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Amherst College

AMHERST COLLEGE (Visited 10/15/12)

chairs and field

One of the best views on campus!

I don’t know of any other college that lets the winners of a lip-sync contest get first dibs on housing. Most students live on campus, and like many campuses, there are plenty of options for living arrangements. After the first year, housing is done on the lottery system; each person is given points based on GPA, seniority, etc. Groups of people wanting to live together have their points averaged for their place in the lottery. However, one of the big traditions on campus is the lip-sync contest in which groups can compete to move up in the lottery. The winners of the contest actually get moved to the front of the line. Amherst is a bit quirky like that.

Amherst 5Coming onto this campus was a much different experience than going onto the UMass campus! This felt like the traditional campus that people come to expect from New England colleges. There was quite a bit of green, and the buildings were well maintained. The campus was also much more sedate as we were driving through; fewer students were walking around, but that might have been a result that classes were in session.

Amherst interiorA recent graduate sat with us at lunch and answered a lot of questions; she came from Buffalo, NY and applied here Early Decision because she just knew this was the place. As a history major, she got to do some great things. Her senior thesis was an analysis of Holocaust photos in context of victimization and retaking of power. She did a great deal of this at Hampshire because they have a theoretical photography department. Most of her books were used from the other libraries, so she said that the 5CC affected her academically. She also loved the social “expansion” including “Concert hopping” in the spring.

bulletin board

Lots of activities to choose from!

Amherst has a true open curriculum meaning that the students will fulfill the requirements for a major but have no distribution requirements. One student on the panel said, “It’s what drew me here. I like to dabble. I’ve taken classes in 10 departments, and I like to stretch myself.” One of the panelists decided not to double major because he was having so much fun taking a lot of different types of classes. The open curriculum is great in many ways and makes Amherst a match for different types of people – those who have no idea what they want to do all the way up to those who want to really focus in one area. The admissions person said that in some ways, having this open curriculum defines a true “liberal arts” curriculum since students are taking so many different types of classes that they probably would not have otherwise.

Amhest statueAdmission decisions are made by committee so it’s “about as fair as this can be.” Applications are read by two people and then taken to committee; those that don’t get sent to committee are clearly not admissible, and that’s agreed upon by both readers. Everyone comes in thinking everyone is more amazing and that they haven’t done anything. “Even if you ARE the 5th in the world at chess and won the debate championship and cured cancer, you feel it.” That being said, it’s not a competitive environment. People collaborate all the time and will not sabotage each other because they’re looking for that one A – “if people deserve an A, they’ll all get it.” That being said, there are a couple departments that will grade on a curve, like Econ. But even in a situation where people should be fending for themselves, they still help out. You have to want to come here and be competitive. You have to want to learn. But once you’re here, it’s not like that. It’s competition with yourself and be the best you can be. Once admitted, Amherst will meet demonstrated need without loans; students graduate debt-free unless the family took out an outside loan.

Amherst 4Currently, the student-faculty ratio is 8:1, but with 18 new faculty members being added, this will change. Introductory classes might have 80 or 90 students but this is far from the norm. One panelist has a class with 4 people in it. The faculty teaches the students how to do scholarly research and expect that sort of research to be produced. “Professors guide us, but not to hold our hands. They let us stumble and then will help to pick us up and get us back on track.” Professors are willing to spend as much time as it takes in class, and out – they teach very few sections each term so they have time to devote to the students. One of the panelists was in a music seminar class, and each class meeting “took as long as it took. The students and the prof would stay until we were done.”

Amherst 3Students are knowledgeable about the world and current events, and they like talking about what’s going on in the world and on campus. Students have a voice, and they regularly bring up issues and work with the powers-that-be to improve campus. “They actually care about student opinions. People are shocked when they sit in on meetings and see that our voices matter.” Women’s rights tend to be a big topic on campus; the students think this is because Amherst had been an all-male school for a long time. The night before we talked to the student panel, a group talked about the topic of sexual misconduct with the president. The college provides free copies of the NYT in the dining hall, and they’re widely read. “Things change in the world. We’re ready and willing to change with it.”

Amherst 5We asked the student panel the following questions and got some great answers from them:

What has Amherst done for you to prepare you for whatever you want to do next?

  • “Confidence!”
  • “Science. It’s so not true that you can’t do science at a LA school. I did an internship at the flagship UT campus but was more prepared than their students.” She learned to integrate information, to think outside the box, to think critically. “It’s allowed me to realize what’s important in the questions I’m asking and to synthesis important information.”
  • “There’s a reason why Bain and JPMorgan and others recruit here. Students here take the time to learn on their own. We’re some of the best thinkers they have because we challenge the information.”
  • “Time management. I could stop doing all the extras and concentrate on classes; I’d do marginally better grades, but that wouldn’t be a good use of my time. We get as much flexibility to organize our time, but it’s on us to prioritize.”

