campus encounters

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University of Kentucky

University of Kentucky (visited 9/23/19)

UKY lawn artThis is one of only 8 universities in the country with the full complement of liberal arts, engineering, professional, agricultural, and medical colleges and disciplines on one contiguous campus. This is a large university with 22,000 undergrads in the 16 academic colleges (plus the Lewis Honors College) but they’ve done wonders at making it feel accessible and smaller to students with quite a few initiatives:

  • UKY students on walkwayThey’ve moved up to tie for 60th nationwide among public universities because of the capital campaigns, the graduation rates, and record retention rates hovering around 85% and they’ve set a goal of raising this to 90% within the next few years.
  • They have Exploratory Studies options for undecided students in nine colleges so they all have a home college and guidance from their very first day. They can do career assessments and more – “and that may mean jumping from one exploratory major in one college to another,” said one rep. That’s doable because everything is on the same campus.
  • UKY housing complexThere are no “traditional style” dorms left on campus, and none of the dorms are older than 2005. There are 13 LLC programs including Health Care, Creative Arts, engineering, and Honors to help students create community.

UKY 10Lexington sits right in the middle of Horse Country and has been dubbed “Athens of the West” and “City Within a Park” because of the horse farms. “You have the urban environment but you can be out in the farms in about 10 minutes.” Keeneland Race Track is a popular spot for students in April and October. They held the first Breeders Cup with 13 races over 2 days and a week-long festival. This will return to the area in 2020. The city itself has over 300,000 people with almost 550,000 in the metro area, ranked #7 Best City for new college grads and #3 safest metro city in the US. There is a city airport, but many students will fly into Louisville or Cincinnati and use shuttles from there.

UKY sci bldg int

Science Building atrium

UK is an attractive, well kept-up large public university that’s nicely incorporated into the city of Lexington. “We have great new facilities, but it’s more about what happens within the space, the collaboration, the community.” Many buildings are new or newly renovated (although there are certainly some older buildings, as well). Something like $22 million was put into the science building that came from the athletics department. “It really shows that they want academic success, not just athletic success,” said the tour guide. Students make amazing use of green space, and students were seen using the Adirondack Chairs, swings, and other lounge areas on campus. Campus is easy to get around, and has been voted most Bike-friendly.


UKY 12The university has recently started several new initiatives:

  • Smart Campus Digital Initiative: Apple iPad distribution was one of the most visible things. “Alone, they’re just a thing, so we focus on how we can use technology to leverage the enhancement of well-roundedness, improve wellness, jumpstart and ease the transition from high school, create a digital career portfolios, and develop proficiencies in coding.”
  • E-Sports: something like 19,000 HS students in the state are in gaming. They currently have competitions (Cats Clash) etc, and this will grow. However, they aren’t going to give scholarships because they’re often given for a particular game; “What happens if that game goes away?”
  • The Winslow Project: They are designing an Innovation Center which will have an App Development Lab, the eSports center, retail space, and more.

UKY int seatingUK is tied for 3rd among colleges and universities with graduates who are CEOs of Fortune 100 companies. They do some great work with their academics here. They boast that 85% of classes have 50 or fewer students. My tour guide’s biggest class had 450 students; his smallest had 6. There are a few academic programs or special entry requirements that are worth noting:

UKY 14The application to the honors college is part of the regular application to the university, but they must apply by 12/1. Benefits include priority registration, access to the Center for Personal Development, mentoring, and 4 residence halls as part of the LLC. Students don’t have to live in the LLC, but they try to steer them in that direction. The Honors Program costs $500 a year.

UKY chairs 3For Admission purposes, they’ll take the December SAT, but for scholarship and honors applications, the Oct ACT or early Nov SAT will be the latest they accept. They do not superscore for admissions or scholarships – but it can be useful to have all test scores, particularly if there’s a higher subscore because it helps for placement and to show competency.

December 1 (Early Action) is the final deadline for Honors College as well as the competitive and academic scholarships. The Presidential Scholarship (tuition for 4 years) and the Singletary Scholarship (tuition for 4 years, housing for 2) have an additional essay topic. This year’s question is, “What 4 faces would you put on Mt Rushmore and why?” As soon as students get their acceptance, they can apply for housing, etc.

