campus encounters

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Archive for the category “Iowa”

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

Central College

Central College (visited 12/4/19)

Central pond 4Central College is a hidden gem located about 45 minutes from Des Moines. Students are out and about (even on a cool day in early December) and are helpful and friendly, going out of their way to provide directions or talk about their experiences on campus. “You’re going to have people who want to get to know you, who see you every day, in a residential community. Some come with anxiety issues, that sort of thing – and they blossom because professors nurture them, take them out of their comfort zone, help them do things they didn’t think they could do. People get comfortable and then they’re doing things they couldn’t imagine doing. You’ll get true, genuine support here. Faculty will be blunt – good and bad – when it’s warranted. Students don’t try to get legs up on others.” Combine that level of support with a tuition price point of $18,400 and you have a solid, affordable education that will provide personal and academic growth.

Central quad 2I spent about an hour talking to the Maryland rep, a recent Central alum. “My freshman year, I was all about athletics. I was not inclined to go to class. I just wanted to play basketball. I ended up having to go to my local community college to bring grades up and turn myself around.” He appreciates how much people here approach students on personal level. “I was exposed to so many different opportunities right from the start. They were ready and constantly there. My advisor and class dean were emailing. Professors were keeping me accountable and I had support. I felt like I had a bunch of moms and dads around. That was my concern coming from Texas – it had to be the right fit coming from that far from home. Interactions were all great.” Professors would invite them to Thanksgiving, but they’d also put their foot down when they have to put their foot down. “There are immense opportunities for growth.”

Central entryStudents who thrive are those who are involved in their communities, maybe who come from the same type of small towns where they know everyone. Those who struggle are those who just want to do their time and be anonymous. This is a 4-year residential community; “it’s helpful because about 40% of students are from outside Iowa. There are more students from Arizona than from Minnesota,” said one of the students I talked to in the chapel. (The rep told me that they’re starting to get more East cost and Southern states represented). Another student said that 75% of students stay on campus at least 2 weekends a month.

Central 2Athletics are a big deal here – almost 75% of students are varsity athletes! I asked how the non-athletes fare on campus, or if they feel left out. “We do a great job of including non-athletes. We have over 100 clubs/organizations if they don’t want to be involved at all, but a lot will come watch the games because they’re fun – but they can also be a student manager or in the AT program if they want to.” They’ve recently renovated the athletic center with football locker rooms, a new wrestling center (the biggest in nation!), and a student athlete lounge. Phase 2 will include a bigger AT room. Football brings in the most fans; softball, basketball, and wrestling round out the other top sports.

Central pond 5They have a great pond that’s the central focal point of campus. Many traditions center around this pond. The Lemming Race at Homecoming involves students dressing in costumes, running from the library to the pond, jumping in, and singing the fight song on the island. Students will ice skate on the pond in winter. In the spring, they hold Spring Fling boat races – they get boats but no paddles. Often, students are tossed in on their birthday “but only if they’re jerks!” said a student. Other traditions include the first-year dinner at the President’s house (“He always makes himself available!”), Kahoot Night, pumpkin carving contests, and Twas The Night Before Finals (late night breakfast).

Central mapCampus is located in Pella, a town of 10,000. There’s plenty to do: movies, bowling, restaurants, cafés, shopping – but the rep says, “They need to promote more of the what’s going on around town. They have an app and social media that they should make more use of.” They’re also only a couple miles from a lake which provides other types of activities. If students get sick of the campus or town, Des Moines is 45 minutes away, so there’s easy access to the bigger city. The Student Activity Board runs airport shuttles for break, and there’s a bus that stops in town that’ll run to Des Moines and Chicago.

Central chapel 1They don’t have traditional dorms on campus; they’re all suite style with a common room, bathrooms, and bedrooms. “They have a lot of lounge space, and upkeep is good.” Freshman suites often hold 7-8 students so they have a core group of people to get to know. Upperclassmen suites are usually a little larger, and there are multiple townhouses on campus for upperclassmen, as well.

