campus encounters

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Archive for the tag “open curriculum”

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

Brown University

Brown University (visited 3/21/14 and 4/30/19 — scroll to the bottom for additional notes from the most recent visit)

~Brown sculpture

Student-made sculpture on campus

Although we arrived late for the info session, we arrived in time to hear the Director of Admissions say that Brown looks for students with “Conspicuous academic success, an unusual level of independence in and out of school, and who are unusually devoted to scholarly life. The key word there is ‘unusual’ – if we could define it, it wouldn’t be unusual anymore.”

~Brown quiet quadBrown has the most flexible curriculum of the Ivies. There are no required classes, so people want to be in the classes they register for. Our tour guide said, “people are very in control of their lives here.” One of her favorite classes was her FYS – Italian Studies; she loved the integration, and she really got to work on her writing. Another guide told me that she choose Brown because “I wanted a place to balance me out. Everyone here has a passion.” One thing they would both change is the advising. “There’s almost too much. Everyone has different opinions and they think they’re right!” In addition to an academic advisor, there are resident advisors and meiklejohns (a peer advisor).

When the university was founded in 1764, it was criticized for being so large – with 7 students! Now, even with 6,500 undergrads, they manage to keep academic classes relatively small. They have one 500-seat lecture hall, but only 4% of classes have more than 100 students; 70% have 20 or fewer students.

Brown quad 4Campus is relatively spacious but walkable. Simmons Quad (complete with a statue of Marcus Aurelius) is the physical center of campus. From there, you can walk anywhere from that point in 7 minutes (less if you hustle!). This is only one of several Greens around campus. The Quiet Green (named for obvious reasons) has plugs on the lampposts so students can use their computers outside The main gates from the road open twice a year – once for the new freshmen to come through (“People applaud; it’s kind of a cool way to be welcomed to campus!”) and again for seniors to leave at graduation. They aren’t supposed to go through the gates except those two times “or they won’t graduate or get married.” This quad also is home to the College Bell which rings when Brown wins a football game or a major world event happens – “both equally rare,” said the tour guide.

~Brown Greek Quad

Greek Quad

Behind the Quiet Quad is the Main Quad; this looks more like a traditional college quad and hosts many of the college events including the much-anticipated yearly Spring Fling. They also have a “Greek Quad” with the Greek dorms. The school charter says that only half of the house can be Greek. The rest of the rooms have to be reserved for Independents. About 10% of the student body is affiliated.

Although housing is guaranteed all four years, 70% of seniors choose to live off campus. “Some off-campus housing is closer to academic buildings than the dorms are,” said one of the students. Juniors can move off, but it’s harder to do this so most wait until senior year – and they aren’t unhappy on campus. Our tour guide said, “I don’t leave campus much. There’s too much going on here.” Although it’s difficult to have cars (parking in Providence is limited), it’s easy to get around town, take day trips, or travel to get home. The bus and the train stations are a 10-15 minute walk from campus. A bus ticket to Boston costs $10 making it an easy and cheap outing.

~Brown Quiddich

Pick-up Quiddich game

Sports and Arts are both big on campus. There are 37 varsity sports (gymnastics recently won championships) as well as lots of intramurals including inner-tube water polo and cornball. Brown students can cross-register for 4 classes at RISD “but that’s pretty loose. I know someone who took 8.” Not surprisingly, they have a bunch of a cappella groups (what bigger school doesn’t anymore?) including ARRRcappella (pirate acappella), Jockappella, and more. There also have 3 improv troupes, and anyone can take part in theater productions. They own the largest Hutching-Votey organ in the world, and they hold four Midnight Organ concerts on “the 4 scariest nights of the year”: Halloween, the nights before fall and spring finals, and the night before the first classes in the fall.

~Brown organ

Hutching-Votey Organ

Not surprisingly, there are multiple libraries around campus. “The Rock” is the main library, shortened from The John D. Rockefeller Junior Library. Apparently, the Foundation was so annoyed that it was being shortened to The Rock that they wrote a letter to the Brown student body to say that they couldn’t call it The Rock; “Brown students in the ‘60s, being Brown students, told them that they were happy to stop using The Rock and would commence calling it The John. The Foundation changed their stance quickly!”

~Brown science library

Science Library

The Science Library, voted the ugliest library several years running, is the tallest point on campus with 14 floors; “the joke is that the books get more basic as you go up” (even the tour guide admitted to this being a bad science/PH scale joke!). However, it has been used as a huge Tetris game! Brown also has 3 “sacred libraries” which don’t allow books to be checked out. One has the largest collection of tin soldiers in the country (world?), flowers from Lincoln’s funeral, and apparently 3 books bound in human skin.