© 2019

University of Utah

University of Utah (visited 9/27/18)

Fun fact: This was founded in 1850 (46 years before Utah became a state) as University of the Desert, making it the oldest one west of the Mississippi. Also, it’s on Buzzfeed’s 2017 “Most Beautiful Campus in Every State”list.

The campus farmer’s market

The U (how it’s referred to locally) provides a great mix of outdoorsy and urban. “We provide a Big School experience (including sports) in a big city with the added benefit of access to an excellent academic experience,” said a rep. Located in Salt Lake City, there’s a vibrant campus life with easy access to a growing urban center. Students get free public transportation, and there’s a Trax stop on campus. Students take advantage of academic and extracurricular exploration outside the classroom. “Everything you want is here and easily accessible.” The Wasatch mountains provide excellent hiking, biking, and skiing. One student we talked to came here specifically for the skiing.

We talked to several students who all described the campus as friendly; the willingness of several students to talk to us as we wandered through the quads and the farmer’s market definitely proved that they’re happy with the school and are outgoing. “The community is inclusive but it’s not as diverse as I’d like, but not every place can be a melting pot,” said an African-American junior from Long Island who came because of the speed-skating of all things! “Speed Skating is a club sport. They definitely work with us.”

This is a major Tier 1 Research institution offering one of the best arrays of academic colleges I’ve seen, grouping many in interdisciplinary ways:

  • College of Architecture and Planning
    • Architecture (3.0 GPA requirement; some students may be a direct admit),
  • Cultural and Social Transformation with concentrations in Ethnic, Gender, or Disability Studies.
  • Fine Arts (BFA): “We’re a great school for the arts. SLC is an artsy, hippy sort of place. We have Ballet West, orchestras, etc. We offer the best non-conservatory ballet experience if students want to pursue something else in addition.” They are currently ranked #2 program after Julliard.
    • Strong Visual Design, film, and music because of the connection to downtown.
  • Their Interdisciplinary programs are impressive:
    • Entertainment Arts and Engineering (basically Video Game Design) ranks #1-3 depending on the year. “It used to be something you got bullied for; now you can get a degree. It’s collaborative and group oriented.” The Founders of PIXAR and Atari graduated from here.
    • They offer a robust varsity eSports program with a League of Legends Scholarship.
    • Interdisciplinary sciences include Genetic Counseling, Biological Chemistry, Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Molecular Biology, and Neuroscience.
  • Mines and Earth Sciences includes Atmospheric Sciences, Geology and Geophysics, Metallurgic Engineering, and Mining Engineering.
  • Nursing: Students have to apply separately for the Early Assurance Program; it’s fairly rigorous because of a limited number of spots. Admissions is mostly based off of HS GPA (most admits have at least a 3.7 unweighted). When they apply to the university, students select Pre-nursing.
  • Engineering offers some direct entry, but most students come in, complete the pre-reqs, and apply. They offer unlimited spots as long as students meet the minimum GPA.
  • The Business college “is really amazing,” said one of the students working a booth at the farmer’s market.
  • Honors College: this provides a small Liberal Arts experience (fewer than 3,000 students total) within the university. Students take 2 Honors classes a year and must complete either a junior or senior thesis. They live in Honors housing a little more centrally located. There’s a social justice focus; students look at how to apply their major to the wider community. Students interested in applying must use the Utah-specific app (NOT Common App) by 11/1 and write the additional 500-word essay. The essay is a huge factor. “The number 1 we look for is the desire to be in the program by demonstrated by the essay. Show that they can benefit and want to take advantage of it. GPA and test scores will help, but it’s not only that.”
  • “The Health Sciences are amazing here,” said one student. “There’s a hospital right on campus.”

Even with 24,000 undergrads, 65% classes have fewer than 30 students. “It’s nice to be in some of those lecture classes as a freshman so you don’t have to worry about being called on,” said one student working a booth on the quad. They have a 90% retention rate to sophomore year thanks to a few good programs. One is Block U which is an optional Gen Ed completion course. Students take a few courses throughout freshman year to finish requirements within a year. These are taught by specific professors, peer tutors, etc. “It’s good for undecided students, but lots of others do this too,” said a rep. Another is LEAP, their Academic Learning Communties. Students take courses with the same professors and students over the course of the year. This is more flexible than Block U because it’s only 1 course per semester and they can take other pre-reqs concurrently.