“We have a relationship with the Reform Church, but we are not affiliated with the church, if that makes sense.” There are scholarships of members of the church. There is a beautiful chapel on campus, but other than that, there’s no real sense that there’s any relationship with religion (no sculptures, crucifixes, etc). Students are not required to attend chapel services/masses, nor are they required to take classes.

Central sci cntr

The newly revamped Science Center

Academically, the school promotes exploration. They want students to explore as much as possible. Students don’t try to get a leg up on each other; the atmosphere is fairly collaborative. The general education core is typical Liberal Arts, covering a wide variety of topics. “They do a good job of innovating and revamping the curriculum. We pick the brains of students and faculty.” They have a week-long Career Kick-starter with hands-on workshops on Interview skills, resume building, etc. and will teaching them about internship opportunities. He’d like to see more money spent on renovating some of the older classroom buildings. They’ve recently completed Roe which is made of 80% recycled materials like banana peels in the floor!

Central bridge

The bridge is supposed to represent the bridging of academics (the Liberal Arts) but also of people and ideas.

The rep is proud of the diversity initiatives, many led by students, that have been put in place since he arrived on campus several years ago. The week after I visited, he said there were going to be multiple Diversity and Inclusion discussions involving faculty, staff, and students. “They try to promote a culture of inclusion here. We’re always asking, How can we improve things? What issues are students facing? In defense of the college, they were not as aware of the issue before and had the “if not broken…” attitude, but that’s changed.” Students are becoming more self-aware and understanding what the initiative is. “When it’s diverse, it’s more fun. You get to experience a lot more and learn a lot more. It speaks to the development of character, as well.”

Central 1I asked him what it was like to be what it was like to be in what I imagined was a fairly significant racial minority on campus: “Initially it was overwhelming being here as a student of color. Students coming in need to be prepared. They will be the minority, but we’re yielding more students of color so we’re changing the tune of voices here. We’re trying to better ourselves and educate ourselves. Now it’s become more of an education and then we’ll transition into the phase of brainstorming and implementation.”

There’s no application fee and no essay “so they don’t lose anything by applying,” but they’re not currently using Common App. Their cost of attendance is just under $50,000 with 2 levels of scholarships (4K and 8K) and Scholar Day possibilities that are stackable.

The rep ended with this: “The things that happen here may seem small, it may seem insignificant, but it’s going to allow you to thrive in the real world! Check out the numerous opportunities, the character development, the professional development which is so underrated! There are so many intricacies at a college like this that are not taught at the DI and DII levels! There are top-notch individuals here! This is the type of education you want.”

© 2019

Coe College

Coe College (visited 12/6/19)

Coe quad 1Coe’s campus has a great vibe and has the benefit of being located within Cedar Rapids, the 2nd largest city in the state. Students who want an actual campus with green spaces will find that here, but Coe isn’t isolated; the city is easily accessed. “There’s a huge advantage of being 1 mile from downtown. They can walk in less than 15 minutes, and they can ride cities buses for free. You get a wealth of opportunities here.” Coe ranks #15 nationally for internship opportunities (nationally and internationally) and has been named a “Top Producer” for Fulbright winners. Students get solid academic training and multiple opportunities to put knowledge into practice.

Coe city map

A picture of Cedar Rapids showing some of the connections that Coe has around town

One of the first stops on the tour was the C3 (Creativity, Careers, Community) building, and I was able to talk to one of the people working there. “They can demonstrate to employers that they can do the work.” The entire point of what they do is to get students off campus and into Cedar Rapids and beyond. Sometimes they can leverage work-study so students can work in a non-profit in town! This is the first college I’ve heard of that has moved Alumni Affairs into the Career Center. The Alumni base is strong; there are over 4,000 in the local area who will reach out. “We understand the link between students and alumni! It’s rare that we have students with an interest where we can’t connect them to someone in that field.” There are some incredible opportunities for students at Coe:

