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Union College

Union College (visit 7/31/15)

Union's main quad

Union’s main quad

The ceiling and 3rd story of Nott where the study carrels are located

The ceiling and 3rd story of Nott where the study carrels are located

Union, with its sprawling quads and light-brick and stone buildings, is physically bigger than you’d expect for the 2200 undergraduates housed on campus. The iconic building seen in all the promo materials is Nott Memorial, one of only a few 16-sided buildings in the world and is now a National Landmark. Once the school’s library, it’s used for lectures on the first floor, an art gallery on the second floor, and study carrels on the third. “I wish I could pull an all-nighter in here,” said the tour guide, “but they do eventually kick us out.”

Nott Building

Nott Building

Unusual for a liberal arts college, about half of the students study math, science (including Astronomy, Neuroscience, and Geology), or engineering (specialties include bio-, computer, electrical, and mechanical with minors in energy studies, nanotechnology, and environmental engineering). Students who want to integrate the sciences into the humanities or business should check out their Science, Medicine, and Technology in Culture major or the joint Leadership in Medicine program, an 8-year program that allows students to get the Bachelors and Masters degrees at Union (MS or MBA) AND an MD at Albany Medical.

~Union 5Their facilities rival those at bigger schools. We stopped at the aerogel lab on the tour: it’s amazing! Two of the students, a sophomore chem major and a senior mechanical engineering major came out to explain Aerogels to us (“Imagine jello without the liquid”) and tell us about their research. First they passed around some samples and said, “Don’t worry about breaking them. We’ll make more.” They’re working on making these gels out of copper for catalytic converters because they’re lighter and much cheaper than what’s being used now. They’re currently replacing a car exhaust system in the lab.

As an interesting side-note, 80% of engineers study abroad in Prague (only 60% of the total student population study abroad). There are also plenty of clubs revolving around engineering such as Engineers Without Borders, Society of Women Engineers, and National Society of Black Engineers.

~Union 3All students take a FY Preceptorial Class (2 terms long with 15 students each) and a Sophomore Research Seminar. Students can choose to do either a thesis or a seminar/capstone class. There’s plenty of flexibility in academics: students can Double Major or complete an Interdepartmental Major which meshes 2 areas of interest. For example, one student is majoring in Climate Change, combining environmental studies and geology.

~Union dorm90% of students live on campus all 4 years. Freshmen dorm rooms are small-ish but livable, “and they get better as you go up.” The college just bought a hotel right off campus which is now student housing. “Having a bathroom in the room is a big deal.” Only 10% of seniors are “released” to live off campus: “People fight to get off,” said the tour guide; the admissions rep gave a different impression. I was left wondering how much of either impression was true.

Something really unusual at Union is the Minerva House System (named for the Goddess of Wisdom): all students are assigned to 1 of the 7 houses; these provide social connections across years and majors as well as leadership opportunities. House Councils (mad up of 15-20 people) determine how the $25,000 yearly budget gets spent. “There’s lots of food,” said the tour guide. Programs could be large like OctoberFest or smaller like Dinner with a Professor, Pizza and Politics (lunch once a week); Waffle Wednesday; Sundaes on Sunday. Each Minerva House has about 300 total students plus faculty and staff. Students can apply to live in their house after their first year.

One of the food options on campus

One of the food options on campus

There’s also a Minerva Fellowship; students apply to be selected to complete a global service project for 10 months directly after graduation (July to April) in 1 of 6 countries. In May, they are back on campus debriefing, giving presentations, work with the next group of Minerva Fellows, etc. I spoke with a recent returnee from Ecuador who was working for admissions through the summer and is off to law school in the fall.

Admissions is Test-optional but they will superscore both tests if they’re submitted. Interviews are recommended but not required and can be done on skype if necessary.

~Union dance pavilionAlthough Schenectady isn’t the most impressive of cities (it was hit hard when the GE plant all but closed), both the town and Albany (right next door) provide a lot of off-campus things to do. It’s also a transportation hub: the Amtrak and bus stations provides service to NYC (2.5 hours south) and Boston (2.5 hours east) and the airport is close. The Adirondacks aren’t that far north, so there’s plenty of skiing, hiking, etc. Ski trips are popular; for $20, students get transportation, lift tickets, and equipment rentals.

