UConn Tour: Beyond Huskymania

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.

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Georgetown Tour: What Rocks? Hoya Saxa!

We gamely followed Matt, our witty and vivacious Georgetown University tour guide, as he ascended what appeared to be a fire escape. Where were we going, and why? After our large group arrived on the rooftop, and continued along a fenced-in catwalk, the uneven, concrete tiles wobbling under our footsteps, the answer came clear. Matt perched himself precariously on a fence and with a wave of his arm proudly pointed out the many landmarks dotting our sweeping view: the Kennedy Center, the Washington Monument, Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials and the Pentagon, not to mention the notorious Watergate Hotel. The moment instantly captured Georgetown’s sense of time and place, specifically its history as a university whose founding coincided with that of America itself.

Georgetown is by no means the only university in the nation’s capital, but it is the oldest and most selective, as well as the oldest Catholic university in the nation. Matt carefully noted, however, that the school is neither inherently religious nor political. Its student body is less than 50% Catholic and a “God Squad” of campus chaplains actively serve a spectrum of faiths. In fact, the school was the nation’s first to be open to students of all beliefs. Moreover, even though Georgetown attracts a healthy dose of politicos, its students pursue business, science, theater, art and more, both in the classroom and the District beyond. He added that while DC may be thought of as a cut-throat culture, Georgetown is a kinder, gentler, collaborative place.

This echoed what we had heard earlier during a well-attended info session in a posh auditorium inside the school’s Intercultural Center. Georgetown sees itself as a trio of communities. The first is the campus itself, a compact 110-acre spread, fronted by Healy Hall, graced by large trees and a lush lawn, and bordered by a stone wall that, legend has it, figures into Georgetown’s official cheer, “Hoya Saxa.” Allegedly, when sporting events were held on the lawn, spectators would remove rocks from the wall and throw them in the direction of the visiting team. When met with objection, Georgetown students would yell, “hoya saxa,” which roughly translates into “what rocks?” Other origin stories abound, but that one, um, rocks.

Georgetown’s second community is set squarely within the upscale, 12-block, Georgetown neighborhood that surrounds it, home to shops, restaurants and a waterfront area offering lots to do just footsteps away. Community number three is the city of DC and all it has to offer. Getting there requires taking a shuttle bus to a metro station, and then a few minutes’ ride to the National Mall, Capitol Hill, and all other points of interest. (A fourth type of community, known as Living Learning Communities, or LLCs, allows students to reside with others of common background or interests, e.g., social activism, religion, sexual identity, foreign languages, and transfer students.)

As info sessions go, Georgetown’s was relatively heavy on the school’s history and prime location as compared to its academics, which was surprising given its stellar academic reputation. As we waited for the session to begin we were entertained by a steady stream of Georgetown fun facts: it accepted the first international student in 1792; its blue and gray colors were adopted to promote post-Civil War healing; its Mask & Bauble theater troupe is the nation’s oldest; and so forth. Of course, we did hear about Georgetown’s four undergraduate schools: arts & sciences; nursing; foreign services; and business. We learned that while it is not difficult to transfer between schools, it is not possible to double major across them. Pre-med is offered not as a major but as a concentration that can be combined with any other major, even something ostensibly unrelated, like, say, history.

Pursuing a major and a double minor, meanwhile, seems to be a popular way for students to weave diverse interests into an interdisciplinary program. The classical Jesuit “whole person” philosophy is emphasized, as is the commitment to connecting one’s education with public service, and a larger purpose. Banners extolling university values, such as “contemplation in action” and “community in diversity” hang from lampposts along walkways across the main campus.

We were shown exterior photos of the impressive-looking science and business buildings during the info session, but were not taken inside those or any other facilities during our tour, save an abbreviated jaunt through the beautifully ornate, neo-Medieval Healy Hall, Georgetown’s flagship. A photo of the spectacular Gaston Hall auditorium was shared, but nothing more. Some schools can’t wait to show off what’s behind their curtains, while others are strangely modest about their assets. Maybe there’s a good reason for this, but if there is, we haven’t yet heard it.

Georgetown does look pretty darn good, if only from the outside. Especially memorable is the Dahlgren Quad, named for the Dahlgren Chapel, for which there is a 5-7 year waiting list if you want it for a wedding. It is also framed by the Old North Building, the oldest structure on campus, and from the top step of which some 14 U.S. presidents have appeared or spoken, starting with George Washington, including Abraham Lincoln, and most recently, Barack Obama.

