WashU: Gateway to the Best of Higher Education
We could have been on any airport highway: Minneapolis, Denver, even Ft. Lauderdale minus the palm trees. It was all asphalt and road signs, with nondescript office buildings, big-box retailers and billboards filling in for actual scenery. This oddly familiar ride into Forest Park Parkway nearly had us lulled when, suddenly, to our right, the generic turned gothic. Ah, of course, that must be Wash U!
Through our Lyft’s backseat window, it appeared like the walls of a mighty fortress, all blocky and granite – local, red granite as we later learned. It went on and on and on and on. We had no idea the university was so big! With an undergraduate class of about 7,000, the expectation was that of a more compact campus, but its sprawling majesty instantly telegraphed the elite, major institution Washington University in St. Louis has become.
After this almost medieval introduction, it was a bit surprising to pull up to the Sumers Welcome Center, home to the Office of Admissions and starting point of our visit. Sumers stands almost in prismatic defiance against the signature Brookings Hall, which is complete with towers, turrets and flags flying, supervising from a nearby hilltop. In its own modest way, the effect almost recalls IM Pei’s famous stainless steel pyramid, which both disrupts and blends with the pavilion outside the Louvre.
Okay, maybe we’re overstating this, but it felt like a very deliberate message. At a minimum, WashU boasts perhaps one of the most memorable, if not beautiful, campuses we’ve visited.
The supremely bright and modern reception area was abuzz with activity, as dozens of prospective students checked in. We were greeted instantly and warmly, took a seat and watched as the room filled. By the time we entered the equally airy presentation room, the crowd had grown to about two hundred.
Admissions counselor Jackie Gao took a deep breath and for the next 45 minutes barely came up for air as he rattled off a stream of facts and fancy about anything and everything that makes WashU what it is.
This started with a tribute to the indigenous people who once occupied the land, and then weaved through the crannies of the campus, the mosaic of St. Louis’ 79 neighborhoods, the proximity of the 10-block Delmar Loop and its many attractive dining options, as well as the 500-acre Forest Park, complete with a zoo, museums and outdoor theater – all free – right next door.
Jackie then mentioned the “diverse and collaborative” spirit of WashU’s 54% female, 46% male student body, which hails from all 50 states and 50 countries to boot. Each student gets an academic advisor for all four years, a major advisor beginning year two, as well as a future studies advisor as graduation nears. He ran through the five undergraduate divisions (arts & sciences, architecture, art, business and engineering) and placed special emphasis on WashU’s interdisciplinary “Beyond Boundaries” program, which is designed to address global challenges across multiple divisions and even grade levels.
That WashU undergrads have opportunities to take certain graduate-level classes in law and public policy, for example, speaks volumes about its omnivorous approach to higher education. In another innovative twist, a total of 11 professors live on campus. Jackie joked that these “Faculty Fellows” aren’t forced into this as punishment but in fact there is a 10-year waiting list for the honor. Among other things, they host special events in their apartments and organize field trips into downtown St. Louis, about seven miles away. (Metro cards are free to students, by the way.)
Every major offers at least one study-abroad program, and undergraduate research opportunities can be just a matter of asking a professor. Students can design their own major. The entrepreneurship program at WashU features the opportunity to start a real, live business, complete with retail space. This has spawned on-campus enterprises including a bike-rental service and ice-cream parlor. Participants can compete in a “Shark Tank” style presentation that might award up to $50,000 in start-up funding.
Other fun-and-games include 19 varsity sports and some 450 student organizations backed by a $4 million budget. A traditional annual event called WILD (Walk in, Lay Down) has featured artists from hometown hero Chuck Berry to the Grateful Dead to the Black Eyed Peas and Carly “Call Me Maybe” Rae Jepsen.
In terms of getting in, WashU’s admit rate, as of 2022, is about 10%. Approximately 6,800 of its applications are “Early Decision 1” and 2,000 are ED2. The balance of about 30,000 applicants are “Regular Decision.” Neither SAT nor ACT is required, and 40% of its most recent accepted students did not submit scores. The school is need blind, meaning that it does not factor one’s ability to pay in its admissions deliberations and provides 100% of demonstrated need.
After a robust Q&A, tour guides burst into the room, with one of them, Violet, striking a Beyonce-style pose as the electronic curtain behind them slowly ascended. It’s worth mentioning only because she captured the playful side of a decidedly serious university. Our tour guide Maxwell, a double major in American Studies and Political Science, was not so theatrical but more than compensated with his energy, and relentless enthusiasm.
Maxwell mostly built on Jackie’s presentation, as he took us past the Danforth University Center, or DUC, the student union if you will, making sure to mention its monthly “Duc & Donuts” events when students can enjoy free pastries, while also mentioning that the building houses both the main dining hall and a formal, special-occasion dining room where steak and oysters are on the menu. He let drop that various sources have rated WashU’s dining program among the nation’s Top 10 and that “Tikka Masala Tuesday” is a personal favorite of his, along with the salad vending machine. During a visit to a mock dorm room he noted that all mattresses are TempurPedic. Funny, but not a joke.
Maxwell was sure to point out the relatively quaint field that was the site of the 1904 Olympic Games. As we walked past a cluster of sawed-off trees between which hammocks swing during the school year, he talked about the John M. Olin Business School, where students engage in research and apply real-world strategies via case-study competitions in which they offer consulting advice to companies like Target and Disney.
WashU’s central library, also named for Mr. Olin, is home to special collections including pieces of the first computer built outside of IBM, a 250-year-old edition of Paradise Lost, and one of seven original copies of the Declaration of Independence. Olin is one of 12 libraries on campus.
No visit would be complete without a stroll through the archway at Brookings Hall, where everyone was careful to avoid stepping on the plaque honoring William Greenleaf Eliot, both the school’s founder and grandfather of poet T.S. Eliot. The legend is that if you step on the plaque you will not graduate, a prospect with which even the prospective students on our tour did not want to trifle. At the tour's end, Maxwell said it was WashU’s collaborative, interdisciplinary atmosphere, its supportive and not competitive culture, a place where the people are nice and accepting, that made it his choice.
Afterwards, we spent a half-hour or so with Nakeyah Bradford, the newly-minted Connecticut-region admissions counselor, who emphasized the connections between students and professors across disciplines and commitment to addressing community and global issues at WashU. She said she looks for a clear and compelling story from applicants and a sense of what they imagine accomplishing as undergraduates. She said WashU has its “own brand of nerd,” who is serious but also enjoys having fun as part of a close-knit community, as partners who root for each other.
Nakeyah then pointed us in the general direction of Delmar Loop, about a 10-minute walk away. We found lunch at Fitz’s, which sits next to a statue of Chuck Berry and specializes in the most fantastical ice-cream sodas imaginable. We quaffed a simple bottle of their famous house-brewed root beer, made from a vintage recipe using a refurbished 1940s-era bottling line harvested from an old barn in Wisconsin.
Maybe it was the root beer, but we left feeling sweet on WashU.