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.