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Oberlin College

Oberlin College (visited 4/14/12)

Oberlin 4On the Sunday morning after I toured Oberlin, I was sitting in the local coffee shop to get breakfast and check email before getting on the road. When I arrived at 9 am, a handful of students were already there with laptops and books. By the time I left at 10, the place was packed, mostly with college students. Computers and books were everywhere, and the students were focused on their work – on a Sunday morning! Maybe I should check out more coffee shops in college towns, but I don’t think this is something you’ll see every day. There were all types of kids in there, which is typical of Oberlin – in that Oberlin students aren’t typical. They are hard workers, though.

Oberlin 2Typical for my travels through Ohio (which seems to have a disproportionate number of colleges in the middle of towns in the middle of nowhere. . .), I suddenly was in the town of Oberlin – and then in the middle of the Oberlin College campus. Buildings there are as impressive and as varied as the students seem to be. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the architecture: there was gothic, Spanish, “Radiator Deco” (the façade did really look like a radiator). The campus sprawls around most of the Tappan Square (home to a couple of albino squirrels, the unofficial mascot of the college). The campus is mostly attractive, but other than the part of campus directly around Tappan Square, there is not the feel of a separate campus, per se. However, the town of Oberlin is about the size of a postage stamp, so it’s hardly necessary to have a separate campus. The tour guide told me that the movie theater in town is currently closed for renovations . . . so they can add a 2nd screen. When I asked her what she’d like to change about the college, she told me that she wishes that the students could get into Cleveland more easily and more often.

albino squirrel 3Oberlin, in addition to being a highly selective liberal arts school, might be better known for its Music Conservatory; the two parts of campus blend beautifully. The admissions counselor described the music talent on the entire campus as “not-so-hot to quite fancy.” The students are described as “Liberal Arts students with a music bent and Music Students with an academic bent.” Oberlin offers a 5-year dual-degree program in which students can earn both a Bachelors of Music and a Bachelors of Arts/Science. Non-music majors can and often do take classes in the Conservatory, including private lessons which cost $7.50/30-minute lesson which is a steal!

I visited during Admitted Student weekend as well as the Multi-Cultural Recruitment weekend. One of the math professors was on hand in the admissions office to talk with prospective students; she told me about a Freshman Seminar in which they read both non-fiction and fiction (A Beautiful Mind, Proof, several others). It’s the sort of class I wish I had access to. I also had a chance to talk to one of the directors of admission; unfortunately, the NC rep was not in since the reps rotate on Saturdays.

Oberlin 1Housing and dining on campus got high marks from the students I spoke with. Dining options are plentiful, ranging from two large dining halls to several food co-ops, including a kosher co-op. Housing options include First Year Experience and Special Interest Housing, including Co-ops, language houses, and Social/Justice housing. The co-ops, particularly when food was involved, were very popular; about 1/3 of the students eat at one of those on a fairly regular basis. As members of co-ops, they have to put in about four hours a week towards keeping it running and to eat there for the reduced rate, but if the student is on work-study, this can count towards their hour allotment. In addition to this kind of work, students complete a lot of community service. They tend to be passionate and excited about something, whether it’s academics, community service, or a club; whatever they decide to do, they pursue with a passion.

Students tend to jump into academics in the same way. Although they have several classes with more than 80 students (mostly at the introductory level), this doesn’t deter the students; they know that the size drops quickly as they move past introductory levels, but the students are also the type to actively seek help, form study groups, or in other ways make sure that they make the most of the classes, even without individual attention. Research is very popular among students, and they seek chances to do this both with professors and independently; they often come up with interesting, interdisciplinary work such as combining physics and music. Oberlin also has implemented giving grants of up to $30K to students to pursue Entrepreneurial enterprises.

Oberlin 3More interesting – and something unique to Oberlin (at least I haven’t run into it) – is the Experimental College or “ExCo.” This provides an opportunity for students to learn from each other in areas not offered by traditional classes such as Korean or a martial art. Students can earn up to 5 credits in this way. Students also have to complete at least three Winter Terms on campus. Many students will do internships, participate in study abroad trips, put on productions, work on research, or complete other types of experiences that are not always so accessible during the regular semester. It’s not uncommon for students to complete all four Winter Terms simply because they’re interested in what they’re doing. The college provides other hands-on and unique experiences for students, as well, such as opening up the large telescope twice a month for anyone who wants to come check things out. They have an active theater department that puts on more shows than most other schools I’ve visited; students do not need to be a theater major to participate in shows, and they have enough interest across the student body for every production – in fact, many of the shows are proposed by the students because they look for more opportunities.

