Tuesday, June 29, 2010

COWS Take on a New Meaning in Wisconsin

In the world of college counseling, COWS have taken on a different meaning, even in the dairy farm state of Wisconsin. COWS is the acronym for Counselors Observing Wisconsin Schools, a college tour which traverses the southern half of the state and includes 5 colleges. The 5 schools are Ripon College, Lawrence University, the University of Wisconsin (Madison), Beloit College and Marquette University. These colleges have all been around since the mid-1800’s, and were founded just about the time that Wisconsin gained statehood in 1848.

Visiting so many colleges over the course of a year (50 or more), I frequently get the question, how do you keep them straight? Copious notes and the occasional photo on my Blackberry help, but the true benefit to visits and the best memory aid is getting a sense for a college’s mission, what sets it apart and, of course, what type of student would thrive. The facts I commit to paper. The feel of fit is something I get from seeing students, talking to members of the college community and trying to get a sense of the campus vibe.

More and more colleges are stating their mission on the website. A good mission statement will tell you right out what is important to the college community and what it hopes to do for its students. It’s worth taking the time to find and read it when you are exploring colleges.

So I start my tour recap with Ripon College, a residential college of 1,100, where two-thirds of the students come from within the state. Ripon’s mission emphasizes preparing students of diverse backgrounds (ethnically, if not geographically) for lives of productive, socially responsible citizenship. It is an intimate learning community where students truly receive a richly personalized education in the liberal arts. With a tag line of “More, Together,” Ripon fulfills its mission by providing a supportive environment that encourages students to get involved and support each other. Students that thrive at Ripon like the small, close knit community where they feel comfortable assuming leadership roles. The sciences are popular, as is history/government, communications and business. Greek life exists and attracts 40% of the student body, though the focus, not surprisingly, tends to be more community service in purpose. 35% of the student body is involved in Division III sports, which includes the newest addition, cycling. In fact, the new president, a big cyclist himself, has made a unique offer to the student community. Anyone who does not bring a car to campus gets a free bike!

Our journey took us next to Lawrence University in Appleton, a happening town of 70,000 with many interesting restaurants and entertainment venues. Situated on 80 acres along the Fox River, Lawrence, like Ripon, is relatively small with just 1,400 students. Yet despite the size, the college boasts a world renowned music conservatory which offers many of its hallmark programs. Love for music abounds, even among non-music students. Lawrence is also a residential college, a factor that is tied very much into the school’s mission. The college may be small, but that does not imply a homogeneous student body. 12% of its students are international, and 75% are from outside Wisconsin. Given this diversity in a small residential community, acceptance and appreciation for differences is expected and highly valued. Students sign a social code which provides the foundation for respecting others. They are self-described “quirky,” creative and open-minded. All are encouraged to do some type of independent study during their stay at the Lawrence. The student who thrives in this environment is ready to take charge of his or her education and shape it. At the same time, the college provides ample support to ensure that students succeed. In addition to music, popular majors include biology, psychology, English and studio art. 60% of students take advantage of study abroad programs built around their academic curriculum. Do not assume that Lawrence is just for artsy types. With 25% of students participating in 23 Division III varsity sports, their interests are as diverse as the student body itself.

Our next destination was the state capital, Madison, to tour the flagship University of Wisconsin. This is truly an urban university, though bordered by two lakes, Mendota and Menona, which provide a lovely lakeshore region to the campus. U of W is big: 41,000 students with 28,000 undergraduates. There are over 750 clubs and activities and no shortage of things to do, both on campus and in the city. The 8 undergraduate colleges and schools include the College of Letters and Science, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, School of Business, School of Education, College of Engineering, School of Human Ecology, School of Nursing and School of Pharmacy. Students are admitted to the university rather than to a specific program, and complete at least 2 semesters before applying to a program of study. How do students create a sense of community in such a large academic setting? Students find ways to make the university more personal through clubs they join, their classes and as part of residential life. The university does offer Residential Learning Communities which allow students to live and study within their place of residence. It goes without saying that sports are BIG at Wisconsin. Camp Randall stadium is home to the Division I varsity football team. There are 22 other Division I sports which also draw the crowds. Students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison know how to have a good time. Yet they are also active, involved citizens of the Madison/University of Wisconsin community, with a passion for their causes.

We left the hustle and bustle of Madison and drove southeast to the far more serene town of Beloit, just north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border (90 minutes from Chicago). Beloit College is small with only 1,300 students, but homogeneous it is not. Most students are from outside Wisconsin, hailing from 48 states and 47 countries. Such diversity forces students to get to know people different from themselves, though this is not a chore. After all, Beloit students chose the college for a reason. Beloit curriculum is writing intensive. There are no core courses, but there are distribution requirements. Beloit believes that its First Year Seminar Experience is unique, though others have tried to copy it. Students are free to choose any one of a selection of topics that will challenge them to think critically, articulate their thoughts verbally and in writing, while interacting with a small group of classmates as they explore the topic. Known for its exceptional anthropology program, Beloit is also strong in modern languages, and offers Japanese, Chinese, German, Spanish, Russian, and French. An intensive summer language program also includes Arabic.

What sets Beloit apart? It is amazingly diverse for such a small school in the Midwest. Teachers primarily teach, but also do research with students. Everyone is on a first name basis. Student-centered is the phrase frequently repeated. The feel of the campus from both faculty and students is open, laid-back and casual. Relationships among students and faculty are central to this community, and they endure beyond graduation. Students who thrive at Beloit want to question and challenge. They are engaged, opinionated, politically active, liberal and have a multiple of interests. It is not uncommon for students who choose to double major to pick two subjects that are seemingly unrelated. The student body has a real say in what goes on. There is room to take risks, but the atmosphere is at the same time nurturing. Many students take advantage of the free tutoring offered.

Our last stop before flying home was the city of Milwaukee, home to Marquette University, one of 28 Jesuit higher education institutions in the country. Located in the heart of the city, Marquette is defined by its diversity, urban setting and Jesuit connection and traditions.
Founded in 1881, it is the newest of the 5 schools we visited, though still steeped in history. The center of campus is home to the 15th century St. Joan of Arc Chapel which was dismantled, transported to the U.S. from France and gifted to the university in 1964.

Marquette’s 12,000 students come from all 50 states and 70 countries. About 60% of students are Catholic, though students say that religion is present, yet not imposing. The 8,000 undergraduates are each enrolled in one of the universities 7 colleges which include Liberal Arts, Business, Engineering, Education, Nursing, Communications and Health Sciences. The application process is the same for all students, yet applicants specify which school they wish to attend and may include their second choice. Even after enrolled in a specific college, students throughout the university must complete the same Core of Common Studies. There is a highly selective Honors Program of fewer than 500 students. Sports are very important at Marquette. A Division I Big East Conference member, Marquette’s basketball team always draws a crowd. The school has neither football nor baseball, but that doesn’t seem to do much to dampen school spirit.

Who thrives at Marquette? Students who feel a strong connection to the university really care about community and the Jesuit ideals of caring for the whole person. Overall, students are academically motivated, yet very well grounded.

Whether it is the Midwest location or coincidentally, a core element of each school’s mission statement, the importance of a unified community comes through loud and clear on all of these campuses, despite how different they appear. Students feel connected and valued. When exploring colleges, read the mission statement and ask yourself if it speaks to the essence of what defines the school's philosophy and approach to the academic and social experience. A closing and noteworthy point: all of these colleges, especially the private institutions, offer fairly generous merit aid to qualified students, another reason they are worthy of a closer look!

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