Ursinus College (visited 11/12-13/2018
J.D. Salinger attended Ursinus (although never graduated). In recognition of him, the college offers a $40,000 (per year) scholarship to an outstanding creative writer; the winner also gets to live in his old dorm room for a year. There are also 9 finalist awards (thanks to Salinger’s 9 Stories!).
“We’re a 150 year old start-up,” said the President. “There are great traditions, but we also need to think ahead.” They’ve done that, and they did a great job showing us what made them different from many other small liberal arts institutions:
- The Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) started in 2000. “I can’t imagine another place where students are watching something that combined physics and dance in connection with the Galileo work that they were reading,” said one professor.
- The syllabus, voted on by the faculty, is the same for every section. Only 25% of the curriculum can be changed in any given year, ensuring that all students – freshmen to seniors – have at least some of it in common.
- Sections are capped at 16 students to keep the focus on close reading of texts, writing, and discussion. How that happens within the class differs. “Texts are springboards for them to think about their own experiences and lives. It creates a culture of students who are able to discuss things.” Discussion counts for 40% of their grades; the remainder is from writing, including required first drafts and extensive revisions.
Four essential questions thread through the experience: what should matter to me, how should we live together, how can we understand the world, what will I do?
- CIE classes are taught by faculty across the college and supported by upper-class leaders (Writing and CIE Fellows). “We don’t see it as interdisciplinary – we see it as transcending disciplines,” said a professor. Topics are integrated into campus life with regular Common Events (lectures, etc).
Experiential Learning Project (XLP): students must apply what they’ve learned through an Internship, Study Abroad, Summer Fellowship, Independent Research, or Student Teaching. These is done in junior or senior years to ensure a solid academic footing.
- Students have completed internships at places like Mote Marine Lab & Aquarium, Chewy.com, a microbiology lab at Johnson and Johnson, and BigStuff Studios. One student interned at the NJ Festival of Ballooning, dealing with all the vendors; he ended up with multiple job offers including with Coke.
- The Philadelphia Experience “Philly Ex” takes a small cohort to live in Philadelphia (at Drexel) and use it as a classroom. Classes (often core requirements) are taught by Ursinus faculty, and students complete internships (including Office of General Counsel, National Museum of American Jewish History, radio stations, Drexel Athletic Departments, Penn University Hospital, Broad Street Ministry, Dance Fusion, and Wilma Theater).
“You can’t pigeonhole people here,” said one rep, but students who want a smaller environment (there are 1500 undergrads) and are willing to engage are most likely to arrive and thrive. “It’s a great place to explore things and figure yourself out,” said a student. They offer a huge diversity in extra-curriculars created for a variety of students. “Even if you aren’t a stereotypical extrovert, you can still find like-minded students who are looking for the same things you are.”
Students have to be accountable for themselves and to others. They need to ask questions and be curious. “Being able to connect to others and express thoughts is important,” said one professor. “It doesn’t mean you have to be good at it right away, but you should have curiosity and you have to be willing to work with others to figure out answers.”
People tend to be kind and encourage each other. A counselor asked the student/faculty panel, “What happens at Thanksgiving if you can’t go home?” Without missing a beat, one of the professors said, “Come to my house.” If students have a social anxiety or disorder, they often do well here. One student has severe ADD and loved the support. Clearly things are going well: they have an impressive 89% retention rate and 77% graduation rate, both well above the national average.
Ursinus definitely deserves its spot on the Colleges That Change Lives list.
- “I came in a hotshot senior thinking I was going to be a neuroscience double major. Then I took FYS and went head-to-head with a world-class philosophy professor. I lost. My world got turned on its head. I figured things out.”
- “This isn’t an extension of high school,” said one of the professors. “I do hold them accountable. There’s a lot in there to do, but don’t have a fear of failure. The more small failures you have, the less likely it is you’ll have a colossal one later.”
- Students get real-world experiences such as being put into a group of 4 (without a choice of who they work with!) to solve a problem for a real client. “That was the hardest part!” said one of the students which is exactly the point of the exercise. “You don’t always know who you’ll work with or get along with them, but the job has to get done.
- A student on the Diversity Panel was transgendered, they’re a member of the first Frat to go gender-neutral (as a side-note, 60% of students join Greek Life, mostly in local chapters). “They’ve been doing better with the gender-neutral bathrooms,” they told us. “I’ve been fortunate that my professors have validated my identity.”
- Study abroad experiences must be at least 6 weeks (or 4 weeks plus another significant component) – this is not one of those schools that uses spring break trips to pad study abroad numbers. They hold a pre-departure class to address culture shock, safety, and health. 26% complete a semester or yearlong experience for credit!
- Each year, 70-80 sophomores and juniors get selected as Summer Fellows with stipends up to $4000 stipend and free housing. They work in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. “Abstracts can look scary; I show them to first-years and tell them that this will be them in a couple years. We’re the school that can get them there. This isn’t the recipe for McDonald’s Secret Sauce. We spent 20 years building a culture where the history, psych, English, and other professors want to do the research with the kids.”