Western Washington University (visited 6/23/17)
WWU quickly became one of my favorite schools. I’m not sure what the vibe is, but whatever is going on there is working — and with an 82% freshman-sophomore retention, the students like it, too. Driving up the hill to campus, we decided it felt a little like a summer camp. We later learned that there’s a designated arboretum along the edge of campus. The wooded area opened up to a beautiful campus at the top of the hill. “This is the Goldilocks of campuses,” said one student. “It’s the right size.”
In many ways, this is an artsy campus “but that’s not all-encompassing. I wouldn’t describe the engineering department like that!” said one of the reps when we asked her if our impressions were accurate. There is a general sense of inclusive access and closing gaps starting with admissions and carrying through the way the students treat each other and the wider world. This is an open, accepting community. About a dozen students attended the counselor reception so we had time to talk to them. Their nametags listed preferred gender pronouns.
Students are aware of and interested in what’s going on in the world. “I haven’t met an apathetic person on campus and I appreciate that,” said a tour guide. Students mobilize themselves. They’ll help get people registered to vote and hold protests for the Dakota pipeline. “There’s a general sense of wanting to talk about events and differences. Yeah, you see things that seem skewed towards the liberal, but there are also posters up about conservative talking-points as well.” It’s not surprising that for 3 years running, WWU has been #1 nationally among mid-sized universities sending graduates to the Peace Corps.
This is a medium-sized university with 15,000 students, about 95% of whom are undergrads. Not surprisingly, most students are from Washington. Just over half (52%) self-identify as some sort of under-represented student (including low income, students of color (25%), and first gen (31%)). “People might have multiple identities: we don’t look at diversity in a compartmentalized way. It’s intersectional,” said the President.
One unique academic aspect stems from this approach of intersectionality: the Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Study is a bit like Evergreen State College in that students can collaborate with faculty to create a course of study. There are significant differences, but the spirit is there. These are students who want to look at things intentionally and systematically, usually with some component of social justice/change. Advisors help students acclimate to the learning style, the narrative evaluations, and grappling with creating their own degree. Students write an evaluation at the end of the quarter; the professor responds and decides if they get credit. “I felt like I learned so much more because there was more dialogue and in-depth conversation with peers and the professor.” It’s good for students who want to share their views and learn from each other. The college is physically located on South Campus, but not all classes are there. Students still have to take a certain number of “Main Campus” classes. Most students apply during freshman or sophomore year but can apply as an incoming freshman. Their core requirements differ from Main; they mirror each other but are specific to the campus.
The university’s tag-line is Active Minds Changing Lives. “Students love learning and doing something meaningful,” said one of the students. Teachers are here because they want to teach, and just over half of the students will do research with a professor. Academics of note are:
- Unusual majors include Canadian-American Studies, Decision Sciences, Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management, and Behavioral Neuroscience.
- Unusual Minors include Arts Enterprise & Cultural Innovation, Business Analytics, Disaster Risk Reduction, and Sustainable Design
The College of the Environment was one of the first in the country; they’ve been ranked in the top 2% in the nation for number of grads who go on to earn research doctorates. “Environmental Sustainability = Human Sustainability!”
- The Environmental Studies department offers standard majors as well as interdisciplinary/dual majors (like Urban Planning and Sustainable Development and Energy Policy and Management).
- Environmental Science Department offers concentrations in Freshwater, Marine, and Terrestrial Ecology as well as Toxicology.
- Theater is ranked as #10 in the country. There are several professional theaters within 10-15 miles where students can intern.
- There are about 150 students in Honors each year; an honor-housing option is available.
- IDEA: Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship in Action
- They offer a Leadership Minor open to all students, and they’re working on a Masters. The curricular and co-curricular work together. They’re trying to get a leadership conference going through UNESCO.
Engineering: All tracks are accredited (except vehicle design; there’s no accreditation for this). Students aren’t admitted directly into the program; they apply as soon as they finish the pre-reqs, much of which depends on where they start with math. This is a highly hands-on department. Students who invent/create things here will retain intellectual property (but are asked to acknowledge the school)! There’s a patent office on campus to help them with this process.
- Electrical Engineering
- Manufacturing Engineering
- Plastics & Composites Engineering
- Industrial Design: Students built a solar window, a transparent window that’s also a solar panel.
- Industrial Technology-Vehicle Design: this is a more competitive taking only 12 students (the other 4 take 25 a year). They have a Vehicle Research Lab where students can build Formula 1 racecars from scratch – and they recently beat Stanford in a competition! Bill Nye filmed an episode here.
- The Fine Arts department takes advantage of the fact that this is the 2nd largest number of artists in residence after Santa Fe: film, painting, sew/knit/quilt/crochet. Art classes are open to non-majors, but majors get first pick. Open spots are then available to others.
- A student designed the weather meter on Bond Hall – if it’s windy, the fountain gets lower so people don’t get sprayed with water. There’s a tradition that if they win at intramurals, they’ll jump in the fountain.
The school has a strong Learning Support program. “The first year is very hands-on and progressively becomes hands-off. They’re coming out of K-12 where it was SO directed. We teach them how to ask for accommodations and how to advocate for themselves. It’s to help them move forward into being independent with this.”
There’s no football and no Greek life on campus (although their rowing and soccer teams are national champions!). “That really helps town-gown relations!” Bellingham (population 82,000) is a beautiful place to live. Students get a free bus pass to get around town. The Canadian Rockies are visible from campus, and students can be at the mountains in an hour! The ocean is “right there”. The border is only 15 minutes away; Vancouver is another 30 beyond that. Students can catch the Amtrak for an easy day trip. Mt. Baker is an hour away, and Seattle (without traffic!) is 90 minutes. So many outdoor activities in the vicinity: skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, fishing, and even “hammocking if that’s your thing!” There are only 3 national chain restaurants (Starbucks, Pita Pit, and Jimmy John’s). The rest are locally owned.
Admissions uses their own application requiring a personal essay and activity list with an optional “tell us more” section. They require a math-based course in senior year. However, if students have completed an advanced math beyond Algebra 2 before senior year, they are exempt from this requirement. This is a WUE school, but it’s treated almost like a competitive scholarship-based program. Only about 15% of students will get WUE, but then they offer 2 other award tiers for others.