What do you wish you had known before you came to college that we can share with our students?

  • Try lots of new things.
  • Don’t go in thinking you know exactly what you want to do. Be open minded.
  • Look at LA schools because you’re here to challenge your ideas rather than listening to lectures.

What traditions are your favorites?

  • “The rivalry between Williams and Amherst is HUGE. Homecoming is a big deal here. Alums will get together and watch the games and there’s a bonfire on campus. A blog on ESPN listed us as one of the top places to tailgate in the US because you can tailgate 6 feet from the endzone.”
  • “We have things going on about every 2 weeks, so I can’t really talk about just one. Of course, it’s hard from me b/c I perform [in the a cappella group] about a dozen times at each of these weekends”

(c) 2013

Grinnell College

Grinnell College (visited 12/7/19)

Grinnell extra journeys“Students are authentically themselves here. They’re kind of quirky in the best possible way,” said the rep.

“Yes, we’re proud of being in Iowa which we think is underrated, but we’re also proud that people intentionally come here from all over,” one student said. About 94% of students come from outside the state. “If a bunch of people are here in the middle of Iowa, there must be a good reason. Find out what it is!” Students who are comfortable in their own skin and who are “social floaters in the best possible way, who are interested in reaching out to lots of people in an unpretentious way” (according to the rep) will do wonderfully here. Adjectives used to describe Grinnellians include “purposeful, inquisitive, genuine, creative, accepting, and influential.” Students are interested in learning for its own sake; the open curriculum means that they’re taking classes with other students who want to be there rather than to check off a box.

Grinnell art 2Grinnell is well known for their strong academics and curious, intellectual students (they rank 7th in the nation for per-capita PhD production, “the quality of the education is recognized”). They have an Open Curriculum (only 11 colleges in the US have truly Open Curriculums including Brown, Smith, and Amherst). Taking classes where everyone has chosen to be there adds to the engagement. There are no core requirements other than the First Year Tutorial taken in first semester to help students get accustomed to Grinnell and college-level writing. “It’s normally a fun class. I took ‘Enlightenment in Musicals;’ we read Candide and Hamilton and got to see Hamilton on Broadway.” There’s an Entertainment budget which allows for things like the musicals. Some of her friends took classes like ‘Are we Too Clean?’ (about microbiomes) and ‘The Magical World of Calvin and Hobbes.’

Grinnell study carrels

Double-decker study carrels in the library!

They draw “thoughtful, engaged students who know how to make their own fun.” There was an Ugly Sweater party the night before I was on campus; organizations can apply to serve alcohol at events on campus: students with 2 forms of ID can get a wristband to drink. This is a campus where students WILL have a life, even in a town of 5,000 students. I spoke to a senior from St. Louis: she wanted a small town for college. “Would I live here for 10 years? Nope. But 4 years is good. I wanted good friendships and people with the same goal of hard academics.” Another student said, “Cities will always be there. I may never have a chance to live in a small town again.” I asked several people about their favorite thing to do off campus:

  • Grinnell Coffee shop

    The downtown Coffee shop

    “The things I like to do are because of the people I’m with, not necessarily what I’m doing.”

  • “There’s a park about 15 minutes away which is great when it’s more green and warmer!”
  • “The Taproom downtown; it’s got a great chill vibe.”
  • Bowling or working at the coffee shop. There’s also a movie theater.

I arrived about 40 minutes early for the info session and tour, so I walked downtown. It took less than 10 minutes for me to meander to a coffee shop recommended by the student working at the Admissions desk. It was an amazing locally run place, and at 9:30am on a Saturday, there were already 4 students there with textbooks and computers. The tour guide later told me that it’ll get more packed with students as it got later in the day.

Grinnell dorm 1

One of the dorm quads

Students are guaranteed 4 years of housing on campus, but juniors and seniors can apply to move off. Dorm rooms are spacious. There are 3 sets of dorms (about a block apart) as well as several Language and Project houses (like LLCs). Those students can have lower meal plans because they have kitchens. The food is very good; the dining halls have longer dining hall hours and plenty of late night options. I ate lunch with the rep at the dining hall; options were plentiful, and there was almost no wait for food despite being there right in the middle of lunch. (As a side note, a hot topic on campus right now is that students are trying to unionize the dining hall workers).

Grinnell dorm 3

Another dorm quad with sand volleyball

“We have so much space on campus.” There are a lot of student initiatives like the swing sets. “It’s so squeaky! I know it gets used because I can hear it at all hours.” There’s a huge athletic center – larger than you’d expect at a campus this size. Students can rent kayaks and even learn to kayak on their pool.