Healy Hall and its famous clock tower further define the quad. Mischievous students periodically have “stolen” the handles and sent them to famous people as an invitation to speak at the university; Bill Clinton, a Georgetown alum, reportedly autographed the handles and Pope Francis purportedly blessed them. The university actively discourages this particular tradition.

With its near-ivy level of selectivity (an approximately 14% admit rate), getting accepted into Georgetown is certainly a challenge. In addition to grades, rigor and board scores, Georgetown “strongly recommends” submitting at least three SAT subject-matter tests. This may be waived if such tests are not available to the student. It does not offer a binding “early decision” option, but does allow a restricted “early action” opportunity. However, those applying to it may not apply “early decision” to any other schools. Both “early action” and “regular decision” applicants are notified on May 1st. Georgetown has its own application and does not use either the Common or Coalition app, however it requires essentially the same essays and information as the Common app.

As our 90-minute tour wrapped up, Matt perched himself, once again precariously, atop a narrow brick wall, with the school’s Jesuit graveyard in the background (“a cute campus addition,” he quipped). As is often the case with campus tours, he concluded with his reasons for choosing Georgetown: the size (7,500 undergraduates); the location (DC & Georgetown); and the people (the alumni network which he said had been incredibly responsive to his requests for career and other guidance). “Georgetown is not just an education,” he said, “ it also forms you as a person and a global citizen.”

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Hofstra Tour: Monkey Puzzles & Other Surprises

One would get the wrong idea if the aging, high-rise residential halls visible from a bordering turnpike were one’s first impression of Hofstra University. This would be doubly problematic if it were raining and 45 degrees on what should be a glorious Spring day. So many students form fast, hard, negative opinions based on such cursory glances, especially when the surrounding area looks a lot like … Hempstead, Long Island.

This is why taking the time to tour colleges is so important. Pass through its gates, and Hofstra’s transformation is remarkable. What appears from the outside to be a gritty, urban neighborhood is in reality a 240-acre campus that is home to an honest-to-goodness National Arboretum and enough exotic greenery to fill perhaps a dozen or more so-called “green campuses.” Venture inside its buildings and you will find an art gallery, state-of-the-art television studio, full-fledged trading floor, a near-scale replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and a towering library with a top-floor view of the Manhattan skyline, a mere 25 miles away.

Hofstra certainly knows what it has, and is eager to show it off. Dispensing with the usual jam-packed info session, Hofstra limited its dog-and-pony show to just 10 minutes, opting to let the campus itself do the talking. In a rare move, our hosting admissions counselor joined us on the student-led tour. One of the first stops was the Guthart Cultural Center Theater, which you might recall as the site of the 2008, 2012 and 2016 U.S. presidential debates. If not, there’s a shrine commemorating it. Next stop was the Mack Student Center, the hub of student life, with food court, book store, bank, and probably because it is Long Island, a hair and nail salon.

Unlike certain other schools, which are reluctant to let you see what’s inside their buildings and behind their curtains, Hofstra can’t wait to walk you through its empire, in particular the science and brand, spanking new business building. The Zarb Business School is so new that it actually smells new. In addition to a 34-terminal trading floor, it has a really cool entrepreneurial center, with 3D printers, drones, a recording studio and garage door walls that open up to encourage collaboration. A career center sits directly across the way from Zarb.

The science building has all the labs and such like, of course. The stairwells were memorable because one features renderings of icons of science, like Darwin, and the other various sea creatures, such as horseshoe crabs. The simple, black and white, stencil-style images are courtesy of the school’s art department, a reminder that arts connect with sciences.

Hofstra is fairly young as American universities go, dating back only to 1935. Built on the former estate of lumber mogul William Hofstra, it originally was an outpost of New York University. This changed at its first commencement, when the school’s 83 students were given a choice to have diplomas from Hofstra or NYU. They overwhelmingly chose Hofstra, and “pride” has been the school’s signature value ever since (although the current slogan is “pride & purpose.”) “Pride” doubles as a reference to the lion on the school’s official crest, as well.

The nearly overwhelming greenery on campus is of course rooted in its past as a rich man’s backyard. Most memorable is the thorny Monkey Puzzle tree (google it; it is weird and fascinating).

As we strolled through one building or another, monitors promoted a baseball game versus The College of William & Mary, a reminder that opposites attract. Sports is important at Hofstra; after all, it is located across the street from Nassau Coliseum, and its own Shuart Stadium is the home of the New York Lizards, a professional lacrosse team. Students are treated to two free tickets to all home games. At one time Hofstra’s stadium was the training camp for the New York Jets. It fields 17 teams of its own, including just about everything you can think of except football. Perhaps inspired by U Chicago, it built a medical school where its stadium used to be.