Brown ranks in the top 50 most expensive schools at $58K a year. “The Good News is that we have gobs of money!” said the admissions rep. “If the family makes less than $100,000 a year, there will be no loans; less than $60,000 there are no loans or EFC.”

© 2014

Brown University (visited 4/30/19)

“We’ve driven by who the students are. They’re the best thing about Brown,” said one of the admissions reps.

The admissions committee wants to know how the kids will stand out, who will take advantage of the open curriculum, and who wants to make connections between subjects. The curriculum “makes you really figure things out,” said one of the students. People who are excited about that will thrive here. “We nerd out about what we’re studying. You don’t usually get to take academic risks in high school because there are so many things you have to do,” said another student on the panel.

Admissions is need-blind, and they now have a home for DACA/undocumented students. They also introduced the Brown Promise which removes loans from Financial Aid packages. This has made Brown a much more attractive choice. This year, their admission rate dropped to 6.6% overall with 4.6% in regular round. The Dean of Admission talked about the fraud at some of the other schools. “The work we do is of the highest integrity based on fairness. They may not like the outcome, but it’s fair. It’s as holistic and contextualized as possible. The ones we admit are the ones who have earned it. We work closely with the athletic departments and have done internal audits to be confident that no one was involved.”

They dropped the writing SAT requirement and saw a 14% increase in First Gen applicants. They also saw a 21% increase in ED apps. Although they admitted about the same number as in previous years, they admitted a higher number of those who were deferred to Regular. This year, they offered applicants the option to submit a 2-minute video instead of an interview. More did this in the Regular Decision round; ED applicants went more towards interviews.

© 2019

Bennington College

Bennington College, Bennington, VT (visited 4/17/14)

~Bennington Art building Bennington College, with its enrollment of 500 students, is housed on a sprawling campus with eclectic architecture – a bit like their students! Academics are strong and individualized. The open curriculum means that there are no core requirements, and students create their own majors that almost always end up being interdisciplinary. Therefore, the students must be curious, independent, willing to be challenged beyond their comfort zone, and able to connect many interests.

~Bennington student studying 2There are two core components of the Bennington Academic Experience:

1) Plan. “It’s a little foreign and scary to families,” said the Director of Admission. The process recognizes the students’ curiosity and capacity to learn beyond what they think is possible. This lets them figure out what they need, how they learn best, and more. They can push boundaries and take any class they want.

  1. The first year is all about the excitement of education. They meet regularly with the advisor, sometimes as a group, or meeting for lunch, or after class. In the first year, the advisor is one of their teachers who will push them to be analytical about why they chose certain classes and verbalize what they’re interested in. They’re pushed to think about whether there is an essential question or theme among all of them.
  2. In the sophomore year, students meet with a committee of 3 or 4 teachers who will make sure that the student has a liberal arts education. They’ll plan out classes based on the student’s interests. Students declare an area of study (a major) during this year.
  3. During junior and senior years, students complete the plan and work on a final senior project. Our tour guide’s senior project was writing a graphic novel. Ideally, she would like to work for DC Comics.

2) Fieldwork Term (FWT): This is a yearly, 7-week internship/mentorship/fieldwork/ something educational outside of the classroom. This must be completed every year, and has to be different every year. They can get grants for this; they have to write a budget and a proposal. Scholarships are also available for internships with a global impact ($250-$2000 depending on what they’re doing).

~Bennington outdoor class 2Students get narrative evaluations in classes, but can opt for grades if they want them. This can be done on a class-by-class basis, or they get grades for every class. Sometimes they want reassurance that grad schools will take them seriously. However, Bennington is in the top 40 of schools sending students on to get PhDs. Academics are clearly strong.

I was less impressed with the students than I thought I’d be. It was a beautiful day, but very few students were out; those who were out didn’t greet each other as they crossed campus, but the students I spoke to seemed friendly enough. One of the other counselors had heard that students there were cool and a bit stand-offish, and what we saw seemed to back that up. We asked our tour guide about her impressions and if she would agree with that. She said, “some of the kids are pretentious, but it’s drilled out of you.” There’s definitely an aura of affectation here.

~Bennington picnicThe graduation rate (67%) isn’t great, and they spend a long time talking about that. They’re interested in graduating the students – if this is the right place for them! This is a test-optional school; just over one-third of students submitted test scores. The average GPA is 3.56, ACT 29, SAT 1295. The total cost hovers just over $63,000/year (making them one of the most expensive schools out there), but 90% of students get financial aid. The average loan debt at graduation is $24,000. The Director of Admissions said, “There is some value in taking on some debt. It’s an investment. It’s not a car; it won’t depreciate.”

