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.


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.


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.


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.


Drexel Tour: It’s What’s Inside That Counts

Crossing Market Street in Philadelphia is like leaving one universe and entering another: from the ivory toweriness of the University of Pennsylvania into the gritty realworldliness of Drexel University. The two schools sit directly across the street from each other and the transition couldn’t be more abrupt, like stepping outside Hogwarts and suddenly finding yourself in … Philadelphia. What’s interesting is that while Penn is mostly famous for being an ivy, Drexel has carved out an identity that is less about a collegiate brand than it is about the college experience itself. As one of only a handful of schools offering a work-study model, popularly known as a “co-op,” Drexel’s vision of the future of higher education is more than 125 years in the making.

Inspired by his own teenaged experience working in his father’s bank, Anthony J. Drexel’s idea was to integrate academics with employment, preparing not only minds but also navigating career paths in new industries. It’s a concept that is perhaps even more salient today than it was when Mr. Drexel plunked down some $3 million ($78 million in today’s dollars) to make it a reality in 1891. It was a fairly radical idea at the time, upending the notion that college was exclusive to privileged men pursuing the ministry, law or medicine. More than a century later, Drexel still seems ahead of its time and it’s a wonder that more institutions haven’t “co-opted” the idea.

Unlike most other schools, Drexel runs year-round, in quarterly increments that enable its students to take a full-time, paying job in the real-world for six months of the academic year. Many students find work right in Philadelphia, but co-options can be had in some 47 countries and 30 states. This unusual plan is offered on a four-year basis, in which students take one job, or a five-year program that includes three jobs. The gross median salary per co-op job is $18,044, which helps offset the school’s approximately $50K per year tuition, not including room and board. The value of this is self-evident, of course, and statistically supported by the 96% employment rate of its students within a year of graduation.

We met up with one of our former students, now a Drexel senior, whose experience added yet another dimension to the school’s already impressive reputation. He had transferred from a large, state university, in part attracted to Drexel’s 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio and median class size of just 19. Having completed his one co-op, he persuaded the school to allow him to take a second, but with a twist. Instead of finding employment at an existing company, he launched his own start-up under the aegis of the school’s Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, which provides him with workspace, mentoring and other resources. He took us on a quick tour of the institute’s facilities, and it is way past cool, complete with its own 3-D printer. The best part is, Drexel is helping to fund his venture with $15,000. That’s just not a college story you hear every day, or any day.

For all of A.J. Drexel’s prescience, and the remarkable success of the school’s co-op model, this university certainly is not for everyone. It presupposes that the purpose of college is to find a job, a proposition that may not appeal to those who envision scholastics in perhaps less transactional terms. It is also about as urban a setting as one is likely to encounter on a college tour, a mostly stony presence without much in the way of greenery or other gauzy accoutrements of dreamy college campuses. If you visit, you will undoubtedly see the magnificent, Italianate interior of its Main Building (pictured above), home of the Admissions Office. Be sure to see the world’s second-largest biofilter, a five-story cascade of greenery in the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, that is said to create the freshest air in Philadelphia. And don’t miss the stunning grand staircase in Lebow Hall, home of the business school, which is designed to minimize elevator use and maximize interactions between students.

Drexel is one of those schools where it’s more about what’s inside than outside. Interestingly, our tour of Penn on the other side of Market Street was conducted entirely outside; maybe that’s a metaphor of sorts for Penn’s 7.5% acceptance rate versus Drexel’s 75%. Clearly, Penn is not for everyone either, but it’s up to you to decide whether it’s what’s inside Drexel that matters most.


Penn Tour: Be What You Seem, Really

Yes, it exhibits everything one would expect at an “ivy league” school: a grand, bustling green campus, suitably majestic and imposing stone buildings, energetic students with laptops and books open, doing their level best to enjoy a relatively warm, early spring day. At a glance, the University of Pennsylvania, or plain old “Penn,” would be right out of central casting if there were such a thing for elite institutions of higher education. We do tend to think of the “ivy league” as a “brand” of extravagantly selective colleges that share a certain, albeit inscrutable, set of attributes.

That may be true only up to a point, as the trappings of elite schools are hardly exclusive to those belonging to this one particular, rarified athletic conference. What’s more, each of these eight academies has its own story to tell, in a voice and with a personality that sets it apart from the others. At Penn, that story arguably originates with its founder, Ben Franklin, who said: “What you seem to be, be really.” What that translates into today is evident in an academic approach that values the sometimes unlikely points of connection between ostensibly unrelated areas of interest, or as the locals shorthand it, “Penn Integrates Knowledge.”