We didn’t see the entire campus, which is split by the Hempstead Turnpike and bridged by overhead, enclosed walkways. Basically, the North side is the residential area, including the athletic fields, and the South is where classes happen. Hofstra likes to refer to nearby New York City as its “satellite campus,” and it does afford students with ample opportunities to enjoy everything the Big Apple has to offer. While touring the campus’ award-winning radio station and tricked-out television studio, our guide noted that the major networks in NYC are a major source of internships for Hofstra undergrads.

Oh, and Jones Beach is just a half-hour down the road.

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DePaul Tour: A Distinctly Vincentian Education

Never afraid of getting too much of a good thing, we squeezed in one last college tour during our Chicago whirlwind. With just hours to spare before our return flight, we grabbed a slow Lyft to DePaul University’s Lincoln Park campus — the residential, horizontal one, as compared to its more compact high-rise Loop campus located about five miles, or 20 minutes, south.

DePaul is a big, private, university of about 16,000 undergraduates and 8,000 graduate students, making it America’s largest Catholic university. What comes clear, pretty quickly, is that DePaul’s Catholic identity is of a distinctly inclusive variety, welcoming a robust mix of Jewish and Muslim students as well as Latinx, Asian and LGBTQ.

Vincentians, followers of the 17th-century French priest Saint Vincent de Paul, founded the school as St. Vincent’s College in 1898. The name changed to DePaul in 1907, but its operative philosophy remains grounded in “teaching and service,” and it still lives and proudly articulates its founding principles more than 100 years later. Our info session leader, herself an impressive recent graduate, summed it up in three succinct bullet points: education, environment and ethos. It’s not often that a school’s defining characteristics are spelled out so quickly, clearly and with feeling.

Education at DePaul finds expression across a total of ten schools and 300 programs. The Lincoln Park campus is home to the colleges of education, arts & sciences, science & health, music and theater. The Loop is where you’ll find schools for business, law, communication, digital media and new learning (for adult students). Both campuses follow the Chicago-style quarterly system, which here includes a 10-day, freshman-year study-abroad opportunity during the six-week winter break.

DePaul considers the Chicago environment to be its classroom, providing opportunities for internships, co-op employment and research. Lincoln Park is where the vast majority of the students who live on campus reside, complete with a lake, a quad, shops, restaurants and nightlife. The Loop more of a downtown, big-city experience. Transit fare is included in tuition.

For all students, the notion of “teaching and service” is the classroom ethos, with studies framed by the questions: What must be done? Whom are you helping? What difference are you making? This holistic view of academics and action perhaps further informs DePaul’s five-year law school program, which students can begin as freshmen, and helps explain why undergraduates can apply to the university’s medical school while pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

One curiosity is the school’s logo. It’s just a little puzzling why a college named after a saint would have a sports team called the Blue Demons and a red-eyed, blue-hued mascot that appears quite the opposite of saintly. The story goes that the team originally was nicknamed the D-men, which morphed into demon and then a blue one because it was a school color, along with scarlet red, accounting for those eyes.

Our tour lasted only a few minutes because we had to return to our hotel to get our bags and then head to the airport. This made us sad, because our guides were a hoot. The one with purple hair said he told his mom he would apply to DePaul and DePaul alone the minute he set foot on campus. “It was just something about the vibe,” he said. The other, a former film production major who switched to economics confided: “I realized I was more interested in watching movies than making them.” With a wry smile and sideways glance, she quipped, ”So, if you know anyone who needs any film production credits …” Clearly, a budding capitalist.

With that, she pointed us to the nearby L station, a mercifully fast train ride downtown, and then yet another bumper-to-bumper car ride back to O’Hare.

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U Chicago Tour: Yes, We Had Fun

Looking for the admissions office, walking through a grand archway, not knowing exactly what was to come, we were stunned by the jaw-dropping elegance of what other colleges might call a quad but at University of Chicago is better described as an English garden. A cut-stone walkway, antique lamp posts with flowers clustered just-so at the base, plantings meticulously curated and placed in tidy circles and squares. This couldn’t possibly be the place where fun goes to die, although it doesn’t exactly scream “let’s play ultimate frisbee!” The 215-acre space is in fact officially designated a Botanic Garden. It certainly makes a statement. This place is different.

Off to the right, there it was, Rosenwald Hall, office of admissions, all spires, gothic gray stone, a red-tile roof, and, naturally, ivy. Once inside, we felt instantly humbled by the faint echo and vaguely damp, dusty aroma that only the most venerable of academic institutions can muster. But first things first, are there any pens? The receptionist seemed startled by our question, but quickly recovered by turning up not just one but five high-quality maroon pens with uchicago in a lowercase gothic font. We were off to a good start.