~Bennington welding studio

Welding Studio

Art Studio

Art Studio

They have an amazing arts complex with extensive, open labs for ceramics, sculpture, and more. They have 4 black box theaters and an extensive prop shop. Students complete labs in lighting, costumes, props, and more. There’s usually 1 faculty-run production which is directed by a professor; almost all the rest are run by students. One of the facts they like to share is that they’re the first college to have included the arts (visual and performing) into the liberal arts curriculum/ college. They offer animation classes, and one called “Nature and Artifice” which deals with a lot of architectural issues. Not surprisingly, over 40% of their students major in something relating to the visual or performing arts.

~Bennington dorm

One of the Houses

Almost all students live on campus (easy to do with the small enrollment). Dorms are called Houses, and many are Themed. The one we saw had a large lounge, a working fireplace, and a drum set and piano. Freshmen and Sophomores usually get doubles; Juniors and Seniors almost always live in singles.

There is no Greek life on campus, nor are there varsity sports, but plenty of club sport opportunities, including fencing and archery.

Although there are very few students majoring in the physical sciences, there are some interesting things going on there, as well. For example, there’s an Octopus Lab because the professor thought that “their brains are cooler” (according to our tour guide).

© 2014

Marlboro College

Marlboro College (visited 4/17/14)

~Marlboro 2~Marlboro pronounsI lucked into a tour run by an admissions rep, himself a recent alum of Marlboro. He was clearly passionate about his alma mater and loved showing it off. He was articulate, interesting, enthusiastic, and slightly quirky – a true embodiment of Marlboro students! He cut right across the grassy areas, took us into buildings that “aren’t on the tour just but you have to see it!” etc. This is one of the most interesting colleges I’ve seen. Students are curious, motivated, able to work across disciplines, and caring about the wider community. They’re life-long learners; they love the inquiry.

~Marlboro library interior 2Trust and independence are the cornerstones of a Marlboro education. Things are run on the “New England Town Meeting style” by both students and faculty. Buildings are unlocked 24/7. Students are on the honor system to check out their own books at the library. Faculty members treat students as colleagues. There’s no competition because everyone is doing their own individual work. “It’s great to see what everyone is doing!”

~Marlboro library stair

library stairs

Dining Hall

Dining Hall

Students learn to hone their passions in an aggressive way in order to pursue what they love. The first two years allow for exploration of different fields in seminars of 5-15 people. The students’ individual concentrations are then done in the junior and senior years when they design small seminars (often 1-on-1) with professors. In order to earn their degree, students must pass a writing requirement within 3 semesters, complete a plan of concentration, complete 120 credits, and complete an original project within the field which is independent of faculty feedback or advice. This gets mailed to an outside person for review who will come in to do a two-hour oral exam. Once the student passes that, they’ve officially finished their degree.

~Marlboro campusThe most interesting topics pull in several fields. One current student is a highly trained musician doing high level math to understand computer programing so that he can produce electronic music. Another is doing environmental studies and architecture along with sociology. He researched sustainable design, ethical practices, neighborhood needs, etc and ended up designing a greenhouse on campus. He did a Masters in Architecture in Germany and is about to go to San Francisco to do sustainable urban housing. About 75% of students go onto complete further post-graduate degrees, often in education, creative arts, health care, agriculture, and environmental or sustainable practices. They often get into prestigious graduate schools and law programs (including a physics program at Stanford this year). One law-school student is look at “space law.” However, the admissions reps admit that “Technical trades can be tricky here.”

~Marlboro dorm


20% of students live off campus, but housing is guaranteed all 4 years. After freshman year, students can live in places like cabins in the woods and can be off the meal plan. There’s one apartment style building tucked up into the woods called “Out Of The Way” which houses several non-traditional or married students. Dorms are coed – as are some bathrooms. “There are definitely gender politics going on here,” our rep said.

© 2014

Bard College

BARD COLLEGE (visited 7/25/13)

Bard old bldng

Bard path


It took me most of the way through the tour to realize how to describe parts of the campus: a large chunk of it feels like a summer camp with paths winding through the woods. This is a huge wooded campus along the Hudson (and there are paths along the river, too) housing approximately 2000 undergrads (16% of whom are international). The school used to be all male and attached to Columbia (a bit like Barnard is today). When it went coed in the 1930s, Columbia severed ties with it.

