CU Boulder: Big is the New Small
Updated: Aug 18
Like a dream-school mirage, gazpacho-red rooftops poked through the tree-line as we hurtled down the final stretch of the not-so-lonesome highway into Boulder, Colorado. There it was … couldn’t miss it … could only be the mysterious university that captures the imaginations of so many of our students from across a spectrum of academic aptitudes and aspirations.
After we parked our silver-white rental Mazda and paid for its space (eight bucks!), we stepped into what might be the most consistently conceived campus on earth. If that’s an overstatement, it’s not by much. Other than a handful of the university’s earliest New England, Gothic-style structures, each and every building was rendered in matching rough-hewn red sandstone, punctuated with generous windows trimmed in a tasteful limestone and topped with undulating Iberian-inflected tiles.
The prevailing architectural style at CU Boulder is improbably known as Tuscan Vernacular Revival and the vision of its loveliness has been unfailingly sustained through the school’s expansion over more than 100 years. With a handy backdrop of a certain world-famous mountain range, the net effect is less that of a top-notch research university and more a first-rate resort.
Our tour guide, Coyle, a neuroscience-psychology major with a minor in leadership and who was as unpretentious as they come, lost no time joking about a brand-new dorm’s resemblance to a world-class auberge. We weren’t invited inside (hey, we’ve been thrown out of better places), and instead were ushered into a perfectly fine but honestly humdrum and very small sample dorm room. Points to CU for presenting a realistic impression of what a first-year student is most likely to experience.
The tiny quarters may have been intended as a metaphor for the image CU seemed intent on projecting: a very big school (about 30,000 undergrads) that does its best to render its impressive resources in bite-sized pieces.
This begins with living accommodations, and the option known as RAPS (Residential Academic Programs) to take small, 15-person classes in your residence hall with other students of the same major. Living Learning Communities (LLCs), meanwhile, offer the opportunity to “live and learn” with classmates based on a particular academic theme.
Each first-year student is also assigned an academic advisor who offers guidance on selecting classes and other helpful tips via zoom or phone before the school year starts. In year two, students get an advisor based on chosen major(s).
As CU is a big school, students will see their share of large, 350-person lecture halls, but as is often the case in such circumstances, learning assistants roam the aisles to answer questions or offer other help, while grad-school teaching assistants host breakout sessions to provide additional support. Coyle said that something like 80% of classes have fewer than 50 students and offered assurance that classes get smaller as the years go by.
CU ranks among the nation’s largest research universities and, according to Coyle, every professor conducts it, meaning every student has an ample chance to join in the fun. She, herself, did cancer research involving fruit flies and charmed us with her memory of removing spinal cords from cockroaches to study how stress affects sleep patterns. After emphasizing that research pursuits are voluntary, a tour-dad asked if the cockroaches were also volunteers. Dad-joke laughter ensued.
Speaking of dads, grandads and maybe even great-granddads, Coyle dropped that the Rolling Stones once played the annual WelcomeFest Concert for incoming freshmen. This was back in 1981 and not the Beatles, but still. She also made sure we saw the buffalo-shaped swimming pool outside CU’s recreation center. One of nearly 30 LEED-certified structures on campus, the center's pool and skating rink have a symbiotic heating-cooling relationship. The literally glistening basketball court there is punctuated by a prodigious wall of windows that allows an almost surreal view of the nearby mountain range.
Toward the end of the tour, we stopped at the gates of the 50,000-seat stadium where the CU Buffalos roam (and nobody ever sits down, Coyle said). It's also where Ralphie, the school’s live mascot -- a full-grown female buffalo -- runs. Before it ended, we paused at the Norlin Quad, where Coyle told us about the campus’ six libraries. She also mentioned that the school removed its blue-light system because 99% of calls proved to be pranks. CU instead doubled down on police patrols.
Coyle highlighted the Laughing Goat Café as a campus favorite and suggested having lunch at The Sink, a shabby-chic pizza joint in the nearby neighborhood known as The Hill. President Obama once ordered a pepperoni and sausage ‘za topped with black olives, green peppers, and red onions there and then proceeded to splash it all over himself, sending the Secret Service into a mad scramble to find a fresh shirt.
As we headed back to the parking lot, thinking about which pizza to order at The Sink (the Buddha Basil is amazing), the small mystery of this university’s magnetic hold on so many of our students resolved itself: It is impossible not to like CU Boulder.