Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Trip Up the Hudson

Well, today was definitely one of the action-packed days the Ivy League Connection had promised us back in California. Visits to Bard and Vassar Colleges, with a short visit to FDR's historic family grounds fitting between them, made the day interesting, while good food and company with two current Columbia students helped to finish off the schedule that was simultaneously grueling and engaging.

First up was Bard. Because of the nature of the train transit times and the relatively early hour of Bard College's tours and information sessions, I was up shortly after 5 AM, which was particularly difficult thanks to a scant four hours sleep as well as to my body clock being convinced that it was really 2 in the morning. Even with a hearty (and very large) cup of coffee in one hand and a bagel in the other, I felt barely awake as we navigated Penn station in the early morn, catching the 90 minute train that would take us up the Hudson to our station near Bard. The view was gorgeous even though the sky was overcast, though I must admit that my eyes were closed for much of the trip. When we arrived at the station at Rhinebeck, a very talkative driver met us and ferried us to Bard College. I must say, the drive up to the college is utterly spectacular. The scenery is beautiful. Everything is so very green! Especially since, in the early morning, tendrils of silvery fog crept between every tree as a soft mist smudged edges into oblivion, and more than a few ferns proudly wore a string of dewdrop pearls on their fronds. Incredible. Bard itself seemed a very different school from any I had previously looked at; during the information session, our spokeswoman focused very much on how much support the students have from the faculty and described how Bard as a liberal arts college offered a very diverse education for any who looked for one, as well as telling us of Bard's interesting practices of moderating instead of declaring a major, meaning that each student has a meeting with a few of their professors as a sophomore or occasionally junior and essentially has to defend their choice of majors and show some outline of their plan for the next few years at Bard. The campus itself was very rural and covered a huge expanse of space; I'm not sure I could live in a place where, standing outside one building, you can see the faint outline of another in the distance and no closer. There was so much empty space, and because of the lack of students and the dampening effect of the fog on sound, the campus seemed vaguely eerie in the silence. Our tour-guide (a student of psychology, one of Bard's most popular majors) had a wonderfully dry sense of humour, which was a refreshing change from the incessantly up-beat tour guides we had previously met. She was frank and honest about the school, answering our questions when we had them, even if the answers did not cast Bard in the greatest of lights; for instance, she was very open about the fact that the school is very expensive for middle-class students who do not benefit from low-income scholarships but still have to pay Bard's full tuition.

Then came our brief but informative visit to the Franklin D. Roosevelt's Presidential Library and Museum, where we saw the beautiful acres where FDR spent his years as a boy. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to take a proper tour and fully enjoy the park, but we attached ourselves to a small tour group and learned a few fact about our famous president's formative years in an aristocratic background, as well as stopping off at his grave at the rose garden to pay our respects.

Next came Vassar, which to me seems like a brilliant school. To be perfectly frank, it had most (but not quite all) of the qualities that attracted me to Bard in my initial college searching but had very few of its drawbacks; for instance, Bard and Vassar are both liberal arts schools with a desire to encourage breadth of knowledge in their students, but Vassar had much of the quiet charm that Bard had while being closer to a larger and more busy city as well as a much more traditionally collegic campus, although from my limited research it appears that Bard has a more well-developed psychology program. Our student guide for Vassar reminded me very much of a few friends at home, and like to bard guide, seemed very honest about the shortcomings of Vassar while still showing his love for the school. Particularly attractive to me about Vassar was their study-abroad programs during the year that students could receive college credit for, one of which is set in Morocco, a country I desperately want to visit and who knows, perhaps live in.

Our dinner was wonderful; China Grill had an exquisite duck salad, and the two Columbia students who joined us there were more than happy to fill us in on the atmosphere at Columbia while sharing a meal, though I'm going to defer a verdict until I actually set eyes on the campus and live there for a while.

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