The local bus stopping along the edge of campus

The local bus stopping along the edge of campus

Bard students 2Both the tour guide and the admissions officer talked about the structure of the curriculum making Bard unique. The admissions rep told us, “No one does it like we do. There’s a structure but with some flexibility. As an individual, you can shape your four years with guidance.” Students only have nine distribution requirements to complete covering five major disciplines, and many of these are taken care of during freshman year. 300-level classes are capped at 12 students, allowing them to actively engage in their learning. Students don’t just declare a Program (what they call majors) here; their first year is spent taking electives and a First Year Seminar. This gives them the freedom and flexibility to explore a range of classes they may not have been exposed to before. All freshmen get a Peer Counselor to help mentor them along in the process. As sophomores, can start delving into a Program that they’re interested in, but still don’t declare. During the year, they prepare to declare the program by doing the following: writing an essay on their academic past, writing an essay on their academic future, and putting together a portfolio of academic papers or artwork in their proposed Program (or they can plan a performance if their proposed field is performance-based). These will be judged by a panel of three professors who will decide whether to grant them access to the program. Most students are allowed in. A “No” rarely happens, usually if a student hasn’t finished their prelim requirements or isn’t doing well. This process makes students look at their skill sets and what they really want so that they’re thoughtful about their majors. Our tour guide, a rising senior from the Albany area, said it’s an exciting time: sophomores can bounce ideas around with peers, and “they all go through it together.” She created her major which looks at Education through psychology and sociology.

Bard sci cntrOne of Bard’s unique programs is their Freshmen Writing Program. First-year students come to campus three weeks early for intensive reading and writing workshops. Students get a big binder of readings that are used during the session (although not all teachers use all of them, and they’re not all used in the same way). This experience is graded pass/fail, and students must pass to matriculate for the fall semester. This program is about 30 years old; 3 years ago, Bard started a three-week January intersession Intensive Science requirement since they felt that science literacy was as important as anything else. This is required for graduation; most people complete it as freshmen but exceptions are made.

Bard science 1

The inside of the science building

A Physics professor stopped to talk to the tour group when we were in the science building (where the labs look out over the woods – fitting for the sciences). He loves that sciences are handled at Bard; they’re leaning towards interdisciplinary work which is the reality of work in the sciences now. The Science Department holds weekly “Pizza on the Pod” (the 2nd floor balcony-type area over the “lecture halls” which are not much bigger than a regular classroom, but are round and jut into the hallways); during this time, there’s tutoring, discussions on topics of interest, and other events. They have a 3-2 engineering program with Columba, Dartmouth, and WashU, a 3-2 in Forestry (although this isn’t a popular program yet), and a 3-2 in Environmental Policy in which they do 3 years studying either social or natural science and then do 2 years studying policy for their Masters.

Bard dorm 1Bard arts 1The campus culture values the arts, and they claim to be the first college in the country to value the arts as equal to academics. The Art buildings have tons of well-lit studio space and has art displayed all over the walls. They have a world-class photography department, sculpting, and other options (but no ceramics, because that’s considered “pre-professional” – don’t ask me how – and they are anti-pre-professional programs). Their graduate program in photography is one of the best in the country. The performing arts section of campus is located kind of across the main road, maybe half a mile away. Students can take classes down there, but most things happen on the main campus.

Bard dorms 1

The “Toasters”

There are 40 dorms of different styles and sizes scattered around campus. There’s a cluster of dorms (located in the middle of what looks like an orchard) called “toasters” because of how they look. Stuck in the midst of these is one 9-person dorm with 3 triple rooms. One of the older dorms, “Stone Row,” is an old brick building that looks more like a traditional dorm. The “Root Cellar” is located the basement; this is known for the punk rock groups that play there. It also houses a huge ‘zine collection. On the other end of the basement of this dorm is the Learning Commons which acts as the tutorial center for campus. Students can take 4 credit classes in writing or math through the LC if they’re struggling in those areas. There are more dorms on North Campus which is a 10-15 minute walk to the academic buildings. Mostly the dorms are coed, and 85% of students live on campus all 4 years. There is no Greek Life on campus, which encourages a broader base of fun across groups.

Bard reading room

Bard’s Reading Room

Admissions looks for eclectic, intellectual students. Bard students tend to be fairly liberal, engaged in community (the campus and the world at large), and interested in what’s going on around them. This is one of the few schools with a Human Rights Program, speaking to the interests of the students. The college also runs several international locations, including one on Berlin that they just took over. Students here are broad-thinking and curious about the world, so these locations are well used. Admissions interviews are not required, but are available if students are interested. Bonnie Marcus, the admissions direction who spoke to the group of visiting students provided this warning: “For the interview, do your homework! Don’t show up excepting to be entertained. Show me that you know SOMETHING about the school. Be ready to have a conversation.” I appreciate that she was so vocal against the US News and World Report rankings: “It’s smoke and mirrors! We’re a wonderful place. Are we wonderful for you? That’s your part of the process.”