Our new pens and worn notebooks in hand, our small group was ushered into a compact conference room, replete with one of those European-style, intersecting arched vaulted ceilings. We were invited to take a seat around a dark oak table, with an admissions counselor at its head. It felt more like we were about to participate in a seminar than an info session, which most probably was intentional. What followed was indeed more of a discussion than a presentation. It was certainly one of the crispest, clearest admissions expositions we’ve ever experienced.

Our host wasted no time setting the frame, which is all about 3s. UChicago, like other schools in town, has a trimester system, in which the school year is divided into quarters, with students taking classes during three of the four segments. Courses of study are also divided by thirds, with one-third each dedicated to a major, the core, and electives. The idea is to make sure each student spreads it around, and especially that the opportunity to have some fun with electives is not lost in the avalanche of core and major requirements. The core demands are also flexible, with plenty of options and the freedom to complete them anytime.

To keep their choices on track, all students are assigned an academic advisor the summer before their first year and required to meet at least once per quarter thereafter. This is mandatory: those who fail to schedule such a meeting are barred from registering for the next quarter. Each student is also assigned a career advancement advisor prior to arrival, and while internships are not required, about 90% of students complete at least one, all of them paid.

What’s more, some 900 organizations, everything from major corporations to startups, recruit at UChicago each year. This strong pre-professional emphasis is a little surprising, as UC is historically perceived as overwhelmingly academic. Of course, the two goals are by no means mutually exclusive.

Our discussion turned to campus life, in particular the residential system, which features “houses” within dorms, each composed of between 30-100 students, cutting across all years, who live and play together, taking trips around Chicago, to restaurants, zoos, games, museums — all funded by UChicago. Each house decides by vote how the money will be spent, and the largess is perhaps the centerpiece of the school’s determination to dispel the legend that life there is as serious as a heart attack.

Theories abound as to how UC earned its hard-boiled reputation; it is no doubt a place where students work hard and just might pursue small talk as a blood sport. That could be true of any number of elite universities, though. According to our host, the unfortunate trope dates back to the 1960s, when UChicago disbanded its clubs and built a library where its stadium used to be. That would do it. He said that “fun goes to die” T shirts remain popular, but only as a joke.

That fun is alive and well was dramatically reinforced by Ellie, our tour guide, who introduced herself by rapping about her life at UChicago and what she loves about it. As we walked the campus, she wisecracked about the questionable aesthetics of the new Max Palevsky dorm (the best thing about it was being inside because then you don’t have to see the outside), touted the arts pass that gets you into countless museums and venues, and the free public transportation that is an open invitation to explore all that Chicago has to offer.

As we walked through the Science Quad, Ellie pointed out a foreboding, windowless brick building with vented siloes running from bottom to top and said the Zombie Readiness Task Force, a student club, had named it the safest building on campus in the event of an apocalypse. She regaled us with stories of a madcap scavenger hunt, a mini art-museum, and a really weird cafe where plastic gloves hang from the ceiling as Gregorian chants waft through the sound system. If any doubt remained as to whether one could have fun here, Ellie erased it. The only real X-factor may be your idea of fun.

Meanwhile, back at our info seminar, we turned to the so-called Chicago “extended” essay, which applicants sometimes approach with dread, although the prompts clearly are built for whimsy. The question can be deceptively simple, such as: compare apples and oranges. The point is to get a sense of how you think, and so the key is to interpret the question in the context of something that’s meaningful to you. For example, one might write about apples versus oranges in terms of science, philosophy, linguistics or economics.

A new essay topic is released each year in mid/late June, but applicants have the option to choose from any question ever posed from years past. Just pick a prompt that speaks to you and for which your response comes easily. It’s basically an opportunity to showcase whatever you are most passionate about.

Be true to yourself, and, yes, have fun with it.

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Wisconsin Tour: Small City, Big Campus

Located in a capital city and with a total student population of about 44,000, it would seem a given that the University of Wisconsin at Madison would be a bit on the overwhelming side. That the first big thing we saw was a really big stadium reinforced our initial preconception, while also hardening an assumption that this Big Ten school would be as sports-crazed as they come. No question that Wisconsin is a huge school that loves its Badgers, but “overwhelming” only applies in the best sense of the word, as in rich in opportunity across multiple dimensions.

