Tuesday, March 31, 2009

You're the Historian: Wash U love

So, although this post isn't really about my current academic life, it certainly is about my previous one. A little sister of one of my close friends is trying to decide where to go for college and is considering Wash U, my alma mater. She asked me "if you had to say one thing that you didn't like about it, what would it be? and what is the absolute number one reason i should go there?:

Here's my plodding attempt at a response: (any Wash U readers have your own thoughts to add?)


First, I'll address the absolute number one reason you should go to Wash U, because that's the sort of question I love answering. (Also, since I don't know that much about what sort of things you're looking for in a college, where else you're applying, what you might major in, what you like to do for fun, etc., this is the sort of standard answer I'd offer to anyone. I'm sure there are a lot of more specific pros and cons about WU relative to your specific needs, and I'm happy to go into those more if you want to offer me some of your criteria, but I'll give the general for now...):

Basically, I think the term "community" gets thrown around a lot in different circles to mean different things. But of all the places I've ever been, all the organizations I've ever been part of, all the groups of people I've ever known, Wash U embodies my idea of "community" better than any other. There's this sort of "we're in this together" feel about the place, the kind of assumption that pretty much anyone who's gone through the Wash U experience comes out the other end with a common set of values, a common set of ideas, and a feeling of immense pride in being a WU alum. This comes from a number of factors, I think. First and foremost is the residential life community. Although I may be a little biased since I was an RA for three years, I think that the cohesiveness of the res life staff and the importance of your freshman floor, your dorm, and the group of friends and acquaintances you build through your residential college is unparalleled. Then there's the kind of "rising star" nature of WU--it's not an Ivy Leaguer, but it's also really in competition with the best and the brightest in a number of ways (as my freshman roommate put it, the snobby smart people go to the Ivy Leagues, while the nice smart people go to Wash U). I think this aspect of the place makes people critically think about what they love about the university and what they could do to make it even better--so there's a lot of investment on the individual level (among students, among faculty, among staff, and among the administration alike) into the larger vision of WU's future. All of this stuff was very subtle while I was there--it wasn't like I thought about these ideas all the time and palpably felt all this at this level of analysis. It wasn't until after I left Wash U, until I'd been here in Madison, at the University of Wisconsin, for a number of years that this appreciation for the WU "community" came flooding over me. Most of my closest friends here in Madison are WU alums--but not even people I knew that well in college. It's just that when I got here, I found that WU alumni sought each other out, that I felt instantly comfortable around them in a way I didn't with people from my department and others I met. Just meeting someone who went to WU is often enough for the basis of a friendship, because there's the acknowledgment that we developed a common core of values and commitments to intellectual rigor, to community building, to Midwestern warmth, and to being part of something bigger. (Of course, this isn't to say I love every single person who ever went to Wash U, but as a general rule, it applies). As a point of comparison, I haven't seen this sort of mutual camaraderie from any of my friends who went to other institutions. When I have two friends who both went to, for example, UPenn, I always have this urge to introduce them, assuming they'll want to hang out as I do with any WashUer. But then I find that alumni of other institutions (across a broad range of other colleges) don't seem to have that same sense of community, that same desire for connection, that same assumption of shared values. So. That's a long-winded answer, but it really is the best thing about WU from my perspective, especially in hindsight.

As for my least favorite thing... I think this has more to do with criticism of myself and my decisions in college rather than the institution as a whole, but I do regret that Wash U didn't have more or an activist mindset, that there wasn't more support for activism around environmental, political, social, and progressive goals. People in St. Louis sometimes refer to the university as the "Wash U Bubble" because they see the fairly elite students inside WU as being uninterested in the community as a whole, somewhat spoiled, and too stuck inside an ivory tower sort of community. Although I think that is certainly a stereotype and doesn't apply to a large percentage of the students, it is true that being at WU sometimes makes it easy to forget that there's a larger world around us. And the studious nature of so many of the students often lent itself to a real focus on academics and the pursuit of a secure professional future over an engagement with important issues outside of academia.

I hope this all is somewhat helpful. Let me know if you have any other thoughts. And most of all, good luck in your decision!*


*Honestly, when it comes down to it, as much as I think WU is an awesome place--a college to beat all colleges--I also think that any intelligent, friendly, well-grounded, curious, engaged person can find a good university experience just about anywhere (or at least at any of the colleges I assume you're applying to). So, the bottom line is, don't worry about it too much. Don't ever feel like if you make the "wrong decision," your whole life will somehow be compromised. That is not the case.

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