Farmer's Market outside the Commons

Farmer’s Market outside the Commons

Bard Commons


I asked our tour guide to talk about a tradition she would miss after graduation. There was none she could name as one she liked or would miss. “My friends and my classes are the most important to me. Learning is why we’re here.” She also didn’t think they were in the middle of nowhere, even though the campus IS Annadale-on-Hudson: the town consists of “the campus and a few random houses,” and the town’s post office is on campus. There is nothing in walking distance of campus. However, she said that students are hardly stuck. There are shuttles into the two local towns (which are small and a few miles away) and a Duchess County bus stops right outside campus and will take them into Poughkeepsie and Rhinecliff where they can get MetroNorth (into NYC) or Amtrak, respectively. Students can use the school-owned zip cars, and anyone can have a car on campus. “This is one of the few colleges without a parking problem.” She said that they can definitely get to places they want to go. “Besides, we should be separated a bit so we can concentrate on our studies.” An office on campus helps students find service projects, alternative spring breaks, and internships. Students do projects like a theater program with foster children in town, writing workshops in New Orleans, and working with the Palestinian Youth Initiative. On campus, they utilize programs and the fun provided on campus (including the real movie theater in the Union which can be reserved by students, but also is used for campus-wide events including movie or tv marathons).

© 2013

Hampshire College

HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE (visited 10/16/12)

~Hampshire swingI had no notion of what the Hampshire campus might look like. Our schedule said that we were going to arrive at and have lunch at the Red Barn – and we actually pulled into a small lot next to a red barn with organic farm stands not too far away. It feels remote, yet is only about 15 minutes out of Northampton, and with the shuttles running to the other campuses, it’s not at all removed.


A unit of dorms on the Hampshire campus.

Hampshire is unique in a lot of ways. Everything is interdisciplinary, and there are no pre-set majors. Students complete concentrations which are self-designed with the guidance of at least two faculty members. The program is flexible enough for students to study what they’re interested in, but structured enough to give them a lot of support to figure it out, too. They’re given skills to be life-long learners. They’re expected to have excitement and curiosity. Learning takes place in and out of the classroom – projects, labs, on the farm, etc. They collaborate with each other and with faculty in addition to completing independent work. Students jump into hands-on work from the beginning whether it’s in the lab, the art studio, or someplace else. They design their own projects, labs, experiments, questions to pursue. They don’t just do the professor’s work. People say that this is one of the major reasons why Hampshire has been named in the Top 30 Most Entrepreneurial Colleges, which also includes Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. Students look for real-world solutions to problems and can figure out how to accomplish them. Stonyfield Yogurt, 7th Generation Cleaning Supplies, and other big-name companies were started by Hampshire grads.

~Hampshire arts villageThe college divides work up into the Division System:

  • DI: tutorials. Students who come here generally know what they THINK they want to do. They take several required courses across the curriculum, some social engagement, and some electives. The point here is to make sure they’ve acquired the required skills to be successful. They must present a portfolio at the end of DI to show how they’ve mastered these skills, and write a reflective essay about their work.
  • DII: concentration. What are the questions that matter to you? Can you develop questions that will take you across several areas? What areas are within the questions, and how will you develop a plan to answer them? It could be an internship, study abroad, community engagement. This often changes as it develops.
  • DIII: Capstone projects. This is a major, sustained, original work, like a master’s thesis/project. They meet with advisors/ committees once a week (no less frequently than every other week). One kid did a psychoanalytical analysis of jazz aesthetics. He was the only undergraduate to present at a major conference.

The outside of the library building.

~Hampshire Yurt

The campus yurt

Students also don’t get grades; they receive written evaluations at the end of the semester detailing their work, strengths, and areas for growth. Some people are concerned with accessibility of graduate programs and admissions, but Hampshire is 30th in the country for students who go on to get PhDs. The students tend to get MORE looked at by grad schools because they aren’t just numbers. They are not nervous wrecks when they start grad school. They have ownership of the process and that gives them a leg-up. Some of the students will recruit younger students to help with experiments. They had lab meetings, compared data, etc.

~Hampshire drafting room

An art studio

After lunch and a presentation by the admissions people, we went out on a tour, starting on a dirt track across a field to the main part of campus. The first area we walked through were a collection of town-house type buildings which were apartments for upperclassmen. At this point, the tour guide told us that something like 83% of all students have single rooms; this number is closer to 75% for first-years, but overall, about 7/8 of students get singles, which is really amazing. After leaving this residential area, we entered more of the main part of campus which was an odd collection of brick, glass, and modernish buildings spread out around a large, very green campus.

