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  • Beth & Tim Manners

Wesleyan Tour: Order out of Chaos


Arriving a half-hour early for our Tuesday noontime Wesleyan University tour, we were greeted by one, and then another, chockablock-full parking lot. Calling into the admissions office, seeking guidance, we were told of a third, much larger lot, on the opposite end of campus. We arrived there after a twisting, winding, what seemed like a five-minute drive, all our careful timing now out the window.


We were certain we would miss our tour, until we spotted a path that appeared headed in the right direction and indeed cut a nearly direct line back to the admissions office. This adventure turned out to be something of a metaphor for our Wesleyan experience.


The campus was quiet that day, likely owing to the cold, gray, drizzly, February-in-Connecticut weather. This quiescent impression was summarily disrupted when we opened the dark-red front door to the bright-yellow admissions building. A swarming, standing-room crowd of at about 80, mostly engrossed in animated conversation, awaited a tour, now just seconds away.


Led outside by three Wesleyan undergrads, with a fourth straggling slightly behind, we were reminded that visiting colleges during high-school winter break is a popular idea.


The guides briefly introduced themselves, and we were told to choose whomever seemed most compatible. We went with the straggler, a senior named Paul, in part because he said he was from Paris, France, and yet had a perfectly neutral American accent. He also requested that we distribute ourselves evenly “because we have feelings, too, you know.” A sense of humor helps when touring college campuses.


Set on some 316 sweeping acres in workaday Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan counts itself among a set of smallish, highly selective (3,000 undergrads; 16% admit rate), New England schools -- Amherst, Williams, Tufts, Colby, Bowdoin, Bates, Middlebury, Hamilton, Trinity, and Connecticut College -- against which its Cardinals also compete in a spectrum of Division 3 sports. School “spirit” may not manifest itself here in the way it might at Division 1 schools, but it definitely has a presence.


This was most evident in the unusual location of Wesleyan’s football field, smack dab in the middle of its quad. This makes it just about impossible for even the sports-averse to ignore the Cardinals in the football fall, or come spring, when the field is converted into a baseball diamond. A similar effect is achieved in the school’s spectacular athletic center, where casual passersby cannot miss goings-on in the sparkling Olympic-sized swimming pool or gleaming basketball court, set behind giant plate-glass windows. An impressively aggressive hockey game was exploding on a glistening ice rink as we walked by.


By deftly inserting its own idea of “spirit” into the daily lives of its students, Wesleyan makes an unmistakable statement about its omnivorous philosophy of college life.


Some might call it quirky, an adjective that often is ascribed to Wesleyan. It is, after all, a predominantly liberal arts school (philosophy is its number-one major), that places great value on the arts. Our very first tour stop was Wesleyan’s arts complex, where from the outside, through a giant window, we could see students clustered around canvases, learning how to be artists.


Everyone is encouraged to at least dabble in something -- painting, sculpting, dancing, acting -- because, well, you just never know where it might lead. Our tour guide confided that it led him to never attempt sculpting again. The point though, is that he tried it, which goes to the heart of Wesleyan’s unusual organizing principle, the so-called “open curriculum.”


Unlike most other schools, which apply some structure to academic requirements (e.g., core, major, elective), Wesleyan leaves it up to students to decide what to take. If you don’t want to study math, foreign language -- or anything in particular at all -- that’s cool. Of course, you do have to engage in something, but every choice is yours; you can even design your own major if you’d like, provided you can make a case for why it makes sense.


This may sound borderline chaotic, or cause for concern that having so much freedom could be paralyzing. After all, if you are welcome to dive deeply into what you already like, you may never come up for air. If you can avoid what you believe you won’t like, you might miss out. Or, you could wind up wandering all over the place and never find true north.


Wesleyan addresses these potential pitfalls simply, by making sure you are not left entirely to your own devices. Each incoming student is assigned a pre-major advisor based on information from your common app. Once your specific area of academic interest comes clear, a major advisor is assigned (and more than one for double or triple majors). A peer advisor simultaneously provides a reality check on your chosen course load, helping to navigate and create balance between the relative demands of different professors, for example. A fourth advisor, a dean, is like your “mom or dad” on campus, helping with any personal issues. If you need a thesis advisor, you’ll get one of those, too.


Wesleyan’s dueling libraries meanwhile offer an intriguing study in contrast. Situated directly across from each other, the stately, brick, columned, dark-paneled, marble trimmed Olin Memorial Library is the quiet one. Its main room, through which we were led, is militantly muted, but the Smith Reading Room, which we dared not enter, is so deathly silent that even a cough will earn dirty looks, according to our guide. On the other side of the street, the Brutalist-design Science Library is exactly the opposite: noisy conversation is not only allowed, but encouraged.


Wesleyan is not necessarily known for its sciences. Engineers can complete their first three years there, but cannot earn a degree without two more years at either Caltech, Columbia or Dartmouth. On the other hand, the stat is that 85% of pre-meds who maintain at least a 3.5 GPA at Wesleyan are admitted to the medical school of their choice. By the way, Wesleyan also offers a five-year combined BA and Masters degree option in natural sciences, mathematics, and psychology, with the fifth year’s tuition waived.


For all its alleged quirks, Wesleyan is quite orderly. As we traversed the campus, seemingly in a straight and lengthy line, it turned out that we had in fact walked in a near-perfect square, right back to where we had started. The campus is as wide open as its curriculum, and its student population relatively small, underscoring its grand, yet somehow understated, impression.


John Wesley, the 18th century Methodist leader for whom the school is named, would no doubt be pleased to see his namesake school still upholding its 19th century founding values of community, service and the liberal arts.


He might be surprised, however, that Wesleyan is today non-denominational and 55% women.


We were just happy to find our car, resting comfortably where we had left it on the opposite side of campus. It seemed fitting that we made our way back without relying on the shortcut that earlier had saved our day, instead improvising our own circuitous, less-traveled, Wesleyan-esque route.