The College at Wooster, visited (4/20/12)
“There are black squirrels everywhere. They freak me out! The freeze when they see you and just stare . . . You know what, squirrel? I can see you!!” I seriously want to go back to school at Wooster, and not just because the tour guide at Wooster might have be the funniest, most personable guide I’ve ever encountered on a college campus (although it’s true what they say about tour guides – they can make or break the experience in a lot of ways).
Students at Wooster didn’t seem to have a stereotypical look (but without being as quirky as Oberlin students where they appeared to be trying hard to NOT be the same); the people I talked to backed up that impression: students said that people were not cliquey and tended to get along really well. The students want to be involved in the community in addition to wanting to learn. They’re curious: these are the types of students who will read a quote in something they read for class and will then read the book that the quote came from on their own. The tour guide told me that the academics are challenging but not competitive: “Your A doesn’t detract from my A.” There’s no sabotage, no competition for resources. People would rather that they all succeed, and she thinks that makes the campus a happier place and definitely feeds into the community feel.
This curiosity is one factor keeping students at Wooster because they are given outlets to pursue their own interests. Every senior takes a class of ONE – their mentored Independent Study. They pick their project and have weekly meetings with the advisor throughout the year. Students have done everything from researching which microbes will break down Prozac to doing a documentary on Tween and Teen transgendered students. Juniors complete a “Pre-IS” project to determine the feasibility of the project (including doing preliminary research to make sure they have enough material to work with) and to set up a plan/timeline. Students can get some travel money to complete their projects if that’s an issue; one anthropology/ theater&dance major who had studied abroad in Fiji got a travel grant to return for 3 weeks to complete her project on the cultural components of dance in Fiji. As a double major (which is not only possible but encouraged), she needed to tie in her two majors in her senior project. The admissions counselor I spoke with was a Wooster graduate who wrote his Senior Project on the British Canal system; he couldn’t believe that they were cutting him loose in England to go do primary research. After graduation, he went to work for the National Parks Service at the Erie and Ohio canals before returning to work at Wooster.
However, even though they love learning, the students aren’t the stereotypical nerds/geeks who hole up in the library and do nothing but study. Sports, clubs, and other extra-curriculars are really big on campus. The tour guide told us about signing up for clubs: “Every fall, they hold Club Fairs on this quad. Everyone comes out for it, and all the clubs bribe you with chocolate to come to their tables. I signed up for a bunch of things, and now my mailbox is flooded. I get mail from SO MANY different clubs that are doing things ALL THE TIME. I really wish I knew how to get off the list-serves but haven’t figured it out yet. . . . It so wasn’t worth the chocolate!”
Of the 2000 students on campus, 20% participate in theater and 30% are involved in some sort of music group (including one of the five a cappella groups and the Pipe and Drum Corps) — including 10% of the students in Marching Band who perform in full Scottish Regalia – their mascot is the Fighting Scot, after all. Athletics are also big, and not just in terms of playing on a competitive team (allthough about 30% of the students play a competitive sport), but also supporting the teams from the stands, playing an intramural sport, or just working out in the new Athletic Center; alums raised $22 million for the Center during the height of the economic downturn which speaks volumes about their experiences at Wooster (in fact, the donated money covered almost the entire cost of the building). The admissions representative called it the “wow piece” of campus (although I thought there were a lot of “wow pieces – a lot of buildings are really great!). When the tour guide was taking us through the new athletic center, she told us, “The material used to make the [indoor] track is the same stuff they used at the Beijing Olympics. I don’t know how that benefits me, but it sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?”
Students have a strong sense of community activism and they tend to get involved in the wider community, although their Entrepreneur Program seems to need some work; I asked both the tour guide and the admissions counselor what they would do if someone handed them a million dollars to improve campus. The tour guide said, “Save the entrepreneur program.” The admissions counselor had that 3rd on his list after expand the organic farming initiative and work on the environmental science program. The social entrepreneurship program pairs students with non-profits around the community to develop and refine sustainable plans. There’s also Global Entrepreneurship in Bangalore, India. The connection to India started about 100 years ago because of missionaries. Now Wooster has a large alumni base in India who know that it’s not about the big name but about the quality of the education, so the school has become a hot-spot for students wanting to study in the US.
Academics are impressive here. The sciences are particularly strong; Wooster ranks 4th in the country for Chemistry PhDs from a liberal arts school. They’re also 22nd in the country for engineering PhDs – and they don’t even have an engineering major! However, they do have a 3-2 engineering partnership with both Akron and Wash U of St. Louis. There are several other 3-2 programs, as well, such as in environmental studies (Duke) and in nursing. They even have a recent graduate with a Fulbright in Nuclear Science studying at George Washington. The academic buildings we saw were beautiful: lots of wood, nice carpeting, and comfortable work areas. They were warm and inviting – definitely conducive to a learning environment. As with most universities, they sometimes had oddly paired departments sharing buildings such as Philosophy and Geology (since the philosophy department is on the top floor and the geology department is on the bottom floor, the running joke is that the building proves “mind over matter”).
I took the admissions people up on their offer to eat in the dining hall, located on the 2nd floor of the closest thing they have to a student union. I got there in the middle of the lunch rush; the line to get into the dining hall was all the way down the stairs; I almost left, but decided to check out the bookstore for a few minutes instead. After spending about 5 minutes there, the line was gone, so I headed up the stairs. I found a stereotypical dining hall: a large room, lots of tables, several options for food. Students swiped their cards as they enter and could stay to eat (they could eat as much as they wanted), or ask for a to-go container which they could fill for the same swipe. Although very full, there was seating for everyone, and people were getting served quickly. In addition to a lot of the typical stations (sandwiches, pizza, burgers/hot dogs), they had things like eggs-to-order (including omelets) all day, specialty foods, a large salad bar, etc. Food was clearly marked if it was vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free. Apparently there are kosher and halal meals available as well; about 10% of the students self-report as Jewish and several more self-report as Muslim. The community is incredibly inclusive. Cultural and religious celebrations are common on campus and draw big crowds of all sorts of students. My tour guide (who was from India) said: “Yeah, in my culture, you’ll see lots of parties: a god defeated someone by doing something – so we celebrate!” The admissions counselor said: “You’ll see the whitest person from Iowa dressed up some traditional garb of whatever group is celebrating.” Eid dinner, Seders, and other religious dinners also draw people of all faiths. People are very open and want to share their traditions and faiths with others – not to convert, but to educate. Wooster students are the types to want to learn about these differences and celebrate them. Who wouldn’t want to have that sort of community?