The campus is very much about sustainability. They have 15 acres of organic farming. They host a “Food for Farms” gala event with people coming from all over. Students tend to be hugely active in Social Justice causes, and students tend to be “practical idealists.” Because of their innovative programs and resources, they’re seeing record numbers of applications. They’re in the process of adding six new faculty positions in creative writing, math, and African studies. Film, acting, and directing are big here, as is the tech side of theater and film production. One of the bigwigs from Pixar works here. They’re committed to helping students meet need. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the James Baldwin scholarship program to serve underserved communities. The first year total fees are totally covered. After the first year, the students apply for financial aid like everyone else, but Hampshire will meet 100% of need.

(c) 2012

Smith College

SMITH COLLEGE (visited 10/15/12) (Click HERE for information and pictures from my visit on 5/30/19)


A view of the pond, a popular hangout on campus.

The buildings at Smith are about as eclectic as the students. The campus seems very haphazardly put up but somehow it kind of works. Instead of all new buildings needing to fit in with the buildings already up, they need to correspond with the style of the times. It was very cool. The atmosphere was vibrant; people were everywhere, even on a dreary, drizzly day. People seemed genuinely happy and comfortable on campus, and students were interacting with each other.

Smith stdnt cntr

Student Center

During our admissions presentation, the Director of Admissions talked about 5 ways Smith is different:

  1. Open Curriculum (Smith, Amherst, Brown, Grinnell all have this) meaning that there is no core. This comes with a lot of responsibility. Many students don’t know what they want to do, or they change their minds once they get there. It’s about learning how to use the open curriculum that’s open and thoughtful and deliberate. What does it mean to be liberally educated? The Liberal Arts advisors help students negotiate this process so the students pick classes, internships, study away opportunities and other educational components that complement each other. It changes the dynamic in the classroom because students want to be there and are engaged in the process.
  2. One-third of the students major in the sciences. This is the only women’s college with an established engineering major. They see this as important since only 15% of engineers are women: “What’s up with that? It’s 2012.” Women at women’s colleges do research at a higher rate than women at coed college. They’re a member of AEMES (Achieving excellence in math, engineering, and science) and they attract a lot of women of color and first gen students. They were among the best in the country for women going on into careers in the sciences.
  3. Praxis (Practical Education) guarantees an internship for every Smith student. Smithies are going to Columbia Records, the Smithsonian, ABC in London, Museum of Modern Art, Dutch Parliament, hospital in Mexico, Max Plank (sciences) and other big-name places for their internships.
  4. Smith dorm


    They have 35 Houses, not dorms. These are places to live, not just a place to sleep; students often stay with a house for multiple years and they even graduate with their house during Commencement ceremonies. Since Smith is a little on the large side for a small college (about 2800 students, the House system helps make it smaller. The expectation for students is involvement, and that attitude starts in the Houses. They’re an “incubator for leadership” – grooming them for bigger opps off campus. Leadership comes in many forms. It’s about a sense of engagement. Along with so many houses, students have free access to all of the 15 dining rooms on campus; because they can swipe in as many times as they want, they can get the main course at one place, a desert at another, a snack at a third.

  5. Smith dormsThey’re working to change the rhetoric of Women’s Colleges. Face it – it’s as much the “Real World” as any other place. All colleges are bubbles in some regard). Many of the students like not have men around 24/7. “Let’s face it: 18-20 year old men . . . not your shining moment! When you want the men, they’re there. When you don’t, they’re not. The bathrooms are clean. What else do you want?” Women’s Colleges are challenging, empowering, encouraging, and fun. Students learn to work as part of a team; develop self-confidence, initiative, and leadership; and learn to think and write critically. They stress the idea of community which is open and accepting. The college enrolls a very diverse community, including one of the highest percentages of low-income and first gen students in the country. They meet full demonstrated need by they aren’t need blind; they need to make sure they have the right funding available. (By the way, most of the counselors applauded the Director of Admissions for saying the following: she’s offended by the “what about the lesbians?” question. People would never allow people to say “what about all the black students?”).

Smith 3One of the counselors asked “What surprised you?” to the students on the panel. Here’s what they said:

  • I was surprised at the classroom environment; you always hear how much people are encouraged to speak up and I found that it really was the case. I was always in classes I chose to be in.
  • How at home I felt and the houses were a community. People were interested in making me feel comfortable.
  • How much help you could get with academics. People want to help each other succeed.
  • How smart people are. It’s overwhelming to be in a class with brilliant women all the time.

