21 Fun Facts About 12 Colleges

At the 2019 IECA Spring conference, a collection of colleges was invited to explain themselves, lightning-round style, in five minutes or fewer. Here is some of what we remember about what each of them said.

Brandeis is not a Jewish college, but it is Jew-ish. It is non-sectarian and 50% of its student body is of other backgrounds. Franklin & Marshall is located in “hip, artsy” Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Kirkwood Community College in Kirkwood, Iowa, attracts students from 38 states. Tuition is $6,400 a year, and on-campus housing another $5,500. It has a 5-star hotel on campus. Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin may sound “not very big” but it has three campuses and a conservatory.

Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, posts all assignments via an iPad app. Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, was the first to go co-ed and admit students of color. It teaches students how to think, not what to think, and embraces smallness.

Ohio Wesleyan is only 20 miles from Columbus. RIT, in Rochester New York, is career-oriented and is one of a handful of schools offering a co-op program. Sometimes it snows. University of British Columbia also has a co-op program and all students get a three-year work permit upon graduation. Buses are free because … Canada. University of Pittsburgh is actually three miles from downtown but is still an urban campus. Known for sciences, it guarantees undergraduates admission to graduate programs. Ursinus College is near Philadelphia, has an organic farm and 75 outdoor sculptures.

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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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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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UVA Tour: It Takes an Academical Village

His name was invoked no less than four times during the first five minutes of our UVA tour. Thomas Jefferson is known for many things, and his legacy endures in manifold ways, yet it is astonishing that his vision of higher education is still standing so tall in Charlottesville after 200 years. Disenchanted by the limitations of his own alma mater, William & Mary, which had fallen into decline at the time, Jefferson sought both to expand the scope of study beyond ministry, law and medicine and tighten the relationship between student and teacher.

Ever the architect, Jefferson drew what he saw. It was a place where students lived downstairs from their teachers in a long quadrangle, set on a great lawn. At the head was not the steepled church common to most colleges at the time, but rather a great, domed library. At the foot, off in the distance, farmlands and a mountain range, suggesting an agrarian ideal as much as wide open, future possibilities. Jefferson termed his concept the “Academical Village” (apparently, he also liked to invent words). A few chosen students, as well as professors and even the university’s president, occupy it to this day. That the structure lacks indoor plumbing makes living there no less an honor.

It’s impossible not to feel Jefferson’s centuries-old influence while walking its “grounds,” which other schools would call a campus, but not UVA. It’s all about the grounds. Students enthusiastically buy into other curiosities of the founder’s chosen vocabulary, referring to themselves not as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, but as first-years, second-years, third-years and fourth-years. Jefferson thought this reinforced a commitment to lifelong learning.

Even more noteworthy is a tight embrace of Jefferson’s notion of self-governance. This was self-evident during our 90-minute tour of the grounds. Our guide declared at the outset that tours are conducted independent of the admissions office and that he was not paid or compensated in any way. The school had little to worry about, as his presentation was a nearly relentless rave review, which is in itself testament to the return on self-governance. The only lapse concerned the cafeteria food, which our guide compared to a warm glass of water on a hot day. “You’re going to drink it,” he said, “but you’re never going to crave it.” Clearly, our guide writes his own material.

He also confessed some sense of isolation during his first year or so, in part because the sheer size of the school made it challenging to find his peeps, but also that the academic rigor consumed his waking hours. Ironically, it seems axiomatic that the larger the school, the more alone you are, at least at first. Our outwardly extroverted guide said he made a conscious effort to remedy this simply by reaching out to others, and also joining clubs, of which there are some 600 at UVA.

The most profound evidence of Jefferson’s lasting legacy is in the academics itself. Jefferson wasn’t kidding about expanding the horizons of academic pursuit, originally offering an unprecedented total of eight schools: law, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, ancient languages, modern languages, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy — yet notably no divinity school. Today, it’s a total of eleven schools: arts & sciences, leadership/public policy, education, business, commerce, architecture, law, medicine, and nursing. UVA also runs the Wise College, a four-year liberal-arts school serving Appalachia.

