Friday, June 24, 2011

A Different Brand of University

Yesterday I was very pleasantly surprised with the tour of Penn. Although I was skeptical at first, I ended up loving the campus and placing it close to the top of my list of college choices. Naturally, I was expecting similar results from our tours of Bard and Vassar. I was rather disappointed.

Bard had a large, soothing campus that attracted me to the school upon our arrival. It was downhill from here. Our small group of 6 students and one chaperone was lucky enough to have a private information session with a representative from Bard. I liked most of what I heard:
  • Bard is a very small school; they are expecting an incoming freshmen class of around 500
  • Bard provides does not have students specialize too early in their college careers, rather Bard students take a wide variety of classes in order to discover what they are passionate about.
  • Bard professors spend an inordinate amount of time meeting and developing close, lasting relationships with their students.

I had just begun to picture myself as a member of the Bard student body when the admissions rep told us “A lot of people at Bard didn’t have that many friends in high school.”

That in itself was not the end of the world but it raised the red flag that there might not be a social setting at Bard that I would enjoy; it just seemed unlikely that a friendly student body could be formed from largely less friendly students. I confirmed this in my mind when tour guide explained that on weekends students are very active in seeing each other’s performances and that Bard is a fairly isolated campus. I am all for supporting your friends and having space to think, but this was not a place I wanted to spend the best 4 years of my life.

It was tough to give Vassar a fair shout given my newly developed anti-liberal arts bias. At the information session the two schools seemed to have a lot in common: highly selective admission processes, readily available financial aid, diverse student bodies, and a variety of casual and competitive athletic opportunities. Now this is all very impressive, but almost all of the schools I have been considering also make those claims.

Also like Bard, Vassar had a beautiful, serene campus. Vassar’s most impressive trait was that of the three schools we have toured, it was the only one with tour guides brave enough to give information while walking backwards. Besides this, Vassar seemed to me to be a slightly larger version of Bard, and I was largely uninterested.

Tonight, we were lucky enough to sit down to dinner with two current Columbia students. Both of the students, Andrea and Matt sharply increased my interest in Columbia. Something that stuck out was Andrea’s seemingly comprehensive explanation of the nightlife and fitness center of Columbia. It is shocking to think that in less than a week I will have the privilege of living on the exact campus that they spoke so fondly of.

An Escape From The City

This morning our cohort embarked on a scenic train ride north to visit Bard and Vassar College. Upon stepping off our train and taking a van ride to the Bard campus I was struck by how amazing the surrounding area is. Compared to the Bay Area, there was so much more vegetation from meadows to several species of trees. It was no surprise to me to see several summer houses which are owned by busy inhabitants of the Big Apple because the area around Bard was therapeutic.
A Trail at Bard
At Bard we were immediately welcomed into a private informational session where an admissions officer told us about what made Bard well, Bard. One factor that made Bard different from other colleges is that Bard is a liberal arts college and offers a three and two program with Columbia University. The three and two program was extremely interesting to me because it allowed students to take three years worth of classes at Bard and then transfer to Columbia University and complete his/her major requirements. After the information session, we took a tour of Bard which, to be honest, was disappointing. The facility I wanted to see the most were the new science wing and the theatre. While we did go inside the science wing I really wanted to look inside a lab.
Part of the English Department at Bard
Because our tour ran way longer than we thought it would, we rushed to F.D.R.’s house and only had enough time to walk around and look at the Presidential Library, and marvel at the structure of his house. 

In no time we were on our way to Vassar College. The journey from Hyde Park to Vassar was interesting by itself. Our driver thought he had pulled into Vassar but pulled in to Marist College instead. After much confusion, we made it to Vassar a bit late. All in all I thought Vassar was much better than Bard because it seemed as if Vassar offered everything Bard offered except it was better. Also, Vassar drew my attention when I learned that Vassar will cover the tuition that your family cannot pay and by the sheer amount of study abroad options.
F.D.R.'s tombstone
Vassar Library

An Introduction to Liberal Arts

Today, we went north to the scenic Hudson River Valley to check out the campuses of Bard College and Vassar College. As a big fan of liberal arts colleges, I was very excited particularly because I had read a lot about Vassar and am planning on apply there.

Bard was our first visit.

I found Bard’s moderation requirement, which is their way of declaring a major, to be very interesting. A student is required to write an analysis of the courses they have taken at Bard, what they liked and disliked, what they excelled in and the areas that gave them a hard time. They then have a meeting with their adviser and two professors from the departments they are interested in and must present their case. The purpose of this process is to have the student do some personal reflection and for the professors to help the students really think their options through. This indicates to me that no student will ever be lost in the crowd and the professors offer support to students through every step of the way.
The Bard College admissions office.
Mrs. Lilhanand inside the Bard admissions office.

Following our tour of Bard and prior to our time at Vassar, we stopped by the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The view from FDR's home.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's home.
I love Vassar.