This distinctively Penn storyline quickly came clear during an outstanding information session featuring short stories of student journeys, and how various undergrads allowed their curiosities, and the relationships between those interests, to lead the way to their academic pursuits. For example, Greg’s love of skiing led to a fascination with climate change. He then linked his environmental concerns to his academic focus on mechanical engineering, and how that knowledge might be applied to climate-related challenges.

Penn encourages this type of free-range exploration by urging students to think about what they love before even considering potential majors, and to consider a more holistic approach to studies within the context of their ultimate goals. They are then free to follow their bliss across the full spectrum of Penn’s liberal arts, engineering, and business schools, blowing up the silos between traditional majors. Our tour guide, whose studies span neuroscience, computer science, urban planning and Spanish confirmed that Penn’s omnivorous educational philosophy is more than just talk.

Building on all the above, the admissions officer who led our information session emphasized the importance of the “What do you want to study at Penn?” question on the application. She said that, too often, applicants answer the question generically, as if they simply cut and pasted the same response for every school (because that’s actually what they did). Doing so is almost a sure-fire way to end up in the “R” pile, even if your grades, rigor and board scores are perfect.

Conversely, if one takes the time to study what each and every school has to offer, and explain how that aligns with one’s goals and aspirations, it can be your ticket in. While Penn does not factor “demonstrated interest” into its decisions because it does not want to disadvantage those who cannot travel to Philadelphia, it does give points to those who show that they have taken the time to understand why Penn is a good fit. Ironically, the best — and maybe only — way to do this is to visit the school. It is not easy to glean “Penn Integrates Knowledge” from the school’s website; as central as this story is to Penn’s existence it is buried under layers of online navigation menus. We certainly wouldn’t have fully appreciated its importance short of spending a half a day on campus, seeing and hearing it for ourselves. Wherever you plan to apply, we encourage you to do the same, as it could make make all the difference.

While it’s true that most students will not have the opportunity to attend Penn or another of the “ivy league” schools, the same principles can be applied elsewhere. To that end, high school students might take a more expansive view of their academic interests right now, and think about how to substantiate them during their high school careers, regardless of where they plan to apply. Colleges do tend to favor those who show depth and consistency, but in today’s world that can mean mixing and matching a range of interests and influences to come up with fresh ideas and new solutions.

It’s about more than just standing out; it’s about being what you seem to be, really.


How Campus Visits Alter Student Goals

Chalkbeat: “When researchers asked hundreds of eighth-graders living near Arkansas’s flagship university whether they’d ever visited a college campus, they were surprised by the response. Only about half said they had. The team of researchers set out to see whether getting more of those middle-schoolers onto a college quad could affect their decision making about higher education … Spending time on college campuses, the researchers found, slightly improved students’ chances of speaking with school staff about college. It also seemed to increase the rate at which the students took honors or advanced courses in ninth grade. It didn’t increase the rate that students planned to attend a four-year college, though. The results amount to promising initial evidence that college visits — a common but rarely studied tactic — are helpful for students, while also highlighting the limits of such an approach to fundamentally change students’ aspirations.”

“The study, which has not yet been formally peer reviewed, focuses on 15 middle schools and several hundred Arkansas eighth-graders who volunteered to participate last school year. Eighth grade, the researchers figured, could be a sweet spot for altering students’ paths … Some of the students were randomly assigned to take three trips to the University of Arkansas over the course of eighth grade; the others got only a packet of information about college opportunities … Students who went on the tours went on to correctly answer more factual questions about college and to report having more conversations with school staff about college, though the increases were small in both cases. Those students were also about 6 percentage points more likely to enroll in advanced math, science, or social studies classes in ninth grade.”

“There’s not yet data on how the Arkansas students perform in high school or whether they actually enter and complete college. But the researchers are continuing to study the students, as well as another group of eighth-graders visiting the campus this year.”


U of Delaware: Five Things You Might Not Know

The University of Delaware campus somehow manages to be inviting even in the dead of winter, when most of its palpable energy moves indoors. Precisely because it was a snowy Monday afternoon, and visitors were few, the two of us were treated to a personal tour by five (!) undergrads, each more enthusiastic than the next. That was the first surprise. The second was the five things they told us that most applicants probably don’t know about the University of Delaware. Number one is the the school’s 350-acre, 100-cow, teaching farm and creamery that makes and markets ice cream. The UDairy Creamery not only enables students to learn about dairy production, food science and sustainable agriculture, but also business management and finance. A rotating menu of 34 flavors is available to students on campus and to outsiders via bulk orders.

