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Sewanee: The University of the South

Sewanee (12/3/18)

Sewanee chapel and quad

The quad with the chapel in the background

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:

  • Sewanee town

    The town of Sewanee

    “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!””
  • Sewanee fire pit

    Patio with a fire pit outside the dining hall

    “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 students 2Sewanee 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.”

Sewanee 9“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.”

Sewanee 12Campus 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.

Sewanee window intOne 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.

Sewanee music room

The music room in the library

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.”

Sewanee 4Academically, 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 seal

The college seal – don’t walk on it if you want to graduate on time!

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.

Sewanee DH ext

The Dining Hall

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).

Sewanee chapel ext 5Campus 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).”

© 2018

Babson College

BABSON COLLEGE (visited 4/11/14)

~Babson globeBecause Babson was running an Admitted Student Day on the day I was visiting, I hadn’t registered for a tour. However, I was taking a late morning tour of Olin; the two campuses literally run right into each other, so it was easy to head onto Babson’s campus before checking in at Olin. Walking onto campus, I passed a huge globe outside one of the buildings. In the 80s, this was the largest rotating globe in the world (it’s no longer rotating). I learned later that the campus also has one of Newton’s apple trees which someone grew from a seed. As another fun fact, the students I talked to told me that one of Babson’s mistresses is buried somewhere on campus (although they couldn’t agree on whether she was a mistress, a wife, or a mistress-turned-wife).

~Babson frat dorm 2

Dorms and BBQs

It was relatively early on a Friday morning, but there were several students out already (although it was far from hopping!). I stopped at a booth in a quad by several dorms to ask one of the students if I was on the right track to get to the Admissions Office; I ended up never leaving because the kids were talkative and interesting, and more than willing to share information about the school. It turned out that they were staffing a 24-hour BBQ booth, a biannual fundraising event run by a fraternity. They had already raised $1600, “plus the credit card sales which we haven’t tallied yet.”

~Babson acad bldgWhat surprised the students about Babson was the motivation and focus of the students, the diversity of the campus, and the networking opportunities. “Babson delivers.” All students graduate with a Bachelors of Science in Business and can choose a concentration (or not – the senior I spoke to doesn’t have one). They all raved about their education. They love that all the professors have real-life experiences. A sophomore told me, “This is their retirement job. Lots of them still work or are on Boards. One guy flies in a couple times a week on his private jet just to teach class.” One of the girls (a freshman) said, “If your students want Accounting or Finance, send them to Bentley. Anything else, send them here.” This isn’t a traditional Business School; instead, it takes an entrepreneurial approach. “It’s a unique place; no other place lets you start your own business as a freshman.” One of the seniors I spoke to pulled out his business card and said, “If you have other questions or have students who want to email me, feel free!” I’ve never visited a school before where a student had a business card (a non-admissions one – this was for his own business!).

~Babson dorms 2All first-year students take Foundations Management and Entrepreneurship (which ends up being the biggest class they take). They’re put into teams, taught how the basics of Entrepreneurship, and then they run a business for the second half of the year. They’re even given up to $3000 to start it. Proceeds from the business go to charity, and the group does community service for whatever group they’re donating money to. The freshman telling me about this program was in a group that created athletic shirts with iPod attachments. They had to do everything from the concept to the supply chain management to finding manufactures to HR.

Babson bldg and grillThere were several other programs that the students shared with me. One was the Ultimate Entrepreneur Challenge that takes place in one class; the professor tells them that they have a week to get food for the class for free. The students have to figure out how to barter or in some way convince food providers to provide the food. Another is a travel program called BRICK which is a one-semester trip where students spend 4 weeks each in India, Russia, and China. Finally, they are part of a consortium with Olin (next door) and Wellesley (about 2.5 miles away). They’re allowed to take 1 class per term at one of the other colleges, and a fair number of people take advantage of this. One of the guys tried a class at Olin: “I was a sophomore and they put me in an upper level class; it blew my mind.”