  • Coe ampitheaterCurt Menefee, the NFL commentator, is a Coe Alum. He just announced a fully funded summer internship in LA for a Coe student focusing on Sports Journalism, sports management, or another similar field.
  • Sandeep Giri works at X Labs (Google) reserves an internship for a Coe student majoring in math, physics, or comp sci.
  • This is a Research Experience site, 1 of only 5 small schools funded by the National Science Foundation, usually reserved for grad students. They get housing, food, and a stipend. Usually about 60 students selected; priority is given to Coe students, but some availability for others to come (including Harvard).
  • Science faculty is internationally renowned, including glass research: they’ll send students to Corning, CERN (collider in Switzerland), etc.
  • They’re located in the Medical Corridor with major hospitals and clinics where students shadow for surgeries, complete clinicals, and more.
Coe dorm 2

One of the dorms

Fewer than 40% of students come from Iowa, so this isn’t a suitcase-school. Students tend to stick around. About 1/3 of students are varsity athletes, and games are a big deal. One tradition is for teams to ring the bell on the corner of the quad when they win. Ringing the bell also marks a student’s beginning and end of their time at Coe: they ring it during orientation and again at graduation. Greek life is fairly active, but certainly not the only thing on campus to do including socials between chapters and a lot of philanthropic work (including chapters that will pair up to work together). Coe was listed as one of the top 10 schools that “does Greek right.” They have a coordinator who oversees everything Rush isn’t delayed, and there is separate Greek Houses. Students who wish to live together are places on the top 2 floors of some of the dorms.


Coe field station board 2

White board where students expressed how they felt about the field station

There are multiple ways for students to study off campus, including May Term, a 3.5 week travel-course which go to a variety of places domestically and abroad — and Coe will actually pay for the students’ first May Term! They also offer a New York Term (which they call the “Ultimate Liberal Arts Experience”) and a Wilderness Field Station in Minnesota which runs 2 month-long summer programs.


In the last 7 years, they’ve been expanding their enrollment, so the physical campus AND curricular offering are expanding. The majority of classes have 10-15 students; intro level may have 60-70 in the lecture with labs or discussions of 8-12. About 40% of students will double major.

  • Coe art int

    Part of the Arts building

    The rep is partial to the curricular changes happening in the music dept:

    • There’s a musical industry emphasis. Students are releasing their own music on spotify. “the record label that they stay involved in is great.
    • They have pre-music therapy, musical theater, and jazz tracks.
  • They have a Center for Health and Society.
  • PoliSci: because Iowa is the first to caucus, they get a lot of candidates visiting campus. One of the students got a press pass for the LGBTQ forum that had 10 candidates participating. “She raved about her experiences.”
  • Coe fire pit

    One of the campus fire pits

    Students interested in direct-entry Nursing need an interview and have a 3.7 GPA and 27 ACT. However, the vast majority go through the standard application in their sophomore year. Regardless of entry, everyone is on the same path with classes in the first year. Usually about 30 seats are available so they can maintain one-on-one relationships that students are guaranteed for 3 semesters with a nurse practitioner.

  • They have an Organizational Science major
  • Students in Environmental Studies and Envi Sci have worked on expanding the campus sustainability efforts to include lighting from solar panels, a green roof on the student union, rain gardens, and a permeable parking lot.
Coe bell

The bell that’s run after athletic victories, by First-years at orientation, and by graduates. 

Athletics are a big deal, and the tour guide said that “the majority of students are athletes.” In their first year, they have study tables which he thought was helpful in his transition to college. Those are only required after the first year if they don’t have the required minimum GPA. Students like coming out for games; the community is very supportive of each other.

A few other traditions the tour guide enjoys include:

  • Flunk Day: on one day the spring (usually after break), classes get canceled, and there are activities. They announce this by running through dorms with air horns at 5am.
  • Late Night Breakfast when faculty serve breakfast at midnight.