That UD was the first college to offer study abroad back in 1923 is a second little-known fact. What’s more, UD’s World Scholars program allows students to study abroad during their first semester freshman year, live in an on-campus International House sophomore year and then study abroad a second time junior year. Seniors are invited to networking opportunities with global professionals, and a special symposium. A global outlook is a major feature of the UD community, which relates to our third little-known fact: UD’s Student Center displays about 100 flags representing the home countries of its international students. The flags are changed annually as students come and go.

Number four: Students can take a four- or five-week intensive course during winter break, shoehorning a semester of learning (and credit) into a single month to catch up, get ahead, or perhaps make room for a semester abroad. And coming in at number five, at the end of our tour, is the full, 2,220 square-foot trading floor, complete with Reuters and Bloomberg data feeds, where members of The Blue Hen Investment Club student-manage some $2 million in assets. We didn’t have time to visit Vita Nova, the university’s four-star, student-run restaurant, or stay at the student-run UD Marriott, but both certainly underscore the hands-on ethos that marks UD as a surprisingly engaging school that consistently punches above its weight.


College Tours: Providence & Bryant

Our students sometimes comment that their college campus tours are a blur, that one seems pretty much like the next. This is understandable, given that so many schools tend to cover similar points in their information sessions, and make the same stops during campus tours. Yet, it’s usually not that hard to “hear” what makes a school different, and special. Such was our experience while visiting two Rhode Island schools located fewer than ten miles apart — Providence College and Bryant University — earlier this week.

At a glance, the two schools differ in terms of size (Providence is small/medium-sized, while Bryant is just plain small). They are also different by dint of diversity (Providence is 80% Catholic) and selectivity (Providence acceptance is about 56% and Bryant 72%). What stood out most, however, was the way in which the two schools are similar: They both highlight their heritage and how that informs what they offer, both conceptually and in practice.

Providence was founded in 1917 by Dominicans, whose organizing principle is a quest for “truth.” This manifests itself in at least two notable ways, most visibly in the white-robed friars who roam the campus. Less obvious, but just as significant, is the two-year, cross-discipline course in Western Civilization required of all incoming students that explores human history through literature, philosophy, art and, yes, theology. The goal is to teach students how to think. Our tour guide confirmed that this orientation serves students well no matter their eventual academic focus (he is a theater major).

Bryant got its start in 1863, originally as a business college in downtown Providence. In 1967, Earl Tupper of Tupperware fame donated about 400 acres in Smithfield, RI and the school relocated there. The college later became a university with the addition of a liberal arts school, but its roots in business remains its raison d’etre. The beauty is that students combine business and humanities studies to work towards what Bryant calls a “culture of innovation.” Its spectacular Academic Innovation Center gives the concept a jewel-box of a home, its classrooms featuring collaborative clusters of desks surrounded by walls of whiteboards, encouraging a free and open exchange of ideas.

It’s highly unlikely one would come to appreciate any of this without visiting these two very impressive schools because neither institution’s website truly captures its essence. Providence buries the freshman-year immersion in Western Civilization that may define its key point of difference, and Bryant does not cover the origin story that makes it what it is at all. Admissions officers at both schools did a much better job of telling their respective stories, as did the tour guides (with a special shout-out to senior William Oser at Providence, who was as informative as he was entertaining). If you don’t believe us, watch William’s Vogue-style, 53-question interview with Fr. Brian Shanley, president of Providence College:

Our advice, then, is that when you visit college campuses, lean in and listen carefully. The sound you hear may be that of the perfect school for you.


Student YouTube: A Lens Into Campus Life

Chronicle of Higher Education: “Search any college’s name and you’re likely to see a student-produced dorm-room tour or move-in day video among the top hits … Videos uploaded by college students offer an authentic lens into student life and campus culture, which are helpful for high schoolers looking to visualize themselves on a specific campus … Keri Nguyen, a Florida high-school senior, even applied to a few colleges she felt were a reach for her academic record because of the YouTube videos she watched.”

“Olivia Pongsrida, a junior majoring in sociology at the University of Washington, started her channel in her sophomore year as a creative hobby … Many of these college Youtubers see themselves as unofficial academic ambassadors, well aware of the influence they have on anxious high schoolers applying to college. Pongsrida and May Gao, an influencer from Brown University, have offered to read applicants’ college essays. They interact with the online communities they’ve developed, answering questions and comments on social media.”

“At West Virginia, students in a video titled “The Most Honest WVU Campus Tour Ever” entertainingly exaggerate how great the campus is. The University of Oregon featured random students walking around campus in a “Duck Advice for Freshman” video … But what is most appealing to a high-school audience is rarely found in college-produced content — personal detail and a sense of trust between YouTuber and viewer. College influencers offer up their high-school GPAs, test scores, extracurriculars, even the essay that got them into college. This level of transparency is invaluable to viewers, especially those applying to college.”