If a single idea might pull these disparate disciplines into a coherent focus or philosophy, it would be Jefferson’s penchant for design, and the very modern idea of “design thinking,” or seeking solutions based on human need and behavior. It’s an approach that informed Jefferson’s design for the school itself, and is perhaps the best explanation for why it is one of America’s most renowned universities today.

If you visit, try to allow extra time for a self-tour.At the very least, do take the time to explore Jefferson’s famous serpentine walled gardens and step inside his breathtaking rotunda. While the guided tour was outstanding, it took us inside just one building: a quick lap around a very quiet library. Consistent with our guide’s one-star review of the food, we didn’t get to see a cafeteria, and if you’ve seen one dorm room you’ve pretty much seen them all. No great loss there. But to get a true sense of the school, it’s essential to see students in their natural habitat, at least at a student center or something like that. UVA really should open its doors a bit wider.

Consequently, our main impression is that most students walk the grounds alone, by themselves; we didn’t see many pairs, much less groups of students as is common on many other campuses.

While the University has grown considerably over the past two centuries, it is comforting that it has held fast, and proudly, to the principles on which it was founded, not unlike certain other products of Jefferson’s imagination. Yet, it must be noted that Jefferson was not the only U.S. president with a central role in realizing the UVA vision. James Madison, who was in office at the time, was on the school’s organizing board, along with former president James Monroe, who sold the land on which UVA was built. Chief Justice John Marshall was yet another distinguished UVA founding father. They all would certainly be amazed to see their university today, but just as surely would easily recognize the vibrant community of citizen-scholars they envisioned back in 1819.

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Richmond Tour: Leaders in Leadership

It would be easy to dismiss the University of Richmond as just another pretty campus in Virginia. It really is beautiful. Every one of its red-brick buildings looks like it was designed by the same architect, and situated based on a meticulously curated master plan. This is all the more impressive given that the school as it stands today is built on the site of a former amusement park, six miles outside the city of Richmond, and is the result of a union between a men’s and a women’s college sitting on either side of a picture-perfect lake. Simply stunning. Richmond just might be the highest expression of what a college should look like. What’s more, it somehow manages to appear both storied and modern at the same time, a deft mix of past, present and future. And, oh, that awe-inspiring checkerboard seal. Richmond definitely wins the contest for college logos.

Of course, it would be a huge mistake to evaluate Richmond purely on the basis of its formidable aesthetic appeal, as alluring as that is. The university is a highly selective, academically rigorous institution of higher learning, the most distinctive feature of which is its leadership in leadership: Richmond’s Jepson School was the nation’s very first leadership studies college, later followed by some 30 others. Jepson is one of the three undergraduate schools at Richmond, the other two being its School of Arts & Sciences and the Robins School of Business.

Everyone is admitted as undeclared because Richmond wants its students to explore, with the first year centering on seminars where students focus on writing, presentation, and critical thinking skills. Boundaries between the three schools are fluid, and most students pursue studies in multiple fields. Yet the Jepson School seems central to the experience, as the study of leadership naturally lends itself to blend with almost any other area of academics. Not surprisingly, many students combine their chosen major with another one in leadership.

“Experiential” does seem to be the watchword, as Richmond encourages internships and study abroad, up to and including financial incentives. Students electing to avail themselves of any of the school’s 75-plus study-abroad opportunities are given a $400 cultural stipend, earmarked to cover expenses associated with exploring their host communities outside the classroom. Those choosing to conduct research or engage in internships over summer breaks are further awarded $4,000 to enable them to pursue such interests. Some 70 percent of students get involved in research. Students deciding to settle into the business school need only complete four pre-requisite courses and maintain a 2.7 GPA.

The only thing a little bit off-kilter about Richmond is its choice of mascot: a spider. It may not be the oddest collegiate icon, but it must be the creepiest, albeit in a cool kind of way. Apparently, at one time the school’s sports teams were known as the Colts. This changed to the Spiders in 1894 because of the long, spindly arms of the team’s ace baseball pitcher. Love it or not, there’s certainly no confusing Richmond’s athletic imprimatur with that of any other school. Another quirk is the sheer size of the campus, and the grand scale of its buildings relative to the number of undergrads, which is only about 3,000. Richmond has the look and feel of a far more densely populated school. Whether this is a plus, minus, or makes no difference, is for each prospective student to decide.