The campus is unmistakably an urban setting, but one that is better described as an overgrown town than a bustling city, directionally not unlike, say, another capital locale known as DC. The buildings tend toward low-slung rather than high-rise, the vibe is energetic but not crowded, and the sheer size of the footprint is casually remedied on wheels: students navigating here and there on bicycles, scooters and even skateboards. Big doesn’t have to mean unmanageable, and urban doesn’t necessarily render in shades of midtown Manhattan. Madison is a sweet spot.

As a large university, Wisconsin is ready for just about anyone, offering up some 130 majors and 60 certificates across eight schools and colleges: Business, Education, Engineering, Human Ecology (SOHE), Pharmacy, Nursing, College of Letters & Sciences and College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (CALS). It is possible to enter a specific college, or else as undeclared and then switch in later, apparently without much difficulty. Academic guidance begins the summer prior to freshman year, when students are assigned an advisor and supported by a program called Student Orientation Advising and Registration, or SOAR.

If you haven’t yet noticed, Wisconsin is particularly fond of acronyms, such as the Greater University Tutoring Service (GUTS) and Student Activity Center (SAC). Its First Year Interest Groups, or FIGs, invite cohorts of about 20 new students to take a set of three or four diverse but related classes centered on a particular theme and led by a single instructor. This introduces freshmen to a range of subject matter, provides a sustained opportunity to really get to know a group of fellow students and work closely with an instructor. They become part of their own little academic community that typically engages in field trips as well as classroom experiences.

Our relatively small and sedate info session snapped to attention with the arrival of our tour guide, Eric, a senior whose adrenaline level matched his evident excitement about graduating a few days hence. We were joined on our tour by three younger student-guides, who made conversation and answered questions as we went. Eric, meanwhile, was intent on entertaining us, peppering the usual patter about dorms, laundry, food, clubs and campus life in general with a bounty of one-liners such as: “We have more than 900 clubs at University of Wisconsin. You can go bowling, if that’s up your alley.”

Because we had so much ground to cover, we didn’t enter many buildings, but they looked pretty great from the outside. We did take seats in a typical classroom, but mainly just to get off our feet for a few minutes. Most memorable was our stop at a lakefront terrace, resplendent with an array of metal chairs painted in bright, Skittles-esque sunburst colors, and for which University of Wisconsin is famous. When the weather is warm the pavillion hosts concerts, open mic nights and food trucks. In the winter, when the lake freezes, it is a place for ice fishing and skating, among other wintry pursuits.

Our journey continued with an ascent up Bascom Hill, the big quad on campus. The suddenly upward trajectory of the terrain was striking because our drive from Chicago to Madison had been farmland beautiful but relentlessly flat. How was it that there seemed to be exactly one hill in all of Wisconsin, and it was at the heart of the Madison campus? The answer is glacial deposits, but all that really matters is that it creates an impressive effect, topped by the majestic Bascom Hall, the school’s primary administrative building. Directly in front sits a bronze statue of one of America’s most famous sons. “Anyone want to guess who this is?” Eric teased. The answer was so obvious that no one said a word. This was a moment made for Eric.

“I had one little kid guess Steve Jobs,” he ventured, to laughter. “And someone else said George W. Bush,” he continued, now doubled over, before relenting and telling us what we already knew: The statue was of Abraham Lincoln, whose Wisconsin troops trained on-campus during the Civil War. The toe of Abe’s left shoe glistened from the shine of endless undergraduates rubbing it for good luck before exams, one of those great college traditions.

Last stop for us was the Discovery Building, home of a public-private research partnership that opened in 2010 and whose ground floor is designed as a collaborative gathering and meeting place open not only to students but the local community, as well. The space evokes a traditional town center, complete with tree-lined walkways, lush with leaves that reportedly stay green year ‘round. The building’s windows open and close automatically to equalize the temperature. Cool.

From there, we headed back to State Street, a small but bustling row of shops including the campus bookstore, and restaurants such as Forage, which was packed with students choosing from an imaginative selection of grain bowls. Then it was time to depart this great, big campus nestled in an attractive, small city and head back to Chicago, a three-hour drive away.

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Beloit Tour: Keep an Eye on this Turtle

If it weren’t directly on the path between Chicago and Madison, we might have missed Beloit College, and that would have been a shame. Truth is, we hadn’t planned to visit because it is a small school that hadn’t registered much on the radar of our students. That will change now. No college is for everyone, of course, but Beloit should at least make the considered-set of a larger number of students.

Beloit profiles as small and quiet, with only about 1,200 undergraduates. On a late Monday afternoon it was hard to find anyone at all; even the campus coffee shop had already closed by five o’clock. We were told most students were back in their residential halls for the day. At a glance, the campus appeared quiescent. A closer look, however, revealed something more bubbling beneath the surface.