Beyond the education, one of the things they like the best about Babson is that “It’s the perfect size. I can ignore people I don’t want to see but I can still meet people every weekend. The students who don’t want to socialize or who aren’t go-getters aren’t going to do so well here. “If they just sit in their rooms, they’ll be miserable.” They said that students may need to look a bit for activities: “they’re not going to be sitting there outside the dorm waiting for you – but they are there!” Winter can seem a little like a ghost town on campus because people tend to stay inside, but people do enjoy being out during the warmer months. However, there’s still plenty to do in the winter, including using the campus’ skating rink where students can rent skates (or use their own) during Open Skates. It’s also easy to get off campus: the commuter rail is about a mile and a half away, and the Green Line is 3 miles away. They’re talking about starting a potential bike share, and buses into Boston on the weekends are $5.

About 15% of students are Greek, and “Greek Row” is located in a dorm. The freshman I talked to isn’t part of Greek life and doesn’t feel like she needs to join to have a social life. “I can go to events if I want to.” Freshmen rush in the spring; transfers or upperclassmen can rush in the fall. A little more than 25% of the students are international or have dual citizenship. “You get to meet people from all over.” Many students stay on campus all four years, but they can move off if they want. The university owns two apartment buildings about a 10 minute walk away which is a nice “in-between step” for students wanting a little more autonomy but don’t want to move completely off campus. Students living there are the only ones who can go off the meal plan. Most of the kids agreed that the campus food leaves a lot to be desired. A sophomore said, “Expect to be disappointed with the food” – but they’re changing vendors, so they’re hopeful that it’ll get batter. A freshman told me that she as on a task-force talking about the food. “I told them that if it doesn’t get better, we should be able to go off the meal plan. I eat out a lot, and if I’m spending this much for school, I should be able to get a decent meal without spending more money.”

© 2014

Olin College of Engineering

Olin College of Engineering (visited 4/14/14)

Collaborative lab space with stickies as students work through problems

Collaborative lab space with stickies as students work through problems

“Olin in a nutshell: students take ideas, develop them, share them, and improve the community.” Group work is highly valued here, and all students complete a minimum of 10 major group projects tackling real-life problems. It’s a creative, collaborative place. “You can learn anywhere, but if you want to be in control of that learning, come here! You can go into Boston, India, wherever and put things into place.” Twenty percent of students study away at some point. There are Direct Exchanges in South Korea, Belgium Germany, France, Thailand, Chile, and across the US.

The academic complex

The academic complex

The university was chartered in 1997 by the Olin Foundation (which has built landmark buildings on 74 campuses across the country) after a study came out that said that engineers were not being educated in a way to be competitive in the work-place. The first 30 students, dubbed the “Olin Partners,” came in 2001 and graduated in 2006 when the school also became accredited. Now with a full-time enrollment of 350 students (with a gender balanced student population!), Olin has redefined engineering as a profession of innovation with an education based on 1) a curriculum that emphasizes teamwork, project-based learning, practical skills, business knowledge, and a multidisciplinary approach to engineering; 2) developing leadership and communication skills; 3) emphasis on undergraduate teaching and learning in a small supportive community. They offer majors in Mechanical, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Engineering with concentrations in Bioengineering, Design, Systems, Computing, Materials Science, and a self-designed option.

Student projects

Student projects

Olin has been ranked #2 for “Students who Study the Most” and #11 for “Best Quality of Life” – a good combo! Students are doing what they love. Students can complete research and self-study topics that interest them. One of the tour guides is working in a group to develop a Rubiks cube that solves itself. “It’s completely ridiculous and probably impossible, but we’re doing it anyways because it’s awesome!” The Robotics team is creating an underwater robot that mimics the tuna. They also have a Robotic Sailing Team. “The Hopper” is one class project in which students have to design a plastic toy that hops – and kids judge the results.

SCOPE (Senior Capstone, Program in Engineering) put teams of 4 or 5 students to work on a project for a company like Bose, DePuy Mitek, Facebook, Intuit, Harley-Davidson, Trip Advisor, Raytheon, HP, IBM, Boeing, AGCO, or Army Research Lab. They have to figure out what the problem is, how to fix it, and implement the solution. Projects could be anything from designing a lighter airplane seat or a better vending machine for Pepsi to figuring out how to use the revving on motorcycles for better power.

