When is an urban campus not an urban campus? One answer might be: when it’s the University of Connecticut. Set in New England’s countryside, UConn’s entrance materializes suddenly, like just another of the scattered intersections along a heavily wooded byway, interrupted here and there by the occasional strip mall or gasoline station. A quick turn transitions into a major thoroughfare and to our right, a police officer pointing a radar gun our way. To our left, rustic, white fences border vast acres of beautiful farmland, sending a very different signal. Within a matter of minutes, however, a near-skyline of large, brick buildings resolve any question. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore.
UConn may not qualify as city, exactly, but it certainly is a very large town in its own right, in certain ways not unlike some schools classified as “urban.” It even has its own zip-code, as well as fire, ambulance, and, yes, police force, on campus. As municipalities go, it is suburban-mall tidy, its generous boulevards trimmed in meticulously maintained greenery. It is also growing, as the cement trucks rumbling down its streets and destination construction sites testify. An enormous, new health and fitness center will open soon. After parking in a garage the size of a city block, we ambled across the street to the admissions office for our info session and tour.
Ushered into a classroom-style venue, our info session was led by a pair of students, Eduardo and Mikayla, who doubled as our tour guides. This, in itself, made a statement, as most schools separate the two activities, with the info session usually run by an admissions counselor, sometimes with an assist from a student. Exactly what the statement was, of course, is open to interpretation, but based on what we heard, it appeared to be designed to raise the comfort level of prospective students. After all, any college can be intimidating, but especially one as large as UConn with its approximately 24,000 undergrads.
The very first thing our guides mentioned was the convocation ceremony for incoming students, described a really fun time, a giant block party complete with UConn swag and other goodies. This welcoming theme ran throughout the presentation and tour, and the message was this: We know your transition to college life is a big adjustment, but we will support you every step of the way. Having eminently relatable students running the introduction to UConn from beginning to end personified the message: “Don’t worry; we did it and so will you.”
The tour was tag-team style, with Mikayla doing the talking with Eduardo — or Eddy as he called himself — making sure to speak directly with each and every student along the way, reinforcing a spirit of caring. “How’re you doing?” he’d say. “Just want to make sure all your questions are answered.” He had spent at least five or ten minutes engaged in casual conversation with each student by the time the tour was over. Incidentally, it was a diverse group, with prospects not only from Connecticut, but also Washington DC, Indiana, Massachusetts and even Hong Kong. Mikayla, meanwhile, was unafraid to reveal her own sense of vulnerability, confiding at the outset that this was her very first time leading a tour. She did great. We never would have guessed it was her inaugural voyage.
We were taken through a typical array of stops for a larger school, such as the student union, the academic services center, and the business school. At every opportunity, we were reminded of the ways in which UConn supports the college transition, with programs such as ACES, which pairs students with an academic advisor, and FYE, or the first-year experience, where students get to know professors and classmates in a particular area of interest. The other big emphasis, naturally, was career/jobs, including periodic job fairs, “Career Tuesdays” that offer weekly meetings with potential employers, as well as opportunities to become Bloomberg certified. True to form, UConn also makes a point of easing the transition from college into the real world of jobs and careers.
We stopped outside the Neag School of Education, which offers a five-year combined undergraduate and Masters program, the Babbage Library, home of some 3.5 million books, and the William Benton Museum of Art, housing some 6,500 pieces, dating back to the 15th century. We heard tale of “One Ton Sundae,” when students can fill up a bucketful of UConn’s famous Dairy Bar ice cream, for free. It happens in February but is a very popular event.
Our final stop was the Brien McMahon residence hall, one of eight on campus that features a themed cafeteria. McMahon offers international fare, while others specialize in kosher/halal, vegan/vegetarian, and, on message: comfort food. We stopped by a picture-perfect model dorm room, and were then asked to take a seat and fill out an evaluation form. They wanted us to offer comments and suggestions to improve their presentation and tour! UConn may not be the only school to do this, but it is unusual and speaks well of both their level of confidence and willingness to listen. Once again, it was comforting.
In yet another nice touch, we were asked to pose for a group picture with a cut-out of Jonathan Husky, the school mascot. It was also surprising, in that there had been little mention of “Huskymania” during the info session or tour, suggesting that UConn is more interested in building its reputation on academics, even though bragging about its enviable sports program would be an easy thing to do.
It was a healthy reminder that a little humility goes a long way.