Students never have to live on campus, and housing is not guaranteed; they don’t have enough room. Just over half of freshmen (and 10% of all undergrads) live on campus. “We have a reputation of being a commuter school. It’s definitely been worse in the past. There are a lot of students who live right off campus in houses,” said a student. Usually, if students want housing and apply before the March deadline, they get it. Incoming students can apply for housing before they commit to the university; however, they’ll lose the $150 housing deposit if they decide not to attend Utah or not live on campus.

The Lessonde Entrepreneur Institute is a highly sought-after dorm/LLC with 4 themed residential floors (video game, entrepreneurial, etc). “There are large open spaces including lounges and kitchens. Students have to apply and write an essay to show how they’re entrepreneurs to get housing there,” Said the rep. The building has 20,000 sq ft of work space (design computers, metal working, meeting rooms, etc.) to promote creativity and free thinking. Anything created there remains the intellectual work of the students. A number of student inventions and business were created there such as outdoors stuff (portable tent and hammock). The space is open to all students, but the residents have access 24/7. “They’ve snagged Ivy-League students because they have all this attention and resources.”

Cost of attendance is higher than other Utah schools. Freshman should try to get applications in by 12/1 for automatic scholarship consideration. The FAFSA deadline is 2/1 but they encourage families to do it before the end of the calendar year. If students do know what they want to major in, they’re encouraged to look at the departmental websites for scholarships for incoming freshman. The U provides about 120 WUE scholarships, making it one of the most competitive; students cannot get in-state residency with the WUE. “61% of our students graduate without debt. Even those with debt, it’s lower than other PAC-12 peer institutions.”

© 2018


UC – Irvine

UC Irvine (visited 2/1-2/2)

UCI studentsUCI has a different physical and social feel from the other UCs I’ve visited so far. The 52-year old institution is becoming another flagship, ranked as the country’s 9th best public school, Best Value, and the 3rd highest in number of applications. “People in California know what a special, great opportunity this is! People abroad recognize UCI. We have more than enough international applicants to create a diverse population in terms of countries. We’re working on creating a national presence now,” said a Dean.

UCI fountain

Sadly, no ducks in the fountain right now!

Academic buildings are centrally located around a 1-mile loop in the middle of campus. This also creates beautiful park (they like to brag about their 1120 trees and shrubs!). Students play Hide-and-seek in the park during finals, and every year, they try to break new records in areas like dodgeball, pillow fights, or squirt-guns fights. On one side of the circle is the fountain with resident ducks named Harold and Maude.


UCI drumming 5

A traditional Japanese drumming group

When asked to describe UCI in one word, many said nerdy/geeky. A rep said, “I can tell which kids are ours because they laugh at the nerdy jokes…” Another said, “That’s not a bad description, but not the only one! ‘Passionate’ is also good.” Students are curious and motivated: “We don’t have to beg students to get involved.” A student said, “We do stuff on a daily basis. We find people interested in the same things and run with that!”


UCI eSports center

The eSports arena


The gaming club is one of the largest clubs; almost 2/3 of students self-identify as gamers. They opened an ESports arena in 2016 which is open noon-midnight, Monday-Saturday. It’s a cost neutral program: computers are rented at $4 an hour and there are multiple sponsorships. The program has 4 major pillars:


  • Competition: Students participate at a national level on a varsity level (and club teams, too). They have multiple top-4 teams and top-30 ranked players. Their Overwatch team is undefeated. The very top students (internationally ranked) get scholarships.

    UCI eSports broadcasting

    eSports broadcast center

  • Research, game design, and programming: Professors do neuroscience, psych, and other research here.
  • Community: provide a home for gamers instead of gaming in lecture halls or dorms.
  • Entertainment: They have a broadcast and mini-production center to teach students how to communicate about eSports.

UCI 17There’s no football team (“I wish we had one!” said a student), but basketball and water polo are great. “There is a great deal of school spirit, and no football means we have a budget to do other things. We aren’t fighting traffic on weekends.” It’s easy to get around Irvine, a planned city about 40 minutes from LA and an hour from San Diego. That means that there are also plenty of internships: “They’re out there and are well advertised.” UCI also supports students in going abroad, making it accessible with Financial Aid.

