Monday, April 4, 2016

Thanks St. Olaf and Carleton!

Greetings from Minnesota! Despite growing up in the Midwest, I've never had the pleasure of visiting Minnesota before, but I'm happy to report that I have the opportunity to see three great schools this week. I was greeted at the airport by a therapy dog, there to just hang out with the airport visitors. Welcome to the Midwest. Can you imagine this being a thing at LaGuardia? Yeah. I thought not.

St. Olaf's current renovation project - totally gutted for an interior make-over.
Weekly 'word of the week' buttons in the library -- quirky and fun!
Today, the tour began with a visit to St. Olaf College, located less than an hour from the Twin Cities. The largest of the three schools I'd be seeing with about 3,000 students, St. Olaf describes themselves as 'intensely residential.' It was hard to ignore just how bright and shiny all of the facilities were. Virtually every building we stepped into (save the dormitory, which was by no means ancient, just more of a standard dorm you'd expect) was either new or fully renovated. A defining characteristic of St. Olaf would be their thriving music scene. Though they are not a conservatory, a staggering 45% of the student body is involved in either a choral or instrumental group on campus (this includes both music majors and those who just enjoy music as a hobby). I came to learn that their annual winter choir concert is broadcast on PBS every year and every dorm has at least one Steinway piano in a common space for students to play. Their Jazz Band just returned from a trip to Cuba where they had the opportunity to play for President Obama. They are one of only a handful of Liberal Arts colleges in the country to be fully accredited in all four arts disciplines (visual art, music, theater, and dance).  Values and ethics are important at St. Olaf, no doubt in connection with their Lutheran roots (an affiliation that is still alive and well, with daily, albeit optional, Chapel). This is the kind of campus where you'll encounter scenes of students leaving laptops, phones, bags, purses and coats unaccompanied without a second though. Jarring for a New Yorker (truth be told, half of the time I won't even take my cell phone out on the subway), but embraced in Northfield, Minnesota. Add this to the list of schools with a serious Honor Code. The school calendar is set up on a 4-1-4 system, with a January term that allows for students to take one in-depth course either on campus or abroad. This school part of the 'Colleges That Change Lives' network and I can see why their small, caring, and creative community fosters a sense of meaning and connection. I also have to give credit where credit is due: their dining hall rocked. Perhaps the final reason to consider St. Olaf though would be the fact that they are able to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need AND at the same time are not impossible to get into (Naviance lists their acceptance rate at right around 50%). When I try to think of other schools that meet need and are able to take such a high percentage of qualified applicants, it makes my brain hurt--- and not just because I have been up since 6 am today. St. Olaf checks off a lot of 'boxes' on the 'things to be desired in a college', not to mention the fact that you could be reminded of Rose Nyland's spirit every day for four years.


Read the legend on the right for the different quiet levels in the library at Carleton. Obsessed!

Campus snapshot, with the bookstore in the background.

After lunch, we headed over to Carleton College, which you can actually see off in the distance from St. Olaf's campus. With only about 2,000 students, Carleton is filled to the brim with interesting students who love to learn passionately, think deeply, and come from all across the country (and world). They are collaborative, "research abundant," unpretentious, and seek/receive not just knowledge but also friendship from their professors. Carleton runs on a trimester system and this allows their students to fit in an extra course per year (remember the theme of wanting to learn passionately? If fitting in extra classes doesn't appeal to you, Carleton probably won't appeal to you). We were told that Carleton students "have a high idling speed" -- meaning they are not satisfied coasting. Students seek engagement both inside and outside of the classroom. Understand that it isn't a place only for the arts and humanities -- Computer Science actually just passed Biology as the most popular major on campus. STEM kids need not avoid these kind of small schools, we got to meet a graduating Physics major currently picking among EIGHT PhD program acceptances of which she's narrowed it down to two: Cornell and Northwestern. If you don't know how impressive that is, let me just save you some Googling: it's impressive. At this point in my career, I've been on over 140 college tours, so when I encounter a new tour strategy for the first time, I notice. My Carleton tour guide (A Stuyvesant grad-- go NYCDOE!) did something I've never seen before: whenever our tour passed by someone she knew on campus, she yelled out to them "Hey ____, what's your favorite part about Carleton?" and they would yell back their answer. She did this about a dozen times over the course of the hour tour and it was GENIUS. What better way to accomplish two goals at once: show us the beauty of a small school where you can walk around for an hour and run into a dozen people you know on a first name basis and show your tour group that regular people who aren't tour guides have positive things to say about the school. [Their answers, for what is worth, included multiple votes for "the people," multiple votes for our tour guide, more than one academic department, and the Ultimate Frisbee team] Like St. Olaf, Carleton also meets 100% of demonstrated financial need for admitted students. It seems to me that the students who thrive here are those who take joy in studying -- a professor on a panel even shared that she felt she has to keep an eye on how much work she assigns because she knows the Carleton students won't rest until they've done it all --- their motivation can sometimes overtake their judgement. This is something that might sound familiar to a lot of ElRo students. . .

The bus schedule to get students where they need to go.
Lest anyone be nervous that I'm just selling the Midwest Kool-Aid and I'm trying to dupe city kids into a place where they will be stranded from real life, please know that both of these schools have daily shuttles to and from key places where students might need to go--so no car or driver's license is necessary. Students can easily get to Target, the Mall of America, and the airport in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I'm not be facetious when I say, where else would a college student from NYC need to go? Today was a phenomenal day. Excited to see Macalester tomorrow!