The last thing to mention is their art-rental program. Every term, the museum decides which artwork it will not be displaying and then offers those pieces to the students for $5 a term – including Picassos and Warhols. Students camp out for chances to rent the art of their choice. In the 60 years they have done this, not a single piece of art has been lost or damaged.

(c) 2012

Brandeis University

BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY (visited 4/10/14)

~Brandeis acad bldg 2

Freshman quad

Freshman quad

The best way I can describe campus is “eclectic.” Scattered over a hillside, the buildings seem to reflect whatever style was in vogue when it was built. The Student Center, for example, is a large building covered in sheets of copper (now green). Except for the two freshmen dorm quads, nothing really goes together. The two quads look like they came out of a traditional campus; one has a pond in the middle, the other has a large lawn.

I appreciated that they had a senior speak during the info session. Rayna was able to put a bit of personal perspective on what was otherwise a fairly bland discussion.

Science building

Science building

Classes average about 15 students and are designed to be discussion based. About half of the students double major and/or minor, and it’s easy to be part of multiple academic departments. There’s a great deal of interdisciplinary work, so students could be taking a class in their major that’s taught by someone in another area. Although they have a strong Liberal Arts focus, it’s also a major research institution, recently being awarded $20 million in NIH grants. There’s a big push to help students get to know professors, although they’re already accessible, according to Rayna. One of the programs that Brandeis has instituted is “Take your professor to lunch;” the university will pay for the food.

~Brandeis statueLouis Brandeis was “the people’s justice.” He gave back to the community in various ways; this is where the university gets its mission. They sell themselves as thinking outside the box. They send several students to do study abroad and internships abroad (including in places Rwanda). There are a few ways to travel. First is through CIEE Advanced Liberal Arts. Students needed to be fluent in the language for this. The senior who talked to us went to Barcelona; she had a Homestay and enrolled directly at University of Barcelona where she took 3 classes. She had an additional class in the Study Abroad program with the 27 students in the program. She volunteered at the Red Cross there and got to travel. For students who are not fluent and therefore don’t qualify for CIEE, they can take part in one of 350 approved programs and have no trouble transferring their credits back to Brandeis.

~Brandeis statue and observatory

The Castle (now a dorm)

The Castle (now a dorm)

Brandeis is now test-optional, giving students three options during the application process: 1) submit scores (they’ll superscore both exams); 2) Submit a combination of SATII and AP scores from 3 different subject areas; or 3) Submit a graded paper from Junior or Senior year, usually English or History. Students have to make a decision about which of these three options they want and indicate their choice on the application; they can’t submit everything and hope for the best. The optional supplement is, of course, encouraged, and hey do want to see demonstrated interest. Interviews are available but not required; they give a lot of options, including by a rep during a high school visit or by the Senior student interviewers.

Sign in a window of the Castle

Sign in a window of the Castle

Student Center

Student Center

Students seem fairly happy on campus. Several small groups of students were hanging out in the student center, but many more were simply walking alone on with one other person around campus. There was some interaction as people passed each other. Our tour guide said that there was lots of school spirit and involvement. Students enjoy going to athletic games (the mascot is the Judge and fans are called the Jury). Shuttles are easy to catch into Boston, but there’s plenty to do on campus. One of the favorite yearly traditions is the 24-Hour Musical. Students show up to audition for an unknown production about a week ahead of time; on Saturday morning, everyone shows up and are told what the musical is, what the roles are, etc. They have to learn lines, put a set together, gather costumes, etc. by Sunday when they put on the production. They do plenty of other regularly run productions throughout the year which anyone can get involved in. Students are highly involved in music, as well, here. There are plenty of practice rooms that individuals or groups can use. This is also only the 2nd university I’ve heard of who will allow students to rent art from the art museum on campus for $5 per semester (the other being Oberlin).

© 2014

College at Wooster

The College at Wooster, visited (4/20/12)

~Wooster1“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).

One of the many sculptures on campus

One of the many sculptures on campus

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.

~Wooster 6This 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.

Wooster 5However, 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!”