Beloit’s serenity is embodied in the beauty of its park-like setting, which despite recent additions like the show-stopping LEED-certified Sanger Science Center, lays claim to a 19th-century vibe that reverberates with its little-known ivy-league pedigree. Beloit was founded in 1847 by a group of Yale alums who thought the Wisconsin territory deserved its own place of higher learning. That same seriousness of purpose defines Beloit to this day.

Because we were just dropping by unannounced, we didn’t hit an info session or tag along on a student-led tour, but did enjoy an extended sit-down with an enthusiastic admissions counselor who told us everything we didn’t already know about this well-respected but not exactly high-profile school. By the time she finished, we were sold on it as a potentially perfect place for those who may not know what they want, but know it when they see it.

The mystery is why this Yale-descended gem, co-ed since 1895, is not thought of alongside other small-but-mighty schools, many of which are located in equally, if not more, obscure locations. If nothing else, none of those other ivy-style institutions is home to a series of 20 honest-to-goodness Native-American archeological sites right on campus. Known as “animal mounds,” each honors a particular creature and dates back as far as 400 AD. One mound is shaped like a turtle, and figures into the school’s coat of arms. Building on this spirit, Beloit is a top school for PhDs in anthropology. It also overperforms as one of the top 20 undergraduate schools whose alum go on to earn PhDs.

Beloit’s other surprises include its large percentage of international students, who somehow find their way from other parts unknown to this tiny college in Wisconsin. Global truly is local at Beloit, and an indelible thread of its academic fabric. As it happens, internationalism has been integral to Beloit’s mission from its inception and not surprisingly finds further expression in healthy participation in study abroad, which attracts 46% of students, more than most other schools.

The campus also is home to two public museums: the Logan is appropriately anthropological and the other, the Wright, is for art. Both not only house impressive collections but also double as classrooms. What some other schools now like to call “experiential” learning, is nothing new at Beloit; learning by doing has been in vogue here since the 1960s. Artifacts might be used as inspiration for creative writing classes, for instance, or re-curated to bring any number of subjects to life. Student creations may also be on display in the art museum, also perhaps themed along topical interests.

So much of Beloit’s being is steeped in history, which tends to mark it as one of those stark raving liberal-arts schools. This is amply refuted not only by the aforementioned science center, but also its center for entrepreneurship, known as CELEB, where students run their own businesses, from apparel to apps. Business is taught as an art, and arts as a business at Beloit, with the goal to help students to find a path in the real world within the context of their studies.

Beloit is known to foster a particularly close relationships between students and professors, one of whom is an enterprising sort known to walk his dogs around campus to invite conversations. He happens to be a business professor who hands out his card in hopes of recruiting new students as he goes. Yet another surprise is the school’s half dozen or so academic residencies, which bring luminaries from a spectrum of disciplines to campus each year.

Possibly the biggest surprise is yet to come later this year, when Beloit opens a 120K square-foot student union, recreation and physical conditioning facility in a former electric-power generating station just across the Rock River, which runs along the main campus. Dubbed “the Powerhouse,” it will also feature a lecture hall, theater, conference center, seminar rooms and work tables. It is envisioned as “a home for mental, physical, and social wellness on campus,” and billed as the first of its kind anywhere. It looks to be amazing.

Keep an eye on this turtle, Beloit. It moves faster than it looks.

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Northwestern Tour: Warm and Windy

Given its rigorous academics and selective admissions, one would not expect life at Northwestern University to be a day at the beach. Yet its campus boasts not one, but two sandy enclaves on the shores of Lake Michigan, punctuated by the Chicago skyline in the not so very distance. As lakes go, this one could easily be mistaken for an ocean, and on the rare day in May we visited, its sparkling streaks of turquoise and azure looked positively Caribbean. Running ruthlessly countertrend, the temperature hovered around 47, it was drizzling and, yes, Chicago windy. A gaggle of lonely sailboats rested uneasily but hopefully on the shore, waiting patiently for better days.

We checked in at the soaring, dazzling, glassy visitor center, only to learn from a cheerful young woman at the desk that our info session and tour had been cancelled. Damn. Well, then, could we have a pen, at least? We collect them from all the schools. No, no pens. “Oh, wait,” she said, her eyes brightening as she handed us a generic ballpoint, sans any insignia. “Take this, it is a pen from Northwestern!” Clever and resourceful, these Northwestern students.

