Almost always the tour follows the information session, but at Trinity College it was the other way around, at least for us. Touring first was not a particularity of the school; it was just the way it worked out based on when we arrived. Whether this changed our overall impression is an open question. Probably not. It likely did affect what we learned about the school and in what order, however.
The first point of interest was the president’s house, a cheerful, yellow, modest abode to our right as we left the admissions office. The house itself was far less noteworthy than a pair of facts about its current occupant: Joanne Berger-Sweeney is both the first female and first African-American president of Trinity. While she is said to be exceptionally diminutive, she casts a big presence across campus, frequently seen traversing the school’s beautiful, green landscape. She may also be a metaphor for Trinity’s mindful integration of the past and future, as an institution that clearly reveres its storied history but also trains its focus on what lies ahead.
As we entered Trinity’s iconic chapel, we heard that Episcopalians founded the school in 1823 as an alternative to Yale. Originally named Washington College, it changed its name in 1845 because so many other schools were also named after America’s favorite military hero. Exactly why “Trinity” was picked as the new name apparently is unknown, and contributes to a common, incorrect assumption that the school is Catholic. Trinity Chapel, meanwhile, is solemn inside and out. If it looks remarkably like a mini-me of the National Cathedral, that’s because it was designed by the same architect.
Stepping outside onto the main quad, and the so-called “Long Walk” — all brownstone, Gothic spires, and archways — Trinity instantly fills the bill for any student looking for the definition of collegiate. The giant, leafy elm trees are equally impressive, and even more so after our guide mentioned that they are planted to form a “T” if viewed from above.
A quick walk upstairs to a classroom spoke volumes about Trinity’s commitment to a blend of old and new. The building dates back to the 1870s, but was thoroughly restored in 2009 to the tune of about $35 million. The result is a building interior with the kind of grandeur that today’s money could not buy, restored to near perfection. The classroom we saw featured heavy, though graceful, arched wooden beams, and old-school blackboards that looked like they were installed the day before yesterday and not yet used. It’s hard to imagine any student not awed by this, and inspired to live up to the expectations the room implies. It is seriousness of purpose built of wood and stone, at once luxurious and ascetic.
That experience contrasted stunningly with our tour through the brand new Crescent Center for Arts and Neuroscience, which opened in the Spring of 2016. The building is intended as a nexus of Trinity’s devotion to interdisciplinary studies, and the fostering of creativity and collaboration across the arts and sciences. It combines media and art galleries with laboratories dedicated to the study of human behavior and consciousness. How cool is that? The center also features common areas for special events and casual gatherings, encouraging students of various backgrounds and interests to meet and share knowledge, ideas, or just conversation.
What’s especially impressive is the way in which this flashy, new structure and the concepts it represents blends so neatly into the venerable old campus, without disrupting the existing aesthetics. We’ve noticed that some schools almost make a point of building the ultra-modern next to the ultra-antique, underscoring clean breaks and sharp differences. Trinity’s refreshing approach seems to suggest a certain continuum. By the way, it is no coincidence that Joanne Berger-Sweeney is herself a neuroscientist, and is not only president but also a professor at the school.
Every tour devotes a good chunk of time on housing, which at Trinity is a notably happy story. This is entirely because of the recent construction of the Crescent Townhouses, which have the look and feel of luxury condominiums. We didn’t go inside, but seeing them from the outside required no further verification. Nice. Very nice. We were told that each unit is an eight-student suite, with individual bedrooms, a living room, full kitchen and washer/dryer. It is almost entirely occupied by seniors, meaning that what had previously been the best dorms on campus are now available to younger students. Trinity is one of the few schools where single rooms are available, if desired, from first-year on.
Speaking of first-year, Trinity has a program of ten “nests” to help new students transition to college, and stay on track throughout their four years. They’re called “nests” because the Trinity mascot is a bantam, and each is named to honor a piece of the school’s history or traditions. The idea is to provide a support network, known as the Bantam Network, consisting of student-life dean, a faculty advisor and peer mentors.
As we walked through Trinity’s student-run coffeehouse, we asked our guide about her areas of study, which she said were political science and religious studies. We asked if the combination was happenstance or if there was a connection between the two, and before she could answer, the barista behind the counter interrupted, saying, “Excuse me, are you talking about religious studies? I just have to tell you the religious studies program here is amazing! The professors are fantastic, it’s just incredible.” That kind of spontaneous, unsolicited endorsement is exactly the kind of thing we listen for on our campus visits. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, but it happened with conviction at Trinity.
The info session that followed, held in a living-room style arrangement, mostly underscored what we had seen during our tour. It was memorable for its well-organized presentation, taking us through what students will experience at Trinity from their first year to their fourth: its first-year gateway program that helps establish available areas of study; choosing a major second year; internships and “study away” (both domestic and international) third-year; and thesis, capstone or seminar projects in the fourth.
Plenty of color was mixed in as well, the most significant of which is Trinity’s unusual location. It is a thoroughly green campus, in a suburban, working-class neighborhood, yet it is within eyeshot of downtown Hartford and all the internships — business and political — the Connecticut state capital has to offer, not to mention all the accoutrements of a big city: shops, restaurants, sports, concerts, museums, galleries and on and on.
Trinity is a smaller school, a college not a university, with about 2,000 students. So, as campuses go, it is on the quieter side. Yet it is making a lot of good noise in its own, timeless way.