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UC Berkeley

UC BERKELEY (visited 7/16/12)

Berkeley towerBerkeley lives up to the “Big-name schools don’t have to try” motto. We got to tour the campus, but they clearly were not going to go out of their way for us. The only “special treatment” we got was that we met the tour guide in front of the fountain by the main building where they start the tours instead of congregating inside. This is the first college of the 30 I’ve toured as part of group of college counselors that did not even send an admissions representative to say hello to the group, even though we were there during summer, not in the middle of travel or reading season.

Berkeley gateBerkeley is the first UC school to be established, hence the nickname of “Cal” (a little like Chapel Hill is called Carolina). It was originally a Mining, Agricultural, and Architectural school and still boasts a functioning mine on campus. The campus is extensive and feels a little schizophrenic rather than cohesive. Buildings seemed to have been added randomly without thought to what was around it. It was not an attractive campus, but it did have a lively feel to it: it was packed with students and with people touring so I felt like we got more of a sense of what campus life is really like for the students.

Berkeley 2The tour guide said that students have to fight for everything here; a counselor remarked after the tour that a person would have to have really sharp elbows to do well at Berkeley, but someone else said that she had sent a student there who did not have those sharp elbows and she did ok. A third person described Berkeley students as falling into three types: the go-getters with the elbows, the athletes who are in their own little world, and the drifters. “It’s Berkeley. You have people who are naked, people who are smoking pot, and people who are riding unicycles – sometimes all at the same time.”

Berkeley tower 296% of freshman live on campus, and two years of housing is guaranteed; 10% of students live in Greek housing. The tour guide said that finding off-campus housing is a HUGE hassle, and it takes a lot of looking on Craig’s List and other places to find anything decent. There are some co-ops where students can work in the house for reduced R&B costs. Our tour guide said that parking on campus is a problem, but if students change their license and registration to Berkeley, they can park in the city for free. They also get a free bus pass with their student ID card, and there are zip cars on campus for use. 4000 students own bikes on campus, but there is no bike share program. The gym costs $10 a semester to use which is the first time I’ve heard of a gym on campus costing extra (not including things like the specialty classes like Zumba) – although other places just build that cost into the mandatory fees, so here they can opt out if they want. Berkeley has 33 club sports and 9 intramurals in addition to their DI level varsity teams. Students have to pay for sport tickets, but the cost seemed reasonable and there tended to be decent turn-outs for games.

Berkeley 3Our tour guide said that it’s not too difficult to get classes that they need as long as they are flexible, persistent, or think outside of the box (ie, take another class earlier than they anticipated, take a different class to fulfill a requirement, or keep checking online to see if a spot opened up). Class registration happens in phases: they can register for 10 credits in phase 1, 5 credits in phase 2, and the remainder in phase 3. All phase 1s happen (for seniors down to freshman) happen before phase 2 starts. Seniority partly plays into the process. Our tour guide came in with sophomore standing because of APs, but added the disclaimer that “It’s Berkeley. Most people come in as sophomores because of APs.” However, most people don’t choose to graduate in three years; instead, they choose to double major or study abroad. DeCal, or Democratic California, offers classes run by other students in areas of interest and expertise. Examples include Hip-hop, the History of Burma, Sociology of Sex in the City, Scrabble, Stream Clean-up, etc. Students can earn 2-4 credits on a P/NP basis. They also offer Freshman/ Sophomore seminars (mixed groups) in a variety of topics. Our tour guide took Linguistics of South Africa. Her largest class was in the hundreds, but she did take a Seminar class with fewer than 20.

Berkeley dinoThere are a few interesting buildings or aspects to the buildings on campus:

  • There are no door handles on most of the doors of the Chancellor’s building. This comes from the Free Speech Movement when students chained the doors shut to lock in the Chancellor until he listened to their demands. Now school policy states that doors can only have 1 handle per set of doors so they can’t be chained shut, a policy that is illustrated directly across from the Chancellor’s building on the library.
  • They have an underground library under one of the quads that is the size of 4 football fields. It connects several of the buildings around the quad.
  • The Bell Tower is the third tallest in the world (the others being in Europe). There are concerts three times a day utilizing the 68 bells. Students can learn how to play them, and many of the concerts are student run. The floors in the tower house a music library as well as holdings from La Brea Tar pits.

(c) 2012

Mills College

MILLS COLLEGE, Oakland, CA (visited 7/16/12)

Mills clock towerMills 1I was hugely impressed with Mills in every way – the people, the campus, and the programs. It lives up to the small liberal arts school reputation of paying attention to its students, and also of the Women’s College reputation of empowering people. They are proud of being “women-centered” with the aim of helping women (with students as young as 16 and as old as 95) and giving them room to grow. There are only two other women’s colleges in CA (Scripps and Mount St. Mary’s); Mills was the first west of the Rockies. The school is described as being a little more crunchy than the east coast. I’m not sure that’s so true in terms of the type of student, but maybe in terms of being more flexible with their curriculum. In 1990, the school was going to go coed. When they announced this (and it was already in the works to move in that direction), the students went on strike in protest. This has been the country’s only successful reversal of a decision to go coed.