Grinnell pagodaThey have a $2B endowment for 1,700 students so there’s a sense of inclusive, equitable culture. They’ve ranked in the top 3 most economically diverse liberal arts colleges in the country which they can maintain because they’re able to support students in a multitude of ways. Students will be surrounded by people of a variety of backgrounds. No one is left out. People take advantage of the fabulous academic and financial resources. The tour guide said, “It was on my list of places where I could play AND work really hard. There was a great vibe; there was something about the community here.” All classes finish at 3:50 “but some labs run long depending on what you’re working on.” This allows for intense extra-curricular involvement, as well. Students don’t have to choose.

Academically, there’s more choice than you might expect at a college this size.

  • Grinnell atrium Humanities

    The atrium in the new Humanities building with the facade of the older building still in use.

    They’re just finishing a major renovation of the humanities building (and have a Center for the Humanities); they’ve kept the original façade and built out around it, so the atrium is really amazing! One of the students raved about the building: “The sciences always get the big fancy buildings because of the labs; it’s more rare to see such a great building just for the humanities. We have a central hub.”

  • They offer 3+2 engineering, pairing with Iowa, Wash U, and Columbia
  • Concentrations are interdisciplinary: they offer things like Science, Medicine, and Society; Studies in Africa, Middle East, and South Asia; and Global Development Studies.
  • Grinnell original bldg

    The original academic building

    Languages are a big deal here, including less common languages such as Arabic, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese.

  • They operate the Center for Prairie Studies; they own 35 acres of Prairie nearby.
  • The tour guide established the LGBTQ Oral History Project and did 6 interviews already in Central Iowa. He’s also been doing research by looking at HIV pamphlets in Latin American and the stigma of HIV and how these can influence people’s attitudes.
  • All students can get 30 minutes of music lessons per week; music majors get 1 hour.

Grinnell 4There’s a long tradition of social responsibility: they graduated many architects of FDR’s new deal “including many women – pretty radical for 1919.” Grinnell was founded by abolitionists. Social justice and caring for others is something they look for in their applicants. This is one of the more internationally diverse colleges with 45 countries represented on campus (about 20% are international).

Grinnell lang house

One of the language houses

In applications, they look for evidence that students will be successful and engaged. What will you bring to the community? They recommend trying to take at least 5 of the advanced classes that the school offers. They want to see that you’re curious and up for a challenge. This is a rigorous school so they want to know you can handle it. Interviews are optional. The priority scholarship deadline is 12/1 “but really not a major deal if they apply after that. There’s still money.” They keep their ED acceptances under 40%. Their admissions decisions are Need-blind. Average indebtedness is about $19K, the lowest in Iowa, including the state schools.

Grinnell hammocksStudents are “surprisingly global-minded” (and the school can fund study-abroad for students because of their endowment). More than 70% of students have an off-campus study experience with credits transferring back. Financial aid and merit aid are portable. They have several research locations that are mentored advanced projects (MPA): more than 50% of students complete these. 150+ students conduct research each summer for 4 credits with a minimum stipend of $3,400. Course-embedded travel is popular; there’s a $400 fee for a month of international travel, but if that’s an issue, it can be waived.

© 2019

Allegheny College

Allegheny College (visited 11/8-9/2015)

~Allegheny walkway~Allegheny pillarsOne 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.

~Allegheny chapelThe 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.”

~Allegheny leavesStudents say this about how Allegheny has changed their lives:

  • “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.“
~Allegheny mascot 2

The school mascot, the Allegheny Alligator (chosen for the alliteration)

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 4Allegheny 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.

~Allegheny 7About 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.

~Allegheny glass art 4

Part of the Art installation made of glass

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.”

~Allegheny dining hall

The main dining hall

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.”
~Allegheny organic farm

The campus organic farm

The student-built plant wall in the Science building

The student-built plant wall in the Science building

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)
~Allegheny bike charger

A bike that will charge electronics

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.”

(c) 2015

Williams College

~Williams sign 2Williams College (visited 7/29/15)

This is one of the few information sessions I’ve attended where the presenter gave more than just lip-service to the concept of fit. For example, she asked if classes of 13 seemed too big (no one) or too small (1 student) – and then told him that this might not be the right place for him.

~Williams env cntr

Williams’ entirely sustainable Environmental Center

Williams provides a great deal of opportunity for students to pursue what they’re curious about. Students must take 3 classes in each of 3 divisions but what they take is up within those areas is up to them. Majors are mostly fairly straightforward, but Concentrations (minors) are more interdisciplinary such as Justice and Law, Cognitive Science, and Public Health.

