BARD COLLEGE (visited 7/25/13)
It took me most of the way through the tour to realize how to describe parts of the campus: a large chunk of it feels like a summer camp with paths winding through the woods. This is a huge wooded campus along the Hudson (and there are paths along the river, too) housing approximately 2000 undergrads (16% of whom are international). The school used to be all male and attached to Columbia (a bit like Barnard is today). When it went coed in the 1930s, Columbia severed ties with it.
Both the tour guide and the admissions officer talked about the structure of the curriculum making Bard unique. The admissions rep told us, “No one does it like we do. There’s a structure but with some flexibility. As an individual, you can shape your four years with guidance.” Students only have nine distribution requirements to complete covering five major disciplines, and many of these are taken care of during freshman year. 300-level classes are capped at 12 students, allowing them to actively engage in their learning. Students don’t just declare a Program (what they call majors) here; their first year is spent taking electives and a First Year Seminar. This gives them the freedom and flexibility to explore a range of classes they may not have been exposed to before. All freshmen get a Peer Counselor to help mentor them along in the process. As sophomores, can start delving into a Program that they’re interested in, but still don’t declare. During the year, they prepare to declare the program by doing the following: writing an essay on their academic past, writing an essay on their academic future, and putting together a portfolio of academic papers or artwork in their proposed Program (or they can plan a performance if their proposed field is performance-based). These will be judged by a panel of three professors who will decide whether to grant them access to the program. Most students are allowed in. A “No” rarely happens, usually if a student hasn’t finished their prelim requirements or isn’t doing well. This process makes students look at their skill sets and what they really want so that they’re thoughtful about their majors. Our tour guide, a rising senior from the Albany area, said it’s an exciting time: sophomores can bounce ideas around with peers, and “they all go through it together.” She created her major which looks at Education through psychology and sociology.
One of Bard’s unique programs is their Freshmen Writing Program. First-year students come to campus three weeks early for intensive reading and writing workshops. Students get a big binder of readings that are used during the session (although not all teachers use all of them, and they’re not all used in the same way). This experience is graded pass/fail, and students must pass to matriculate for the fall semester. This program is about 30 years old; 3 years ago, Bard started a three-week January intersession Intensive Science requirement since they felt that science literacy was as important as anything else. This is required for graduation; most people complete it as freshmen but exceptions are made.
A Physics professor stopped to talk to the tour group when we were in the science building (where the labs look out over the woods – fitting for the sciences). He loves that sciences are handled at Bard; they’re leaning towards interdisciplinary work which is the reality of work in the sciences now. The Science Department holds weekly “Pizza on the Pod” (the 2nd floor balcony-type area over the “lecture halls” which are not much bigger than a regular classroom, but are round and jut into the hallways); during this time, there’s tutoring, discussions on topics of interest, and other events. They have a 3-2 engineering program with Columba, Dartmouth, and WashU, a 3-2 in Forestry (although this isn’t a popular program yet), and a 3-2 in Environmental Policy in which they do 3 years studying either social or natural science and then do 2 years studying policy for their Masters.
The campus culture values the arts, and they claim to be the first college in the country to value the arts as equal to academics. The Art buildings have tons of well-lit studio space and has art displayed all over the walls. They have a world-class photography department, sculpting, and other options (but no ceramics, because that’s considered “pre-professional” – don’t ask me how – and they are anti-pre-professional programs). Their graduate program in photography is one of the best in the country. The performing arts section of campus is located kind of across the main road, maybe half a mile away. Students can take classes down there, but most things happen on the main campus.
There are 40 dorms of different styles and sizes scattered around campus. There’s a cluster of dorms (located in the middle of what looks like an orchard) called “toasters” because of how they look. Stuck in the midst of these is one 9-person dorm with 3 triple rooms. One of the older dorms, “Stone Row,” is an old brick building that looks more like a traditional dorm. The “Root Cellar” is located the basement; this is known for the punk rock groups that play there. It also houses a huge ‘zine collection. On the other end of the basement of this dorm is the Learning Commons which acts as the tutorial center for campus. Students can take 4 credit classes in writing or math through the LC if they’re struggling in those areas. There are more dorms on North Campus which is a 10-15 minute walk to the academic buildings. Mostly the dorms are coed, and 85% of students live on campus all 4 years. There is no Greek Life on campus, which encourages a broader base of fun across groups.
Admissions looks for eclectic, intellectual students. Bard students tend to be fairly liberal, engaged in community (the campus and the world at large), and interested in what’s going on around them. This is one of the few schools with a Human Rights Program, speaking to the interests of the students. The college also runs several international locations, including one on Berlin that they just took over. Students here are broad-thinking and curious about the world, so these locations are well used. Admissions interviews are not required, but are available if students are interested. Bonnie Marcus, the admissions direction who spoke to the group of visiting students provided this warning: “For the interview, do your homework! Don’t show up excepting to be entertained. Show me that you know SOMETHING about the school. Be ready to have a conversation.” I appreciate that she was so vocal against the US News and World Report rankings: “It’s smoke and mirrors! We’re a wonderful place. Are we wonderful for you? That’s your part of the process.”
I asked our tour guide to talk about a tradition she would miss after graduation. There was none she could name as one she liked or would miss. “My friends and my classes are the most important to me. Learning is why we’re here.” She also didn’t think they were in the middle of nowhere, even though the campus IS Annadale-on-Hudson: the town consists of “the campus and a few random houses,” and the town’s post office is on campus. There is nothing in walking distance of campus. However, she said that students are hardly stuck. There are shuttles into the two local towns (which are small and a few miles away) and a Duchess County bus stops right outside campus and will take them into Poughkeepsie and Rhinecliff where they can get MetroNorth (into NYC) or Amtrak, respectively. Students can use the school-owned zip cars, and anyone can have a car on campus. “This is one of the few colleges without a parking problem.” She said that they can definitely get to places they want to go. “Besides, we should be separated a bit so we can concentrate on our studies.” An office on campus helps students find service projects, alternative spring breaks, and internships. Students do projects like a theater program with foster children in town, writing workshops in New Orleans, and working with the Palestinian Youth Initiative. On campus, they utilize programs and the fun provided on campus (including the real movie theater in the Union which can be reserved by students, but also is used for campus-wide events including movie or tv marathons).