Students must take a year of Calc and a year of Physics before coming to Olin. They do not take any AP, IB, or transfer credits. Olin has a unique and rigorous program; because of that, the first year is graded on a Pass/No Record system; starting sophomore year, they get traditional grades. “Sometimes that first C is hard to swallow,” said the rep. The lack of grades in the first year gives students a cushion to adjust to the Olin way and to take some risks. They graduate 96% in 4 years and 99% in 6 years.

The 2 dorm buildings

The 2 dorm buildings

Accepted students have a 2190 median SAT or 34 median ACT. Applicants attend a Candidates’ Weekend if they want to come to Olin. Group exercises and individual interviews are evaluated – everything else is for fun. Parents are welcome, but not required. Of the 998 applications last year, 220 were invited to Candidates’ Weekend; 102 were admitted and 30 placed on waitlist. Waitlisted students can opt to enroll at Olin the following year. They enrolled a class of 84, 20 of whom deferred from the year before. Students can also defer for military service or religious missions.

campus map.  Babson is in the upper right corner.

campus map. Babson is in the upper right corner.

The campus is small and runs right into Babson’s campus which whom they share athletic and health services (the health service building is closer to Olin dorms than to Babson dorms). There are only two residence halls on Olin’s campus: West Hall houses freshmen and sophomores; East Hall has juniors, seniors, and exchange students. There are fully stocked kitchens in both dorms. Students can cross-register at Brandeis, Wellesley, or Babson, and shuttles run between these campuses every 20-30 minutes. One student created a solar-powered trash compactor with a student from Babson. Olin also owns a van that students can use for any academic reason (or other school-sponsored event). There are 71 clubs on campus and they can also join clubs at the other two universities. Olin has club-level sports, soccer and Frisbee, and they can play on Babson’s teams (and women can play at Wellesley).

Students are quirky, funny, and think outside the box. As we started the tour, one of the guides said, “Please don’t feed the students, and keep your hands and feet inside the tour at all times!” Olin is home to the only collegiate level conductor-less orchestra. “It’s the only varsity sport on campus,” said the tour guide, and students have to try out, but there are other musical groups to join and even sound-proof practice rooms. The culture on campus allows the students to pursue passions, even if it isn’t dealing with engineering. For example, one student loves making truffles and can see going into chocolate-making. They even have a Fire Arts Club!

Teachers see it as coaching rather than teaching. They ask questions. Students ask questions, build relationships, etc . Students have the skills to start a business or go into a field that’s not exactly engineering. Some go into MBA programs. Top Grad schools are Harvard, MIT, CMU, Babson, Stanford, and Cornell. They’ve had 41 NSF Fellows, 11 Fulbrights (one of the top producing universities in the country), 2 National Defense, and many more major scholarships and competitions.

© 2014

Becker College

Becker College (visited 3/22/14)

Becker Quad

Becker Quad

Becker surprised me; I knew almost nothing about it before visiting (and embarrassingly, only vaguely knew the name). I left with a very positive impression. The college is small enough to be personal, but large enough to give the students options – including being able to move back and forth between the two campuses in Worcester and in Leister, situated less than 20 minutes apart from each other. The college has a clear mission, and no one seems to be forcing it to be something it’s not – or to be all things to all people. Because of that, they do what they do very well, and the students get an excellent education and overall experience.

LLC for Interior Design

LLC for Interior Design

Our tour guide was Sarah, a senior Interior Design major from New Jersey who is headed to graduate school next year for Interior Architecture. She loves Becker and couldn’t ask for a better school. Her major, along with Nursing and the Animal Sciences, are the biggest majors. She took us into the Health Science building which didn’t feel like a classroom building – in fact, the hallways had carpeting. The labs are state-of-the-art including simulation dummies. Nursing has a 12:1 student to faculty ratio allowing students to get a lot of hands-on experience in these labs before they even start their clinicals (and they had a 99% placement rate for their nursing graduates). All majors have current technology to support the education, including a 3D printer in the Game Design house.