~Williams 2This is one of a few places that offers Oxford-like Tutorials: students are initially placed in groups of 10 then split into pairs. Students alternate between writing a 5-7 page paper (sent to the professor and partner 24 hours in advance) and responding to the peer’s paper (with a 24 hour turnaround). At Tutorial, they discuss it, usually with the professor simply observing. Students get really good at developing and defending a point of view. Half the students take at least 1 Tutorial (which are offered in all subject areas); most will take more than one.

~Williams 4Williams operates on a 4-1-4 schedule: 4 classes in fall and spring and 1 class in January (yes, it’s required every year). All freshmen stay on campus; after that, students can stay, do an internship, or study-away. Class offerings range from academic to experiential; all are Pass/Fail to encourage students to try something new or focus on a passion.

For the same reason, Study Abroad classes also come back as pass/fail with the exception of 3 Williams-specific programs that are graded:

  • Oxford where they’re considered full Oxford students and participate in tutorials
  • Mystic Seaport, CT focusing on oceanography. Part of the experience includes 10 days at sea on a tall ship.
  • South Africa: students study at the University of Cape Town and complete an internship.

~Williams sci cntr int

Intro science lectures can have up to 100 students (but smaller labs). One student’s largest class was “Chemistry of AIDS” with 75. Another student’s biggest class had 30 (Intro to Econ) and smallest was 7 (an English Seminar). APs can’t replace credits (ie, they must still earn a certain number of credits at Williams), but the scores can place students into a higher level and out of some of the biggest classes.

Most research funding (including Room and Board during the summer) goes to science and math but students can research anywhere. Our tour guide did research on Bilateral Relations with Russia and China. One math professor is a leading researcher on knots of all things. He took on 14 students to research knots. About 40% of those doing research will co-author a paper by graduation.

~Williams theater

The campus theater building

Williamstown is small (population: 7,000), nestled squarely in the northwestern Massachusetts Arts “corridor” with MASS MoCA just down the street. Arts are a huge deal here. The local theater is nationally known and draws big-name actors like Kyra Sedgewick, Kevin Bacon, and Bradley Cooper. “Here we are in this little town bumping into the Hollywood people.” William’s music, fine arts, theater, and art history programs are all excellent. The directors of MOMA, the National Gallery, the Gugenheim, and more are Williams grads: “It’s like we’re producing the Art History Mafia here.”

If small-town New England starts feeling too isolated, students can hop on a regional bus that stops on campus and head to Albany or Boston. The school runs shuttles to Albany and Grand Central (which may be subsidized for students on financial aid) at breaks.

~Williams Hillel

The Hillel building

There is lots of schools spirit here. About 1/3 of students play varsity sports, and stands fill up at games. Amherst is their big rival and has been since 1820 when Williams’ president took half of everything – faculty, library books, the money – and started Amherst. Several years ago, Amherst pulled a prank on Williams by carving an A into one of their fields. Williams retaliated by carving a B+ on theirs.

Most students (85%) live on campus. Up to 125 seniors can move off campus, but they didn’t have that many petition to do so this year.

~Williams dorm quad

Freshman quad

Entry Program groups together 25ish first-year students and 2 Junior Advisors to give them a “home base” and a family-feel to what is otherwise a fairly typical dorm situation. For example, they’ll do Entry Snacks on Sunday night for a “catch-up.” It is unique that they freshmen have 2 JAs grouped with them – but the tour guide bragged incessantly about how Williams mixes dorm-mates so they get to meet a variety of people – without realizing that many other places do this, too!

~Williams student cntr int

The “Main Living Room” in the Student Center

The main dining hall in the student center can get busy; at peak rush, “the wait can be 10 or 15 minutes, but there are other places to eat if you’re in a hurry.” Sunday “Kids Night” dinner (mac and cheese, chicken fingers, etc.) gets rave reviews, but the food is good overall. “This place has the best chicken tikka masala I’ve ever had,” said the tour guide.

The Outdoor Club is one of the biggest clubs; a $10 fee gets students access to everything they offer. Mountain Day (a surprise day-off from classes with picnics, hiking, etc) is a huge deal like at many other colleges. There’s also a day in the winter when classes are canceled for a day of skiing, sledding, and more, but students know about that in advance.

Admissions is highly selective, but they do accept about 40% of ED applicants “because it’s self-selecting and they often have a previous relationship with the college.” Applicants need 2 subject tests on addition to the SAT or ACT. “Don’t take both math tests, but other than that, choose whatever you want.” The Optional Supplement “really is optional. Use it if you feel like there’s something you need to add to the application.” Admissions is need-blind, and students need to submit both the FAFSA and CSS Profile. They do not offer merit scholarships; average debt at graduation is $13,000.