UCI Mesa tower 1

The towers at Mesa Court

Residential units must offer at least 15 programs during every 10-week quarter. For a campus this size, there’s a lot of housing available; just over 60% of undergrads live on campus with 480 more beds available in 2019. Housing is guaranteed for 2 years, and almost 80% of freshmen live on campus in 1 of 2 areas:


  • Mesa Court: most buildings have no more than about 84 kids; a couple have about 120. The new towers have 300+.
  • Middle Earth: “If y’all don’t know there

    UCI Mesa 3

    Another view of Mesa Court

    are 2 towers in Middle Earth, you need to go do some reading!” Smaller communities are developed on the floors within the Towers, including theme-housing, both academic and outside interests. Some rotate as interests change; some like Outdoor Adventures tend to be consistent. Housing:

  • Off-campus housing is often posted on FB or Craig’s List, and people will sublet their places when they go abroad or move into Greek Housing.

UCI plaza

The plaza by the student union

UCI is recognized for “serving an amazingly diverse student body – and we graduate them” (as an interesting fact, only 27% of their students self-report as Caucasian) and are ranked #1 for promoting social mobility. Info pulled from the Grad Rate and Labor Market Outcomes shows that 12.5% of the students come from bottom quartile of family income in the US ($25-30,000) which is more than the entire Ivy League combined!! By the time alumni are 30, 85% are in the top quartile!


UCI 11The institution deliberately helps students succeed with multiple faculty and peer advisors (academic, mental health, sexual health, etc). “Big universities have lots of resources, but the students need to reach out to take advantage of them.” This is a major Research-1 institution focusing on undergraduates. The graduate programs are strong but smaller than what you’ll see elsewhere. Who do faculty spend time with? Undergrads! Over 90% graduate with research experience.
The academics are top-notch and prepare students for internships and jobs. One of the deans said, “If you’re still teaching facts/surface knowledge when I can pull out my phone and find it in 10 seconds, it’s malpractice. You have to shift to active learning. What are the learning outcomes for the field?” They’re deliberate in what they do, and they offer amazing programs including:

  • Nursing: they just got a $20m donation to double the size of the program).
  • This is 1 of 3 undergraduate business UC programs (with Berkeley and Riverside).
  • They have a top-10, conservatory style Dance program with a NY Satellite program for performing arts; Broadway scouts come to campus.
  • Education is ranked #25 nationally.
  • Interdisciplinary studies: This can be difficult in larger school with distinct College boundaries. Irvine, however, is new and was designed explicitly not to do that. Disciplines haven’t disappeared, but they are committed to bring them together. Professors meet at least twice a month to plan interdisciplinary work.
  • Engineering: all students take the same Gen Ed track for the same foundation. It’s possible to double major – or more! It will take a little extra time (she knew of one who did 4 majors – 2 in Engineering, 2 outside – finished in 5 years).
  • Information and Computer Sciences are housed in a separate school from engineering so they don’t compete for money.

The students on the panel listed the following as their favorite classes:

  • My Research class: we coded a lot of things from the Bush presidency, and we got credit on the book.
  • Prison Gangs: the teacher was cool and had tons of life experiences. He was a cop. I learned things I didn’t know anything about.
  • War and Public Health: the professor is a War Photographer and is great to talk to.
  • Diversity and Student Empowerment: social justice, issues affecting different minority groups. Lots of speakers. Critical race theory – what I want to go into and how it relates to international affairs. How do we apply it in global contexts, particularly law.

UCI 15UC applicants get ranked by 2 readers; if ranked differently, a 3rd person reads the file. An applicant might get highly ranked but not admitted if there’s no room in the major. Students need to advocate for themselves and quantify accomplishments. Students MUST take essay/writing portion of the SAT/ACT and must send all scores: they look at the highest single seating. Students only need to send to 1 UC campus because they share! Subject tests are not required but recommended for some programs. International Students do not need a 3rd language but should take the AP/Subject Test in their native language if possible. Many campuses will waive language requirements if they’ve spent 3+ years in the US. The minimum TOEFL is 80, but need 90+ to be competitive (some departments want higher!).

© 2018

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