Mills libraryThe students I met were poised, enthusiastic, and engaged, although I know that’s a bit skewed: they aren’t going to bring the unenthusiastic students to talk to us, and the students on campus during the summer loved it and want to be there. Their retention rate speaks volumes in terms of the fact that the college is doing something right. Not surprisingly, Mills’ goals include making the students feel at home, retaining the students who come to campus, and having students graduate on time. First year students are put into Learning Living Communities based on a variety of interests; there are two dorms set aside solely for first years. 80% of all dorm rooms are singles. Normally, at a women’s college it would go without saying that these dorms would be all female. However, as students move up, they can opt for coed dorms because Mills does have male graduate students. Housing options range from traditional halls to apartments; many of them are way up a hill – which is also where the dining hall is. Our tour guide joked that by the time they hike up the hill, they’re not even hungry anymore, and often forget why they trekked up in the first place.

Mills wish treeMills businessThe most unusual major on campus is PLEA: Political, Legal, and Economic Analysis; the biggest majors are psychology and English. An unusual component to the English major is the emphasis on writing. Mills offers a 2+2 nursing program with Samuel Merritt (which several other schools also partner with) and several 4+1 programs in business, public policy, computer science, and music. Any student in any major can get an MBA in only 1 more year with good advising; the only undergraduate option for business is to major in business economics, not straight business. The Graduate School of Business building is one of the newest on campus, built to be environmentally sustainable. Public Policy draws a lot of students because Mills is part of a new national project at the State Department level to entice women into public policy careers. Bio and Chem are strong and popular (so much so that they’ve had to add more class sections) with lots of opportunities for research, working with professors, and internships. There is no physics major. Not surprisingly for a college this size, classes are small; the tour guide’s biggest class was 40; her smallest was 8. The average size is 15. Overall, academics are strong, and Mills is one of only 5 schools in Northern California with a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Lots of internships are available, mostly off campus, but some are done on campus, particularly in the summer in the science labs. Most of the students we talked to at lunch and who gave tours were science majors doing research. One of them said that the only thing she would change would be to put more money towards better lab equipment, but she recognized that she’s a bit biased.

Mills courtyardWhen we arrived on campus, they took us right across campus to the Alumnae House for lunch on the patio where we were assigned seating based on geographic area so we could talk to the admissions rep for our area and a student. Before sending us out on tour, the Director spoke with pride that Mills provides close attention and support it the students; the students and the facilities backed that up. They have multiple lounges for different groups of commuter students (Parent’s lounge, complete with toys; 23+ or the “old women lounge,” traditional student lounge, etc). Our tour guide was a non-traditional student and had access to the 23+ lounge so she took us in. There were several couches, a full kitchen, mailboxes, showers, tables, and white boards. She said that people will come in to take naps and write notes on the board asking someone to wake them up at X time, and people will. People here look out for each other; they want everyone to do well. For example, in the Arts Building, there is no competition for space. Everyone has their own studio, and the place is “humming at 3 in the morning.”

Mills archesCampus activities abound with a lot of clubs, traditions, and activities. The tour guide told us of a tradition that everyone looks forward to: the Rubber Ducky Races that are held every spring on the stream that runs through campus. Mills competes at the DIII level in 7 sports: crew, soccer, tennis, volleyball, cross country, track, and swimming; about 1/3 of the students participate. “Mills is small. We don’t have many of any type of kid;” this is good and bad. Cliques don’t tend to form, but it’s sometimes harder to form community. However, because they are so close to so many other universities and the resources of a large metropolitan area, students from a variety of places will join up to form groups or expand their circle. For example, the Jewish students join up with Berkeley’s Hillel, and the Mills students hosted a Seder on campus that was “very feminist and new age.”

Mills 1Oakland is urban and has the same problems that other big areas have, but they don’t feel urban at all. Busses run right by the front gate so they have access to quite a bit and the city offers a great deal to the students. They’re an active part of Oakland but also of the SF community so there are lots of interactions there for internships, shopping, and in art and music. Oakland is urban and has the same problems that other big urban areas have. They can take classes at UC Berkeley or 11 other schools in the Bay area after the first year. They run free shuttles, so they can take advantage of parties and social lives there if they want in addition to the academics

They receive 2800 applications for a class of about 325; students can use the Common App plus the Mills supplement in which they have to submit a graded paper from a class. Merit Scholarships range from 10-20K and applicants are informed of what they have received with their admissions decision. They do their best to meet full need with their extensive Financial Aid program if students file the FAFSA and Profile.

(c) 2012

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