(c) 2015

Smith College

SMITH COLLEGE (visited 10/15/12) (Click HERE for information and pictures from my visit on 5/30/19)

P1000974

A view of the pond, a popular hangout on campus.

The buildings at Smith are about as eclectic as the students. The campus seems very haphazardly put up but somehow it kind of works. Instead of all new buildings needing to fit in with the buildings already up, they need to correspond with the style of the times. It was very cool. The atmosphere was vibrant; people were everywhere, even on a dreary, drizzly day. People seemed genuinely happy and comfortable on campus, and students were interacting with each other.

Smith stdnt cntr

Student Center

During our admissions presentation, the Director of Admissions talked about 5 ways Smith is different:

  1. Open Curriculum (Smith, Amherst, Brown, Grinnell all have this) meaning that there is no core. This comes with a lot of responsibility. Many students don’t know what they want to do, or they change their minds once they get there. It’s about learning how to use the open curriculum that’s open and thoughtful and deliberate. What does it mean to be liberally educated? The Liberal Arts advisors help students negotiate this process so the students pick classes, internships, study away opportunities and other educational components that complement each other. It changes the dynamic in the classroom because students want to be there and are engaged in the process.
  2. One-third of the students major in the sciences. This is the only women’s college with an established engineering major. They see this as important since only 15% of engineers are women: “What’s up with that? It’s 2012.” Women at women’s colleges do research at a higher rate than women at coed college. They’re a member of AEMES (Achieving excellence in math, engineering, and science) and they attract a lot of women of color and first gen students. They were among the best in the country for women going on into careers in the sciences.
  3. Praxis (Practical Education) guarantees an internship for every Smith student. Smithies are going to Columbia Records, the Smithsonian, ABC in London, Museum of Modern Art, Dutch Parliament, hospital in Mexico, Max Plank (sciences) and other big-name places for their internships.
  4. Smith dorm

    Houses

    They have 35 Houses, not dorms. These are places to live, not just a place to sleep; students often stay with a house for multiple years and they even graduate with their house during Commencement ceremonies. Since Smith is a little on the large side for a small college (about 2800 students, the House system helps make it smaller. The expectation for students is involvement, and that attitude starts in the Houses. They’re an “incubator for leadership” – grooming them for bigger opps off campus. Leadership comes in many forms. It’s about a sense of engagement. Along with so many houses, students have free access to all of the 15 dining rooms on campus; because they can swipe in as many times as they want, they can get the main course at one place, a desert at another, a snack at a third.

  5. Smith dormsThey’re working to change the rhetoric of Women’s Colleges. Face it – it’s as much the “Real World” as any other place. All colleges are bubbles in some regard). Many of the students like not have men around 24/7. “Let’s face it: 18-20 year old men . . . not your shining moment! When you want the men, they’re there. When you don’t, they’re not. The bathrooms are clean. What else do you want?” Women’s Colleges are challenging, empowering, encouraging, and fun. Students learn to work as part of a team; develop self-confidence, initiative, and leadership; and learn to think and write critically. They stress the idea of community which is open and accepting. The college enrolls a very diverse community, including one of the highest percentages of low-income and first gen students in the country. They meet full demonstrated need by they aren’t need blind; they need to make sure they have the right funding available. (By the way, most of the counselors applauded the Director of Admissions for saying the following: she’s offended by the “what about the lesbians?” question. People would never allow people to say “what about all the black students?”).

Smith 3One of the counselors asked “What surprised you?” to the students on the panel. Here’s what they said:

  • I was surprised at the classroom environment; you always hear how much people are encouraged to speak up and I found that it really was the case. I was always in classes I chose to be in.
  • How at home I felt and the houses were a community. People were interested in making me feel comfortable.
  • How much help you could get with academics. People want to help each other succeed.
  • How smart people are. It’s overwhelming to be in a class with brilliant women all the time.

Smith 2Another questions asked students to name a favorite class:

  • Public Policy. The professor is engaging and there are hilarious PowerPoint presentations. He gets very excited about the technology. He’s extremely accessible, and students who aren’t even taking his class can wander into office to talk.
  • The Inklings about Lewis, Tolkien, and ?? in which they looked at the texts through religious, social, and other contexts.
  • Chemistry: she hated it in high school, but had to take it as a requirement for engineering. The prof was great, thoughSmith pond, and now she’s a chem tutor.
  • Class in Costa Rica meeting with activists, community leaders, etc because it was so inspiring.

