Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pioneer Valley Colleges: Day 2 Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire

Look Down

The second day of our tours brought us to Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire.

Mt. Holyoke is a women's college but definitely has unique aspects that differentiate it from the other colleges in the area. Specifically in contrast to Smith, Mt. Holyoke has a more flexible housing structure (less of a 'sorting hat' atmosphere than Smith - but still the same AMAZING dorm facilities. See: Walk-in closets.) and it has a more structured curriculum (as opposed to Smith's open curriculum). Locations also differ, despite the proximity. Mt. Holyoke has a much more spread out campus in a smaller town. This contrasts with Smith's cozy feel in walking distance of the bustling Northampton. Something to really take note of is the diversity of perspectives on campus - 1 in 4 students is international and almost 30% of domestic students self identify as students of color. One of the 7 sisters, this SAT optional school was really welcoming and full of traditions. I particularly liked the class colors and mascots assigned to each incoming class, and the superstition about only walking up the library stairs on the side that your class's flag is on. If you visit be sure to check out the beech tree near the library, easily the largest living tree I've ever seen outside of the Pacific Northwest. I'm glad they changed the library expansion plans to save it from being cut down. Speaking of trees, the Mt. Holyoke seal has a palm tree on it. The hope at its founding is that it would be an oasis of knowledge. Mission accomplished.

In the afternoon we visited Hampshire College, the inspiration for the image at the top of this post. I didn't see this exact sign, but one very much like it at the entrance to the dining hall. If it doesn't make you smile then Hampshire probably isn't for you. ;)  The best way I can describe Hampshire is to say it is a place for individuals who are passionate. I found the students and staff we met to have a really unique combination of being extremely open and laid back but at the same time very interested in thinking about big ideas in a very cerebral way (and deep seeded passion). Hampshire students are known for taking the most advantage of the 5 College system - the average student has taken 8 courses on another campus. These courses supplement the hands-on discussion-based work they do on campus. There are no textbooks, students only use primary sources. There are no tests, students instead write papers. There are no grades, professors (who are addressed by first name) instead write a narrative to describe the student's achievements, areas to work on, and personalized suggestions of future courses to take. By Division III (aka senior year) the work more closely resembles the creation of a Master's level thesis. Students conduct research, or write a novel, or direct a movie, or make an invention, or found a company - ANYTHING that helps them think critically and create some type of new or original thought. In a way, I would say Hampshire could be described as the hippie* cousin of Beloit - no pretense, no judgement, just intense learning and a celebration of individuality. Don't come to Hampshire looking for quaint buildings, the campus was founded in 1970. But if it is content of knowledge that you seek, Hampshire may be exactly what the doctor ordered.

*Disclaimer: I'm not saying you need to be a hippie to fit in at Hampshire, only that that philosophy of focusing on social justice, a supportive environment and freedom of thought dominates the campus. I got the sense that everyone was welcome on campus.