Smith 2Another questions asked students to name a favorite class:

  • Public Policy. The professor is engaging and there are hilarious PowerPoint presentations. He gets very excited about the technology. He’s extremely accessible, and students who aren’t even taking his class can wander into office to talk.
  • The Inklings about Lewis, Tolkien, and ?? in which they looked at the texts through religious, social, and other contexts.
  • Chemistry: she hated it in high school, but had to take it as a requirement for engineering. The prof was great, thoughSmith pond, and now she’s a chem tutor.
  • Class in Costa Rica meeting with activists, community leaders, etc because it was so inspiring.

The students were asked about favorite traditions:

  • Ivy Day: everyone wears white and carries roses. The alum comes back and every class plants its own ivy. When you first come to Smith, you get little pots of ivy from previous classes.
  • Illuminations: the whole campus gets covered in paper lanterns and the class year gets written in lights on the pond.
  • Diploma Circle: when you walk up for graduation, you walk up in Houses, alphabetical within house. You don’t get your own diploma, so you stand in a circle and exchange until you get yours.
  • Mountain Day: the President declares a day off in the fall. Students go apple picking, hiking, having bbqs, etc. It’s a day to relax.
  • Tea: Friday or Sunday afternoon, they bring baked goods from the dining hall to the house and people just come down and chill. Alumni House also does it once a semester. STRIDE (students doing research as their work-study job) will tet together for tea once a month. The prof will bake for that.
  • The Smith Network: The alumnae are a cult. They’ll do Kick-Off barbecues to send new first-years on their way and do a lot during the year (and watch out for each other after graduation).
  • Big Sib/Little Sib. All first year students get assigned an upperclassman who will leave them little presents throughout the week – candy, notes, etc. At tea at the end of the week, there’s a reveal.
  • Winter and Spring Weekends. On Spring Weekend, current seniors have underclassmen write prophecies for them, and seniors will leave things to underclassmen.

The new science building.

A counselor asked, “How do you sell a women’s college to high school girls who are done with the drama?” Resoundingly, the answer was: Take guys out of the equation and a lot of the drama goes away! However, this isn’t a convent. A couple of the students said that they forget that they’re at a women’s college because of the Consortium, and there are often men in their classes and in clubs or at parties. One student said that she got off campus a lot; Northampton has a lot going on and is one of the best aspects of Smith (this was echoed by students at other colleges, as well, who would purposefully head there on the weekends when they wanted to get off campus and spend time in a vibrant college town). One said that she chose Smith over MHC because MHC is in a much smaller town, does not have the open curriculum, doesn’t have the House system, and the campus didn’t seem as lively.

Smith 4Another question revolved around how engineering works with the open curriculum. There is more of a set path in this major: students can directly go on the path of required classes, but they can explore some other classes and still get out in 4 years. The major is technically Engineering Science; students will often go on to grad school in order to specialize, but can get employed directly after Smith, as well. One of the panelists is minoring in architecture because she wants to end up doing civil engineering.

Students at Smith seemed to take full advantage of the Consortium. One student took an intensive Spanish class during J-term at Hampshire; another was currently taking a class at Amherst. They also see the Consortium as a social resource. They go to parties, speakers, concerts, and even the circus where they learned to juggle. The busses run particularly late on the weekends so they can take advantage of late-night events.

If money were no issue, the students would want: New profs for interdisciplinary programs (just in EnviSci or Urban Studies, for example), a new pool, more dining halls (sometimes it gets crowded) and more dining hours because there aren’t many late dining options.

(c) 2012

Amherst College

AMHERST COLLEGE (Visited 10/15/12)

chairs and field

One of the best views on campus!

I don’t know of any other college that lets the winners of a lip-sync contest get first dibs on housing. Most students live on campus, and like many campuses, there are plenty of options for living arrangements. After the first year, housing is done on the lottery system; each person is given points based on GPA, seniority, etc. Groups of people wanting to live together have their points averaged for their place in the lottery. However, one of the big traditions on campus is the lip-sync contest in which groups can compete to move up in the lottery. The winners of the contest actually get moved to the front of the line. Amherst is a bit quirky like that.

Amherst 5Coming onto this campus was a much different experience than going onto the UMass campus! This felt like the traditional campus that people come to expect from New England colleges. There was quite a bit of green, and the buildings were well maintained. The campus was also much more sedate as we were driving through; fewer students were walking around, but that might have been a result that classes were in session.