The students were asked about favorite traditions:

  • Ivy Day: everyone wears white and carries roses. The alum comes back and every class plants its own ivy. When you first come to Smith, you get little pots of ivy from previous classes.
  • Illuminations: the whole campus gets covered in paper lanterns and the class year gets written in lights on the pond.
  • Diploma Circle: when you walk up for graduation, you walk up in Houses, alphabetical within house. You don’t get your own diploma, so you stand in a circle and exchange until you get yours.
  • Mountain Day: the President declares a day off in the fall. Students go apple picking, hiking, having bbqs, etc. It’s a day to relax.
  • Tea: Friday or Sunday afternoon, they bring baked goods from the dining hall to the house and people just come down and chill. Alumni House also does it once a semester. STRIDE (students doing research as their work-study job) will tet together for tea once a month. The prof will bake for that.
  • The Smith Network: The alumnae are a cult. They’ll do Kick-Off barbecues to send new first-years on their way and do a lot during the year (and watch out for each other after graduation).
  • Big Sib/Little Sib. All first year students get assigned an upperclassman who will leave them little presents throughout the week – candy, notes, etc. At tea at the end of the week, there’s a reveal.
  • Winter and Spring Weekends. On Spring Weekend, current seniors have underclassmen write prophecies for them, and seniors will leave things to underclassmen.
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The new science building.

A counselor asked, “How do you sell a women’s college to high school girls who are done with the drama?” Resoundingly, the answer was: Take guys out of the equation and a lot of the drama goes away! However, this isn’t a convent. A couple of the students said that they forget that they’re at a women’s college because of the Consortium, and there are often men in their classes and in clubs or at parties. One student said that she got off campus a lot; Northampton has a lot going on and is one of the best aspects of Smith (this was echoed by students at other colleges, as well, who would purposefully head there on the weekends when they wanted to get off campus and spend time in a vibrant college town). One said that she chose Smith over MHC because MHC is in a much smaller town, does not have the open curriculum, doesn’t have the House system, and the campus didn’t seem as lively.

Smith 4Another question revolved around how engineering works with the open curriculum. There is more of a set path in this major: students can directly go on the path of required classes, but they can explore some other classes and still get out in 4 years. The major is technically Engineering Science; students will often go on to grad school in order to specialize, but can get employed directly after Smith, as well. One of the panelists is minoring in architecture because she wants to end up doing civil engineering.

Students at Smith seemed to take full advantage of the Consortium. One student took an intensive Spanish class during J-term at Hampshire; another was currently taking a class at Amherst. They also see the Consortium as a social resource. They go to parties, speakers, concerts, and even the circus where they learned to juggle. The busses run particularly late on the weekends so they can take advantage of late-night events.

If money were no issue, the students would want: New profs for interdisciplinary programs (just in EnviSci or Urban Studies, for example), a new pool, more dining halls (sometimes it gets crowded) and more dining hours because there aren’t many late dining options.

(c) 2012

UMass Amherst

U Mass Amherst (visited 10/15/12)

UMass Amherst stud unionUMass Amherst 2I’m not sure that I know much more about UMass now than I knew before I went. The people were extremely nice; breakfast was tasty; the morning was well organized. However, I didn’t learn much about the school. Case in point: The tour guide was giving us an introductory spiel as we stood in the Union. As he described the campus, he said that it was like a bulls-eye. The Union was the center (and is one of the most used buildings); buildings that are used a lot but not consistently through the course of the day like dorms or academic buildings were surrounding the union. The outskirts were specialized buildings or programs “like the equestrian program. You don’t really need to see the horses on the way to class.” After an extensive presentation by the admissions staff (including how many millions of dollars are being poured into construction), we hadn’t heard anything about the equestrian program; if the tour guide hadn’t mentioned it in the layout of the campus, we would have left not even knowing it existed!

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The view from the library

UMass Amherst campus 2There are a few things that people at UMass seem particularly proud of. First, they got full DI status for their football team this year. Because they don’t have a stadium on campus yet, they’re playing at Gillette in Foxboro (where the Patriots play). They’re offering buses for students for the games, and they filled 35 for the opening game. Second, they like to talk about the variety of clubs and activities available on campus, including the Goat-herding club, quidditch team, and a humans vs. zombie club. This must be the “go-to” selling point, because three different people told us about these 3 specific clubs. Finally, their Student Rec Center has just gotten renovated; it’s 3 floors and beautiful. 500,000 people used it last year.

