at Shenanigans (basically the only pub in town).”