Jackson Garden

Jackson Garden

On campus events are plentiful, so there isn’t even much need for “escaping.” Hockey is big here and the only DI team. All others are DIII. Jackson Garden provides a 10-acre get-away right on campus. “Some professors come out here for class. It’s a great place to hang out.” One of the big annual traditions is Lobster Fest; an alum donates 1 lobster and a t-shirt for every undergrad.

(c) 2015

Clarkson University

Clarkson University (visited 7/27/15)

Fire pit and the main quad

Fire pit and the main quad

The old campus center and the school mascot.

The old campus center and the school mascot.

Clarkson’s campus looks like anything but a school known for its engineering programs. It’s a spacious campus with modern buildings and lots of open space. This surprise doesn’t just extend to the physical plant; it also applies to the people. I was shown around campus by an admissions rep, himself a recent Clarkson graduate and a Business major. “What surprised me about Clarkson is how many people aren’t doing engineering, and how many things not related to this field they’re interested in.”

The on-campus ice rink

The on-campus ice rink

The school is great at “repurposing” buildings and other things on campus. The old campus center now houses the Ice Rink – right in the middle of campus! Their men’s and women’s hockey teams both play at the DI level (all other sports are DIII). The women were the 2014 national champs, beating the University of Minnesota. They have a pub in this building, too, “which is mostly open during games,” said the rep. It’s not a dry campus. “We know they’re college kids. As long as they’re of age and responsible, we don’t have an issue with it.”

One of the dorm options

One of the dorm options

A vast majority of students (86%) live on campus. Only 10-12% of students choose to affiliate with fraternity or sorority; rush happens sophomore year. There is some Greek housing, much of it on the perimeter of campus. I passed several of the houses when I mistakenly turned into campus too soon, so I wove my way through a fairly wooded area where the Greek houses were, finally emerging onto the main part of campus by large new dorms and academic buildings.

Freshmen dorms

Freshmen dorms

Students can have cars on campus all 4 years for no fee. If they don’t have a car, Adirondack Trailways stops on campus, and they can get to Syracuse and Albany (and from there, really anywhere).

The school has several divisions that deserve more recognition but are overshadowed by the engineering:

  • ~Clarkson 4The School of Arts and Sciences offers many of the typical undergraduate majors you might expect. The surprise major is Social Documentation which combines the social sciences or humanities with Communication and Media.
  • The School of Business offers interdisciplinary programs including Engineering and Management.
  • The Institute for a Sustainable Environment offers only 2 majors: Env. Health Science and Env. Science and Policy but offers several minors and 2 graduate programs

If Clarkson doesn’t have what students want in terms of course offerings, they can cross-register at St. Lawrence University, Canton, and SUNY Potsdam, all of which are within 15 minutes of Clarkson.

An Academic Building

An Academic Building

Engineering is, of course, the “crowning glory” of the school and what they are known for. Many first year students aren’t sure which specialty they want to pursue, or they think they know but mistakenly pick the wrong one. For example, students who are interested in Wind Energy should study aeronautical engineering, but those who want to look at sustainable energy should go into chemical. However, students have until the 3rd semester to declare which of the 9 specialties they’d like to pursue. This gives them a chance to explore a bit or change their mind if they started a program and then learned that it wasn’t what they expected.

Concrete canoe

Concrete canoe

As I was touring, one of the engineering professors was in the hall, so I talked to him for a few minutes. He was engaging and interesting. I asked him what he’d like students to know or do to be better prepared to enter engineering at Clarkson: “Writing is really important! I don’t think they think they’ll need this skill for this field, but they do.” Students do need to take a writing class at Clarkson, but this can be fulfilled through technical writing

Student-made snowmobiles

Student-made snowmobiles

I got to talk to a student who stayed on campus to do research over the summer. She told me about all the hydroponics and the great projects she was working on. She showed me the watermelon, hot peppers, and cucumbers being grown and how they were comparing using certain water and fertilizers . . . there was something in there about fish in the water that she was super excited about, but I’m not quite sure what was going on there 🙂 .

Here are some other cool things about the Engineering program:

  • They have wave machines.
  • Their Wind Turbine testing facility is 1 of only 4 that has actual turbine blades.
  • Students work on actual Distillation towers for work with fuels, alcohol, etc
  • Many of their students work with Engineers without boarders.
  • Students have built an Electric snowmobile and a Clean snowmobile with 0 emissions.
  • Teams from Clarkson have been FIRST Robotics winners and have competed in concrete canoe races, SPED, and other competitions.

© 2015

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