As consolation, we were graciously offered a conversation with a patient and super-smart admissions counselor, who started by asking if we had any questions. Hm, not where we expected to begin, but maybe it says something about Northwestern that questions take priority over answers. Resisting the temptation to litigate why our tour had been deep-sixed, we instead inquired about double majors, the journalism program, and tried to get some insight into why some students get in and others don’t.

Like many of today’s best schools, Northwestern encourages mixing and matching academic pursuits, the more ostensibly disconnected the better. If there’s a thread, it’s forging links between arts and sciences. Northwestern’s Medill school is of course renowned for journalism, although like much of Northwestern’s reputation perhaps a bit tilted toward the graduate level. The university’s post-grad accent happened to be personified our host, herself a former graduate student. As for admissions criteria, it’s a mystery, apparently even to the admissions officers. If there’s a secret, they’re not sharing it.

So, what is it, exactly, that makes Northwestern what it is? One version of that answer is the university messaging, telegraphed as “AND is in our DNA” in a YouTube video: research and teaching; academics and athletics; college town and major city. The notion is meant to extend to the students themselves who combine and recombine areas of study. Is this modern-day philosophy somehow rooted in Northwestern’s origins? That’s a good question, the answer to which requires more research, itself another of the school’s hallmarks. The more telling answer, as usual, is found in a walk around campus, and in particular the places where students gather, such as the Norris University Center, where you can get some food while enjoying spectacular views of that gorgeous lake.

We always look for diversity when we visit campuses, which at Northwestern seemed most evident in a certain artistic, bohemian, and occasionally even eccentric streak in the student population. This influence may be down to the school’s famous theatre program. Did we mention that Stephen Colbert is a Northwestern grad? Northwestern mentions Stephen Colbert almost as often as UVA mentions Thomas Jefferson. True to form, the late-night host is described as both serious and funny, living the “and” theme.

The rest of Northwestern’s soul can be contemplated in a walk around its large-scale but compact (“and”) campus, which though in suburban Evanston, and a fair distance from Chicago, feels decidedly city-like. No shortage of greenery, lots of grassy stretches and imposing trees, but also plenty of pavement. The dominant architectural style, despite a few flashes of old-fashioned goth and futuristic walls of glass, can best be described as brutalist, that blocky, cement-happy motif popular in the American ‘70s and the former Soviet Union.

That sounds harsher than it actually is, but if you need classical brick, columns, cut stone or that Hogwarts feeling, you won’t quite find it here. The effect may have been cemented by the brutally raw spring day, and that some of us were shivering in our parkas in May, but certainly is not a metaphor for what is inarguably one of today’s most all-embracing and celebrated institutions of higher learning.

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‘Llamapalooza’ Helps Berkeley Students Relax

The Guardian: “On Friday, students flocked to UC Berkeley’s Memorial Glade for Llamapalooza, a human-llama social occasion on a sunny campus lawn. The eight animals were scattered throughout the crowd, munching grass while the adoring masses petted, fed and photographed them under the supervision of trained student volunteers. The semesterly event is intended to help Berkeley students relax before the tests. For many, it works. Ana Claire Mancia, a business major who graduates this year, launched Llamapalooza a year and a half ago. The Guardian was granted exclusive access to her final event as a student, as she sought to avoid the heavy press presence of previous semesters. ‘When you’re around a llama, you become very calm and at peace,’ she said.”

“Indeed, despite being surrounded by throngs of overexcited humans, the llamas themselves remained remarkably calm. Their drooping eyelashes created an impression of utter contentment as they helped themselves to large quantities of campus vegetation … Many students took pre-exam solace in the llamas’ fur, lauded as ‘quite fuzzy’ and ‘surprisingly soft’ … But interactions weren’t limited to petting. Mancia taught the Guardian what is known as a ‘llama greeting.’ The trick is to approach the animal nose-to-nose and ‘breathe the same air,’she said.”

“This easy rapport is why George Caldwell, who raises the llamas and brings them to campus, believes they are so well-suited to such visits. Thanks to a long history living among humans in South America, ‘these guys developed social skills that are just amazing,’ Caldwell says … Caldwell had been bringing the animals to Berkeley to de-stress the students for several years before Mancia launched Llamapalooza, but the event was somewhat under the radar. Llamapalooza changed that. Now, the event typically gets 5,000 RSVPs on Facebook, Mancia says, with one to two thousand students actually showing up.”