© 2019

William Penn University

William Penn University (visited 12/4/19)

WP quadThis is a small Quaker college in a large town in Iowa. The rep, a recent alum, said that she often gets asked, “Why come to small town Oskaloosa?” Her answer: mostly for sports. Many students come from out of state (often the Southwest and other Midwestern states with fewer DIII schools) to play. They just added lacrosse and men’s volleyball; they’ll be adding women’s wrestling and shooting next year. They do get some transfers who didn’t make it at a DI school. Because they’re NAIA, they’re allowed to give athletic scholarships. Academic and athletic scholarships are not stackable; students must choose if they qualify for both.

WP mainI’ve been to some other Quaker colleges (such as Earlham, Haverford, and Guilford) that totally impressed; this one still has some work to do – but I think they’re trying. Although affiliated with the Quakers, nothing is forced but religious life/Meetings are there for those who want it. Students do take an 8-week Quaker values class, but “by no means do you have to believe what they believe. My Catholic grandmother freaked out because she thought they’d convert me, but that’s not what this is about. The class is just an introduction to the basic tenets so you understand the underpinnings of the school’s values.”

WP solar panel

Student-built solar panel

Academically, they offer a fairly typical array of majors and minors except for a few areas. It’s unusual for a school this size to offer Industrial Technology, Engineering (including Software engineering), and Accounting (Public or General). They have a Solar Lab, Media Proeduciotn, and Communications Research Institute. Nursing is now a full program (instead of RN to BSN). They do need to grow some of their offerings (such as they only offer a chemistry minor instead of a major), and some of their facilities need work; departments are tucked into whatever spaces are available. The Education department, for example, seems to be an afterthought up some random stairs snaking through an old building.

WP engo labThe biggest classes cap at about 35 students. The rep’s smallest class had 4 (“It was Comp 2, but I took it in the fall which wasn’t the typical time.”) Her next smallest had 15. “Professors will know you whether you want them to or not.” She chose to come here because she didn’t want to be a number. “I grew up 2 blocks from the University of Northern Iowa. It wasn’t for me.”

WP dorm 1

Hallway of the new dorm

The best change that the rep has seen over her time here is that they’re getting more students (there are 1001 students on campus right now) and there are more things to do. They’ve built some new dorms that are fairly extraordinary with suites. These are located across the main street from campus (there’s a pedestrian bridge). There’s also an older dorm that had been closed but, but they’re renovating them one wing at a time. The rooms open to the outside like an old hotel (and frankly looks a little creepy!). “We try to only put juniors and seniors here because they’ve already established community and know the ropes. It’s a little less secured and there’s less “supervision” so to speak so we want the students who are more independent to live here.”

WP dorms 3

The older dorm that’s getting renovated

There are some things to do in Oskaloosa (Osky) but “It is kind of quiet. You can get bored sometimes, but Des Moines is only an hour away. The town is getting better this year about advertising things going on.” She said that it’s easy to get a job in town and they’ll work around the students’ class schedules.

WP fine arts 2They’re getting better about having things to do on campus, too. A few things she mentioned were Human Foosball games, ice cream socials, and Greek Life. None of the chapters are national and there are no Greek houses “so you don’t get the party vibe.” They do community service, keep a minimum GPA, and provide a community for students. Her chapter won the Governor’s Award last summer for doing so much community service. “It’s more a resume builder; it just gives more opportunities.” They also sponsor Greek games when people pledge in go to a sporting event to support the players.

WP sportsShe said that 80% of students are involved in at least one extracurricular activity (which seems a little low to me). Classes are built around that: all of them meet between 8:15-3:05. Sports and other extracurricular run from 3:30 to 5. Evening classes start at 6. “We don’t want them to have to pick between classes and extra-curriculars.” Sports do seem like a very big deal here. The Admission and Financial Aid offices are actually located in the PAC (Athletic Center) so I was able to see several teams practicing – the track team was on the 2nd floor track overlooking the courts where multiple teams were holding their own practices. They also have a Dance Team.

© 2019


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