What matters most is that there is an incredibly attractive university near Richmond that not only promises a first-class education but also makes an extraordinary tangible financial investment in the cultural experience and academic success of its students, and our future leaders.

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College Tour: William & Mary Surprises

The most surprising thing about the College of William & Mary isn’t that it was built with pirate money (true story, look it up). Nor is it that it is the second-oldest college in America, after Harvard. That William & Mary counts Thomas Jefferson as an alumnus, its Sir Christopher Wren Building as the nation’s longest-standing academic edifice, and borders the magnificence of Colonial Williamsburg, does not completely capture what makes this school memorable and remarkable. Its somewhat quirky status as a small, public, research institution certainly makes William & Mary stand out, as does its rather peculiar-sounding name, palpably British pedigree, and that it calls itself a college but is, in fact, a university.

With all these attributes, topped by a drop-dead gorgeous leafy-and-bricky setting that seamlessly blends its triad of ancient, old and new campuses, it’s not surprising that William & Mary is populated by students who are among the best and brightest in Virginia, America and the world. What’s surprising, given all of the above, is that William & Mary is not better known and at the top of more college wish-lists.

William & Mary, with its hallowed history and small, 6,000-student population, seems more “ivy” than some, if not most, actual “ivy league” schools. It is known as one of eight so-called “public ivies,” which are said to offer an ivy-quality education at a state-school price. It also comes with a highly-selective but non-ivy admission rate of 34%. So, if you are dreaming of an ivy, but your numbers are not quite there, William & Mary offers a convincing alternative. Did we mention that Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most revered academic honor society, was founded by five William & Mary students during the Revolutionary War?

Adding to the intrigue is the school’s unusual alliance with St. Andrew’s in Scotland, which is like study-abroad on steroids. The deal is, you can split your studies between the two schools and earn a degree from both. Strangely, this rare opportunity did not come up during the information session the day we visited, and our excellent tour guide was aware of it but didn’t have much to say about it. What did come up in a big way was the chance for undergrads to engage in serious research projects into any subject — not only in math or science, but also the humanities.

In fact, a senior featured during our info session spoke in detail about her research on Chinese immigration to Buenos Aires, which included study-abroad in both countries, a close working relationship with a professor and the opportunity to lead a class herself. Her program is culminating in a thesis, and as she noted, the experience sets her up nicely for applications to graduate school. It is also not unusual for students to co-author and publish research papers with their professors. After touring the Integrated Science Center, with it impressive array of labs visible through picture windows, our guide proudly directed us to a glass case filled with scores of such recently-published works, on a broad range of topics, with the names of student co-authors highlighted.

William & Mary’s emphasis on research clearly points this antique school, founded by King William III and Queen Mary in 1693, toward the future. Yet, its students almost seem to wear the sense of history and tradition that surround them, both on campus and across the street at Colonial Williamsburg, where the locals actually don period apparel. Other legends abound, such as that of its Crim Dell footbridge, where it’s said that if you cross it with someone, you will be together for the rest of your lives. People tend to cross that bridge alone. Easily the greatest campus oddity is its grassy “sunken garden,” which looks like an Olympic-scale swimming pool, only without the water. It was dug in the 1930s as a make-work WPA project, with the expectation it would be filled in later. It wasn’t.

The school’s defining tradition, not surprisingly, centers on the Wren Building, where from the beginning, students including Thomas Jefferson and his classmates, ate, slept, learned and studied. As a rite of passage, incoming freshmen walk through the building’s center hallway as bells ring, and seniors greet them on the other side with the message “you belong here.” In that spirit, the school’s D1 sports teams are known as “The Tribe,” the origin of which presumably is linked to the school’s second-oldest building, the Brafferton Indian School, built in 1723 to educate Native-American boys.

As we passed through Wren ourselves, our guide pointed out a laptop computer sitting unattended on a wooden bench and noted that William & Mary created the nation’s first honor code, which is assiduously enforced and gives students freedom from worry not only academically but also in terms of their personal safety and possessions. It’s difficult to imagine this school getting caught up in any of the scandals currently roiling other prestigious institutions.

When William & Mary students graduate, they walk back through the Wren Building in the opposite direction. That’s hard to beat for poignancy and a deeply felt sense of accomplishment.

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