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JMU Tour: Sweet Smell of Success

Feels big! That was our first impression as our shuttle bus pulled up to the Festival Student Center in the Skyline area of the James Madison University campus. It also did not look like we imagined, based on the iconic, quaint bluestone buildings for which JMU is best known. These structures were huge, cement-and-glass, and a lighter shade of beige. This particular neck of campus — one of five distinct areas on JMU — dates back only to 2000, and as it turns out is home to the school’s impressive STEM curriculum. While the unapologetically 21st century architecture is a bit jarring at first, it nonetheless rises from a magnificent vantage point, amid vast expanses of lawnscape, dotted by students taking full advantage of all this warm Spring day had to offer.

Most spectacularly, the serene beauty of the Shenandoah Mountain glowed on the horizon, directly ahead. Slightly to the left, in the campus’s Ridge area, JMU’s gigantic stadium stood empty but somehow echoed with the energy of the school’s beloved Dukes, even in their absence. The older part of campus, aptly known as the Bluestone area, sits on the opposite side of the i84 thruway, connected overhead by a footbridge and below via a tunnel. In between is the Village area, populated by a cluster of low slung, mid-century modern dorms. Last but not least is the Lake area, which we didn’t visit, fronting — you guessed it — a lake.

Well regarded today as a public, research university, JMU began life in 1908 as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women, a teacher’s college. It underwent another slight name change before becoming Madison College in 1938 and James Madison University in 1977. Known as the father of the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s fourth president, James Madison wasn’t alive to see the school’s founding, but because his Montpelier home was nearby the school was named in his honor some 90 years after his death. Madison himself attended the College of New Jersey, now a smallish university called Princeton. He also helped Thomas Jefferson launch the University of Virginia. He stood 4’11”. Don’t you just hate overachievers?

That’s a brief history of JMU, but of course what matters more is its present and future. This was readily discernible during a brisk walk through the school’s impressive Engineering and Geoscience building, where computer banks, science labs and even a bicycle shop were visible through a series of plate glass windows. Back outside, we saw but did not enter the enormous University Recreation Center, which we were told offers every manner of exercise experience, including a 30-foot climbing wall. Our guide, a senior who was giving his last tour, could barely contain his excitement about everything JMU had to offer, and we hadn’t even crossed i84 to get to the other side of campus. After passing through the Village area just long enough to see a sample dorm room, we headed over to Bluestone, which is up a rather long, steep hill.

It was worth the exertion. This part of the JMU campus not only exudes the kind of classic, quadrangle ambiance of a venerable academic institution, but also puts on full display the spirit and vibe of the student body. If one word could sum it up it would be this: happy. Granted, it was a perfect Spring day, temperatures in the 70s, with a light breeze. Sunning on blankets, tossing frisbees, swinging on hammocks, taking selfies, playing with dogs. Our jovial tour guide was repeatedly greeted with hugs and even some kisses from fellow students. Our tour group was not immune from the spirit of the place. No hugs or kisses, but before our tour began, we were told that if anyone shouted J-M-U at us, the correct response was to bend a knee, cross our arms like a baseball umpire signaling “safe” and reply, “Duuuukes!” This happened three times during our tour.

Why are JMU students so happy? One answer might be the food: the school is ranked #5 for dining options by Princeton Review. A subtle tribute to Dolley Madison? Another could be the sports, which is a big draw. A more likely reason is that JMU gives its students the time and latitude to figure out exactly what it is they want to get out of their education, choosing from among the university’s eight colleges. There’s actually a class for students who can’t decide on their major! Opportunities to conduct research and engage in experiential learning begin freshman year, certainly yet another plus.

The ultimate explanation, however, may reside in a single building: The Student Success Center. Set in a former hospital, it houses administrative offices as well as every manner of service to help students with their studies, support their health, happiness and guide their potential career choices. It provides opportunities for collaborative exploration with professors and other students, entrepreneurship, and to hone academic skills. The overall idea is to navigate their journeys through the school and beyond. You can get Dunkin’ Donuts there, too.

Toward the end of our tour, a gaggle of beaming students stopped and stood with us as our guide explained the legend of JMU’s Kissing Rock, which is that any couple who stands on it will be together for life. They laughed as he joked about never going anywhere near the rock, and then clapped and cheered when he finished his well-crafted routine. One of the students yelled out, “Best tour guide, ever!” We’ve been on countless college tours, but have never seen as effusive, spontaneous, or genuine a display of camaraderie.

For such a large school (20,000 undergraduates), JMU makes a point of breaking it down into smaller pieces, and the culture seems to be a particularly caring, supportive one. Our tour guide, openly lamenting the impending end of his time there, was quite emotional about how JMU had opened his eyes and changed his life. “I am really going to miss this place,” he said, and then asked our group to pose with him for a picture.

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