My favorite part of Vassar is its open curriculum. The type of freedom this type of curriculum offers definitely appeals to me because it gives me the opportunity to tailor my courses specifically to my interests. The city of Poughkeepsie is pretty big with 100,000 residents, but it did not look that way to me. I am not sure what kind of relationship the city has with the college, but Vassar did not seem to be very removed nor integrated. It seemed like the city ended where the campus began.

A Vassar dorm.

I was very impressed with the dorms. Vassar’s housing system is designed so that students live in one dormitory for their first three years and then in apartment-style housing during their senior year.

Our conversations over dinner with current Columbia students Matt and Andrea were a wonderful taste of what life at Columbia is like. Andrea was very personable and she knew a lot about Columbia (she’s even a Columbia tour guide). She was also very open to discussing her experience with college applications.

Now that we have visited a range of schools, from small to big, liberal arts to pre-professional, I now know that I feel more at home at a small liberal arts college.

College Chaos

It's anarchy, I tell you! The shear amount of college and university info to be necessarily absorbed today was daunting. I'm mentally beat.

At least Amtrak worked its usual magic today. Rather than trips riddled with delays and suspensions, we enjoyed routes of prompt arrivals and punctual departures. That's one of the most solid contributing factors to our educational exploration today.

We visited Bard college first. I liked the actual speakers and tour guides better than the portrayal of the college, which is not the most accurate depiction of a top-choice school. But, to be fair, I wasn't very into it from the beginning.

Don't get me wrong, I gave it a chance. I give just about everything a chance. But, for a man who is looking for an integrated, urban society of immediate surrounding to the college or university, Bard did not satisfy. It's isolated, and while I see the absolute benefits of the smaller, liberal arts college, I do not see myself as the best, nor most preferable fit. It was interesting, though. And, I will say that any college tour or information session aids the mind in the pondering of such higher education, and the pursuit thereof by the student. I wouldn't dare call it a waste of time by any means.

Next up, we explored Vassar College. And, it was definitely winning me over by the end of the information session. The tour empowered such potent rhetoric. There was only one problem: it didn't fit my personal mold. Again, the one aspect I hold most dearly is the urban factor. Vassar College cannot satisfy that to my preference. But, it really is a spectacular school, and I would commend any and all who attend or consider attending. It's not a bad choice. Contrarily, it's an outstanding one.

Lastly, though not in attendance to an actual information session and tour, we had the opportunity to meet with current Columbia students, Matt Chao and Andrea Hazday, as well as an M.I.A. Vassar student for dinner at the China Grill. Columbia fits my mold exactly. It has for about three years now. It's my top choice, and I plan on applying early decision at that, so I was passionate over discussion with these rising Sophomores at the university. From transportation, to dorming, to academics, to applications, to the in-betweens, in-and-outs, and all-arounds, I barraged these students with inquiry after inquiry. It was incredibly worth it. I learned a little about a lot, and from there I can expand. We will be getting our own information session and tour along the road sometime, which I look forward to.

A very productive day was produced. And, though exhausted, injured, and weary, I appreciated every second of our trip today. It was informative and fun, and it is extremely rare in which you find such a genuine pair of adjectives that give the best of the need and want worlds.

Tomorrow, we will travel to Connecticut, and we will be visiting Yale University. I'm more excited than I thought I would be. And, a day after tomorrow--Columbia Orientation.

It's like we are almost to the beginning, and that's amazing having been here 2 and 1/2 days already.

Up the Hudson River...

Our morning started earlier than yesterday, around 5:45 AM. The plan was to catch a train to go north to Kingston to visit Bard College. Everything ran smoothly and we were able to depart on the train on schedule.

When we arrived at our destination, there was a van waiting to take us to Bard. They gave us a private information session because of the tight schedule we were on. We met with a woman from the scholarship center that gave us a brief overview on how the college worked. The first main thing we had to understand was what exactly a liberal arts college was. She explained that is was different from other schools, in that you had to take a broad range of classes. As long as they fulfilled the requirements Bard set, you could take those classes. They require you to take one class in each of the 12 subjects required and after you can chose to take whatever classes you want or ones that will go along with your major.
Bard College
Bard felt to me like a more strict school that I thought a liberal arts college was. Everything there is outlined and has a certain order to follow. There are many graduation requirements, like 3 workshops you must attend before you start freshmen year that are meant to make you comfortable with the campus and meet new students. There is also Moderation which is declaring your actual major, and it must be approved by a board of faculty members after you present them with 2 essays on classes you have taken and how you felt about them as well as why you have chosen that major. Then you must complete a senior project that can be whatever you want. It can be building something or starting an organization, but it has to relate to your major. The admissions process was almost like every other school. They wanted to see your transcripts, activities, and letters of recommendation. They do not require you to submit any test scores because they don’t believe in standardized testing.