Amherst interiorA recent graduate sat with us at lunch and answered a lot of questions; she came from Buffalo, NY and applied here Early Decision because she just knew this was the place. As a history major, she got to do some great things. Her senior thesis was an analysis of Holocaust photos in context of victimization and retaking of power. She did a great deal of this at Hampshire because they have a theoretical photography department. Most of her books were used from the other libraries, so she said that the 5CC affected her academically. She also loved the social “expansion” including “Concert hopping” in the spring.

bulletin board

Lots of activities to choose from!

Amherst has a true open curriculum meaning that the students will fulfill the requirements for a major but have no distribution requirements. One student on the panel said, “It’s what drew me here. I like to dabble. I’ve taken classes in 10 departments, and I like to stretch myself.” One of the panelists decided not to double major because he was having so much fun taking a lot of different types of classes. The open curriculum is great in many ways and makes Amherst a match for different types of people – those who have no idea what they want to do all the way up to those who want to really focus in one area. The admissions person said that in some ways, having this open curriculum defines a true “liberal arts” curriculum since students are taking so many different types of classes that they probably would not have otherwise.

Amhest statueAdmission decisions are made by committee so it’s “about as fair as this can be.” Applications are read by two people and then taken to committee; those that don’t get sent to committee are clearly not admissible, and that’s agreed upon by both readers. Everyone comes in thinking everyone is more amazing and that they haven’t done anything. “Even if you ARE the 5th in the world at chess and won the debate championship and cured cancer, you feel it.” That being said, it’s not a competitive environment. People collaborate all the time and will not sabotage each other because they’re looking for that one A – “if people deserve an A, they’ll all get it.” That being said, there are a couple departments that will grade on a curve, like Econ. But even in a situation where people should be fending for themselves, they still help out. You have to want to come here and be competitive. You have to want to learn. But once you’re here, it’s not like that. It’s competition with yourself and be the best you can be. Once admitted, Amherst will meet demonstrated need without loans; students graduate debt-free unless the family took out an outside loan.

Amherst 4Currently, the student-faculty ratio is 8:1, but with 18 new faculty members being added, this will change. Introductory classes might have 80 or 90 students but this is far from the norm. One panelist has a class with 4 people in it. The faculty teaches the students how to do scholarly research and expect that sort of research to be produced. “Professors guide us, but not to hold our hands. They let us stumble and then will help to pick us up and get us back on track.” Professors are willing to spend as much time as it takes in class, and out – they teach very few sections each term so they have time to devote to the students. One of the panelists was in a music seminar class, and each class meeting “took as long as it took. The students and the prof would stay until we were done.”

Amherst 3Students are knowledgeable about the world and current events, and they like talking about what’s going on in the world and on campus. Students have a voice, and they regularly bring up issues and work with the powers-that-be to improve campus. “They actually care about student opinions. People are shocked when they sit in on meetings and see that our voices matter.” Women’s rights tend to be a big topic on campus; the students think this is because Amherst had been an all-male school for a long time. The night before we talked to the student panel, a group talked about the topic of sexual misconduct with the president. The college provides free copies of the NYT in the dining hall, and they’re widely read. “Things change in the world. We’re ready and willing to change with it.”

Amherst 5We asked the student panel the following questions and got some great answers from them:

What has Amherst done for you to prepare you for whatever you want to do next?

  • “Confidence!”
  • “Science. It’s so not true that you can’t do science at a LA school. I did an internship at the flagship UT campus but was more prepared than their students.” She learned to integrate information, to think outside the box, to think critically. “It’s allowed me to realize what’s important in the questions I’m asking and to synthesis important information.”
  • “There’s a reason why Bain and JPMorgan and others recruit here. Students here take the time to learn on their own. We’re some of the best thinkers they have because we challenge the information.”
  • “Time management. I could stop doing all the extras and concentrate on classes; I’d do marginally better grades, but that wouldn’t be a good use of my time. We get as much flexibility to organize our time, but it’s on us to prioritize.”

What do you wish you had known before you came to college that we can share with our students?

  • Try lots of new things.
  • Don’t go in thinking you know exactly what you want to do. Be open minded.
  • Look at LA schools because you’re here to challenge your ideas rather than listening to lectures.

What traditions are your favorites?

  • “The rivalry between Williams and Amherst is HUGE. Homecoming is a big deal here. Alums will get together and watch the games and there’s a bonfire on campus. A blog on ESPN listed us as one of the top places to tailgate in the US because you can tailgate 6 feet from the endzone.”
  • “We have things going on about every 2 weeks, so I can’t really talk about just one. Of course, it’s hard from me b/c I perform [in the a cappella group] about a dozen times at each of these weekends”

(c) 2013

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