Umass Amherst courtyardUMass Amherst 1This is the largest public university in New England with about 22,000 undergrads. The university prides itself on its diversity in every context: racial, religious, geographic, socio-economic. “Students will find people who are just like them, and people completely different. They’ll find people with similar interests, and students with interests that will leave them shaking their heads.” The admissions team talked comprehensively about the student experience in which the university provides a series of smaller communities within the context of a major, national, research university. They do this through Residence Halls; groups arranged around majors, community service, or other topics of interest; and good advising and orientation programs. New students work with faculty from the department to help select classes, a task which can be daunting, especially for freshmen. They also have a program called First Year Intelligence which introduces new students to campus, help them adjust, and strengthen their chances for collegiate success. This starts with both a summer and a fall Orientation, and then continues through the year. Students can opt to live in a Residential Academic Program (RAP) where they can take classes in the hall, among other things. There are a variety of RAPs: Topic RAP for students with a particular (not necessarily related to major); Foundation RAP (in which they take a class in common with people they live with); Focus Rap (for undeclared majors to help them explore options); Honors RAP; and Majors RAP.

UMass Amherst dorms

Dorms

contrast

The campus has an interesting mixture of old and new buildings.

Not surprisingly, there’s a wide variety of academic choices for students with 90+ majors to choose from. Some of the programs have special admissions procedures or information:

  • Engineering: just under 1700 students are enrolled in this college. They come in as undeclared engineers, and then decide at the end of first year which of the 6 specialties they want to do.
  • Management: all business programs, including sports management, hotel management, resource economics.
  • Natural Sciences: this is largest college in terms of majors, students, and grant funding. Integrated and collaborative 40year science program that immerses students in the hands-on process of engaging some of the most pressing global challenges like biomedicine and renewable energy.
  • Public Health and Health Sciences: Public health, nutrition, etc
  • The Honors College enrolls 600 first year students every year. These students have an average of a 4.2 GPA, and SAT of 1345. In the program, classes capped at 24. The university is building a new Commonwealth Honors College Residential Complex which will add 1,500 beds and 9 new classrooms.
  • Nursing is a popular major, but there’s a limit of 84 students in the 1st year class; students can ONLY be admitted as freshmen. There’s no internal application once they’re on campus or transferring from outside the university.
  • UMass Amherst hotelHospitality Management students get hands-on experience working at the Hotel on campus.
  • Students in the Journalism and communications departments have access to studios and specialized rooms for TV broadcasting and production, editing, etc.

UMass Amherst coffeeAcross the disciplines, the university sponsors $180million in research. One of the geology professors takes 8-10 students every year in February to northern Siberia to drill for ice and rock samples. There’s a waiting list . . . to go to northern Siberia in February. That says a lot. UMass ranks 3rd in the country for internship completion: 57% of students completed some sort of placement.

(c) 2012

Five College Consortium (Massachusetts)

Five College Consortium (Visited 10/15-16; see individual write-ups about each specific college)

Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, and UMass Amherst bound together in 1965 to form a Consortium in Western Massachusetts after about a decade of collaboration between the campuses. Their partnership resulted in the creation of Hampshire College in 1970, and the 5 College Consortium became official.

The consortium is meant to create a social exchange as well as an academic one. In addition to being able to cross-register for classes, students can participate in theatrical or musical groups, play on intramural or club teams, join clubs, and take advantage of any event hosted on any campus (speakers, concerts, movies, etc). We asked a couple tour guides on different campuses how they find out about things, and they both said that things were well advertised with fliers around campus, or friends who were taking classes on other campuses would find out and spread the word. We found out later that there’s a calendar online: http://calendar.fivecolleges.edu/FiveCol/calendrome.cgi

Once a student is enrolled in their home college, they can take classes at other campuses for free, and the credits transfer over; their degree is conferred by their home institution. There are some multi-campus certificate programs (similar to a minor) which necessitate cross-over. One panelist at Amherst is completing an African Studies Certificate, and he’s already taken “Intro to African Studies” at UMass and “African Cities” and MHC.

Busses run frequently between campuses so there’s no need for cars. Three of the colleges are less than a 10 minute drive apart, right around the town of Amherst. Smith and Mount Holyoke are a bit further, but are about a 20 minute drive.

Wesleyan University

Wesleyan University (visited 3/20/14)

~Wesleyan quad 2  Wesleyan did a great job of integrating the students’ voices into the info session. Nel, who plays woman’s varsity ice hockey and writes for newspaper, helped run the  session. When it was time to break up for the tours, the admissions rep suggested that families split up to take different tours. I toured with a sophomore from Kathmandu who moved to NYC when she was young. She’s majoring in government and SE Asian studies, is active in MUN, the newspaper, and ultimate Frisbee.