For me, Bard is not a college I would like to attend. It was very uptight for a school that is supposed to let you decide what classes you take and is supposed to allow you to explore academics. The college campus was very spaced out. Also, it is far from a city, which also made me not like it as much. The atmosphere that I got listening to the tour guide and the information session was not as personal as I would have liked. When I was there, it seemed like I was out of place, that I didn’t belong.
FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt
After visiting Bard, we drove to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home about 15 minutes away. We didn’t have enough time to take a tour and the library and museum were closed because of renovations. First, we went to the gift shop (called the New Deal shop, which I thought was pretty cool) and bought some souvenirs. We then visited the house that FDR lived in. Interestingly, it was actually his mother’s house, which he and Eleanor had lived in with their children as well. They even had to add on to the house to make sure the family had enough room to live comfortably. The property was gorgeous. There was green everywhere and beautiful outdoors, which was mostly why FDR loved the home so much because he loved the outdoors. Then we moved on to visit the rose garden where FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt were buried. It’s amazing to think of all of the important figures in our history that have stepped foot on that property. This was the home of the man that helped end the Great Depression and was loved by the American public. This is what the course we are taking at Columbia is all about: the great leaders that our country has had.
FDR Museum
Vassar was the next stop on our trip. It was like Bard, but way more relaxed. They had graduation requirements, but not as many as Bard. They looked at test scores and transcripts very seriously and I felt they were more serious about the application process. They’re looking for students that would make the most out of what Vassar has to offer. What I thought was interesting and stood out about the college was the fact that for the first 3 years, you live in the same dorm with the same people. There are no fraternities or sororities or themed housing. Then for the 4th year they live on the edges of campus in a single apartment.

I liked Vassar more than Bard. Honestly, after visiting these colleges I’m not sure if a liberal arts college is for me. I want to be directed more into what I plan on studying, not over a broad range where I might get confused on what I actually want to major in. They were also very small compared to the other universities that I had been planning on applying to. They are not focused enough for me.
Vassar College
Back in New York, we met two current students from Columbia, Matt and Andrea. Andrea sat at my end of the table and talked to me the most. She was so enthusiastic about how much she loved Columbia that it made me really excited to move in this Sunday. She told me everything I needed to know, from food, to clubs, to places to visit. She also gave me her phone number so that if any of us need advice or have questions on where to go, she can help us out. It’s really cool to be able to communicate with students that are close to our age and are willing to help you with your experience at Columbia. They definitely made it clear that grades were the most important component for the application process. They also pointed out the differences on why they went to Columbia and not Brown or Cornell or UPENN that they had also been accepted to. They liked the idea of being in a city and the internship opportunities it offered. Columbia for them was a place they could connect and communicate with each other through all of the different clubs and activities that it offers. They also put on emphasis on how much they likes the core curriculum, which is kind of like a liberal arts curriculum but more structured. They set out the classes you must take in different areas, rather than being all over the place and not knowing where to start when picking classes.
New York City definitely needs getting used to. Most of my curiosity for the city has so far been the subway system. It is very convenient when you don’t want to walk or need to get somewhere fast and cheap. It takes a lot of time to learn how to exactly ride the subway and what stop to take. I haven’t gotten homesick yet, but I know it will come sooner or later. All these new experiences around me are overwhelming. NYC doesn’t give you enough time to really take in what is around you. You have to learn to keep up with its pace. I really wish we could have spent more time in historical sites and not have been so rushed. The East Coast has a lot to see and I’m looking forward to seeing more!

The Social Ivy

Leading up to the trip, my attitude toward the upcoming college tours was that I would be attentive but my top choices would not be affected. After only one tour, I have adopted a new mindset. In my opinion The University of Pennsylvania does not have a one of a kind campus or any amazing statistic that separates it from any other of the Ivy League schools. It does have a unique concept. After dining with a Penn graduate, 3 current students, and two outreach directors who are very familiar with the campus and admission process, it has become clear that Penn is a college that takes its students’ concerns very seriously.

On the leisurely tour of the campus, we discovered:
  • The university employs 400 security and 100 police officers; student safety is clearly a top priority.
  • There is a very wide selection of extra-curricular activities to participate in, from club sports to the tree climbing club.
  • Penn students have access to the libraries of all Ivy League schools and local Universities
From the outreach directors we learned:
  • Grades and courses taken compared to courses offered are the very most important thing
  • Students in any of the 4 schools can take classes from any of the other 4 schools and any graduate school relatively easily
  • Test scores are a plus, but being a good fit for Penn is a necessity.
I was very pleasantly surprised with my first college tour. There was much more practical, relevant information and much less dull history and tradition than I expected. I was still amused by the student body’s tradition of throwing toast onto the field after the third quarter of football games. This trip is just underway but I am now much more excited about tours of more campuses.