Lounge of the Game Design building

Lounge of the Game Design building

Game Design seems to be their fastest growing major, and they’re adding labs to accommodate the expansion. They’ve added a Game Management major dealing with the business side of the industry, and they brought in someone from Babson to run it. Exercise Science is also big. The brand new Forensic Science Building will open next month. They have a blood splatter room, a bullet room, etc. Even Game Design has made a “solve a murder” game that ties into this. They also started a Japanese minor because of the tie-in to anime.

Game Design House

Game Design House

Becker's largest dorm

Becker’s largest dorm

The university has made wonderful use of the neighborhood surrounding the school and has become part of the area. They have bought many of the Victorian homes in the several blocks on which the university sits and have maintained them as dorms. Each House has 25-45 students living in it, and all dorms are coed. They have Learning-Living Communities as an option for students starting in their sophomore year. The only large dorm is a brick building housing about 100 freshmen. This building also has 1 wing on the 4th floor designated as 21+; this is the only place on campus that students are allowed to have alcohol (and even then, only “small quantities”). Their Game Design building, a lovely two-story ivy-covered building is the newest property acquired by the college. They convert spaces as needs change: the library used to be their gym, and is not a spacious and light study area. Although they don’t house as many books as many other university libraries, they make sure not to duplicate resources between the libraries on the two campuses, and they shuttle books back and forth; students often get requested books on the same day so it’s easy to get what they need.



The campus isn’t far from Elm Park which the school has “adopted” and helps take care of. It was designed by the same guy who designed Central Park (supposedly this was the “trial run”!). There are lots of town-wide events like Art in the Park held there. The university recently acquired an apartment building with 708 upperclassmen on the main drag past the park.

~Becker 2The new President has placed a high priority on Global Citizenship. Students have worked in a sustainable garden in West Virginia and building houses in Haiti. They’ve provided scholarships for two students from Sierra Leone and they now have a partnership there where students are travelling to work. Students in classes are working on how to solve problems. Twenty percent of the faculty are international (born somewhere else). If all goes well, they’ve have the first Global Citizenship major in the country.

~Becker 5The average class size is around 16; the largest lecture hall on campus only has 70 seats. The classrooms we saw had about 24 seats in them set up around two-person tables and with nicely upholstered chairs. Any classes not available on Becker’s campus can be accessed through the Worcester Consortium of Colleges (Anna Maria, Clark, WPI, Holy Name, and Worcester State). Freshmen can have cars on campus (and there’s no parking fee), but there are also city buses and shuttles if students want or need to get to other campuses.

Food is pretty good on campus, but “it is campus food,” Sarah said. She’s never had more than a 5 minute wait for food even during rush times. The meal everyone rushes for is spaghetti; pasta is a huge deal here! Hawk’s Nest, the snack bar/ grill, is a popular hang-out. They will usually make what students want (if they have the ingredients!) even if it’s not on the menu. So many students were asking for chicken quesadillas that they ended up making in a permanent option.

Leister campus:

Student Center and classrooms at Leister campus

Student Center and classrooms at Leister campus

Although only about 20 minutes away, this campus has a distinctly different feel; whereas the other is incorporated into residential neighborhood in Worcester, this is a traditional campus. All the Animal Studies programs are on this campus, and there are plenty of open spaces to accommodate these. They have a 30 Acre equestrian center and students can board horses. Becker is the #1 producer of Vet Techs in NE (#15 nationally). Many of the athletic programs are also out here; their football field is turf. School spirit is huge! Soccer, football, and basketball pull in the most fans – but Hockey actually pulls in a lot of students to the school, and Becker now boasts 70% out-of-state student population, many of whom come from OH, NJ, CA, and CO.

The May House sits on this campus, which was owned by Louisa May Alcott’s family and where she wrote one of her novels. The 1812 House is supposedly haunted.

© 2014

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