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.