Wesleyan has 2800 undergrads and about 200 grad students, mostly in the sciences. All undergraduate classes are taught by professors, but TAs may do practice sessions (especially helpful in language classes). Because there are so few grad students, undergrads have easy access to research opportunities. Almost half of students co-author papers and get published before graduation. My tour guide’s largest and smallest classes were 200 (Intro to Physics) and 9 (Japanese). Another tour guide’s smallest class had 3 students (a history class). Her favorite class was Tsunami Painting. She chose Wesleyan because of the open curriculum, the diversity, and people’s passions for majors. Academics are “do-ably competitive.”

~Wesleyan 4Wesleyan has a “100% open curriculum” with no core requirements. However, there is a “general expectation” that students will leave being well rounded. While not required, 80% of students will fulfill the suggestion that they take 3 classes each in Social/ Behavioral, Arts/ Humanities, and Physical/ Natural areas. The students we talked to like this system: they’re encouraged to leave their comfort zone, but they’re taking classes with people who want to be in them rather than those who are being forced to fulfill a requirement. They want students to feel comfortable taking risks, and provide classes understanding that not everyone has an interest or strength in certain areas For example, they have a section of science classes for non-science majors, including “Physics for Future Presidents.”

North College and the Chapel

North College and the Chapel

With more than 900 courses offered every semester, the students said that choosing classes was really difficult!! Students need 32 classes to graduate; an average major requires 12-14. There are forty-four majors plus the University Major (create your own), and students don’t declare until sophomore year. Wesleyan introduced minors 2 years ago because of student interest. There are currently 13 with more on the way. They also offer Certificates (essentially interdisciplinary minors). It’s easy to combine interests: one student is a Math and Dance double major – her final recital was choreographed using calc equations. Wesleyan gives students an option to complete a Master’s in a tuition-free 5th year if they’re also researching. Students interested in Engineering can complete a 3-2 with Cal Tech, Dartmouth, or Columbia. Alternatively, students who would like to graduate more quickly can take advantage of the newly established Winter Term offered during the 6-week inter-session.

Wesleyan and Middletown (pop. 50,000) have a symbiotic relationship. There are plenty of restaurants, pubs, stores, parks (Miller Pond is particularly popular), and other things you’d expect in a college town. Students also give back to the community: 80% of students do community service. Townies use the campus library, are welcome at symposiums and other campus events, etc. Most unusual, they have combined town-gown potlucks every two weeks, alternating between campus and Town Hall. When students want to venture further out, they go to Hartford (30 minutes away), New York City (90 minutes), or Boston (2 hours). However, “this isn’t a suitcase school.”

~Wesleyan old and newAbout 50% of students study abroad starting as early as 2nd semester freshmen year. There are 150 pre-approved programs including language immersion, research, and community service. Credits are guaranteed to transfer and financial-aid follows students. Four of the programs are run directly by Wesleyan with at least 1 Wesleyan professor accompanying students.

Participation in Greek Life hovers around 10%, including students involved in one of the two coed “fraternities,” Alpha Delt (Literary Society) and Ecclectic (Music Society). Alpha Delt has Star and Crescent, a restaurant, in their basement.

Residential Area

Residential Area

The university uses a “progressive” housing system: freshmen live in dorms; sophomores live in dorms or Program Houses (Cooking, Buddhist, or International Houses, for example); Juniors in either of these or in 2- or 4-people apartments; and Seniors in any of these options or Senior Houses. As they get older, they have increased independence. Seniors in houses have to shovel the walks, buy their own toilet paper, etc. There’s an on-campus grocery store which will take points from their ID card.

Arch from the Arts area to the more traditional looking campus

Arch from the Arts area to the more traditional looking campus

One section of campus, the Center for Art, is made out of gray cinderblock-like material. The architecture is dreary and stark, contrary to the rest of campus (although there are several part of campus that have buildings that just don’t fit including a small glass structure between the Chapel and Theater). The Center for Art is an “iceberg structure;” the visible section above ground is replicated below, and it’s all connected with tunnels. Dance, music, art, and art history are all in this area. The “92 Theater” is a student-run theater. An additional theater is used to host film series; movies cost $5, and students vote on what gets shown. The original Chapel still stands on the grounds, but the university is now non-denominational. There are a variety of religious leaders available to interested students.

~Wesleyan cemetery and observatoryThe Observatory overlooks Fass Hill, the social hub of campus and where things like Spring Fling is held. The telescope is “2 inches larger than Amherst’s,” bragged our tour guide. It’s open to the public on Wednesdays, and they give out Starbursts and Milky Ways! The architect of the Lincoln Memorial designed the library. The front is original but as the school grew, they added to the back for more study spaces; this overlooks the quad. They even provide sleeping pods for people needing study breaks!

Students say that the administration is receptive to student ideas. The President is visible and accessible to students, including walking his dogs around campus and teaching a class.

© 2014

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