Their mascot in tile in the foyer of the new athletic center.

Their mascot in tile in the foyer of the new athletic center.

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?”

~Wooster 4Students 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.

Wooster 2Academics 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”).

~Wooster 3I 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?

(c) 2012

Otterbein University

Otterbein University (visited 4/17/12)

Otterbein 1One of my former students had gone to Otterbein and had a great experience, so I was particularly excited about getting to see her alma mater. As a particularly big fan of small liberal arts schools, I was hoping for great things. I knew very little about the school other than they were on the quarter system, the student had good things to say about it, and a few things that I had read on the website (and let’s face it – one website starts looking a lot like every other website after a while).

The bus pulled up to the Equestrian Center for the first part of our tour; this was a good move on their part since it highlighted a unique program at the very beginning. The Center was extensive and new; after being able to meet the representatives for our regions and a brief welcome from the President of the college (and being able to help ourselves to some very tasty cookies!), we got a tour of the riding rink and the barns where we also got to play with some of the horses, many of which looked expectantly for peppermints, the new treat of choice. Students in the Equine Studies program have priority for space in the barn for their horses, but other students can board horses as space allows. The university also owns many of the horses, most of which were donated from a variety of sources – rescues, ex-race horses, etc. Equine Science is a selective program; this year, they had about 70 applications for 22 new spots.

Theater is the most selective program on campus, accepting 16 students out of the approximately 400 who apply for the BFA in acting. We talked to several students who had auditioned for a spot in the acting program but didn’t make it; however, they liked OU so much that they came anyway and are majoring in another area of theater such as Design & Technology, Musical Theater, and Theater Management, or they’ve gone into communications, another very strong program with concentrations in areas such as broadcasting and journalism. Business is the largest major; popular concentrations include accounting, economics, finance, human resource management, and international business. Education and Nursing are both strong, popular programs, and students have high levels of success on the respective Board exams. The university is instituting several new programs this year; Sustainability Studies, Zoo/Conservation Science, and Public Administration are new and unusual, and the Arts department allows students to concentrate in areas usually only found in much larger universities (Computer Art, Sculpture, and Printmaking).

Otterbein 2Several of the schools I visited in Ohio had some sort of claim to fame about being among the first to accept or educate women and/or blacks . . . Otterbein is no different. Their claim is that they opened their doors in 1847 and were the first to have equal graduation requirements for men and women. (Oberlin, on the other hand, was the first coeducational college in theory – meaning it took them several years to actually accept female students — as well as being the first to accept and graduate black students, but apparently they didn’t have the same requirements for the degree as the men did). Depending on their wording, I guess a lot of colleges can be the “first” to have done very similar things.

Otterbein continues to lead the way in several regards. The Association of American Colleges and Universities awarded a large grant to Otterbein and four other colleges (including Tufts and Georgetown) to develop an integrative curriculum which will serve as models for other institutions. Students tend to be very happy at Otterbein; the university continues to earn high marks on the National Survey of Student Engagement. As is becoming more and more popular on campuses, they have a First Year Experience; I feel like it’s more uncommon to find a school without some sort of FYE. Otterbein has revamped their curriculum to address multidisciplinary perspectives and points of intersections. They have opened a new Living-Learning Community revolving around leadership. They are big on immersive learning (ie, travel tours) and experiential learning through internships, community service, global perspectives, and original research. They have switched over this year from quarters to semesters with an added 3-week January term to allow for more time and flexibility for immersion learning.

In terms of applications, they work on a Rolling Admissions basis, providing answers in two to three weeks. They accept the Common App, and the transcript is one of the most highly weighted parts of the application. The average GPA of accepted students hovers around a 3.4-3.5 with ACT scores in the mid-20s.

I enjoyed seeing Otterbein and learning more about the programs; it’s an attractive campus and they’re clearly putting effort into making the education worthwhile for the students. I was disappointed that their tour guides were not better trained; I heard from all the counselors (we were split into about 8 tour groups) that the tours were among the worst they had encountered. Most of the guides were freshmen, and while I think most of us had had good experiences with tours led by freshmen on other campuses, most of these students didn’t really seem to know what they were doing or how to answer questions. It can be very difficult to separate the experience on the tour from the quality of the school, so I hope this is fixed before it becomes a detriment for potential students and families visiting.

(c) 2012

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