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  • Beth & Tim Manners

Wisconsin Tour: Small City, Big Campus

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

Located in a capital city and with a total student population of about 44,000, it would seem a given that the University of Wisconsin at Madison would be a bit on the overwhelming side. That the first big thing we saw was a really big stadium reinforced our initial preconception, while also hardening an assumption that this Big Ten school would be as sports-crazed as they come. No question that Wisconsin is a huge school that loves its Badgers, but “overwhelming” only applies in the best sense of the word, as in rich in opportunity across multiple dimensions.


The campus is unmistakably an urban setting, but one that is better described as an overgrown town than a bustling city, directionally not unlike, say, another capital locale known as DC. The buildings tend toward low-slung rather than high-rise, the vibe is energetic but not crowded, and the sheer size of the footprint is casually remedied on wheels: students navigating here and there on bicycles, scooters and even skateboards. Big doesn’t have to mean unmanageable, and urban doesn’t necessarily render in shades of midtown Manhattan. Madison is a sweet spot.


As a large university, Wisconsin is ready for just about anyone, offering up some 130 majors and 60 certificates across eight schools and colleges: Business, Education, Engineering, Human Ecology (SOHE), Pharmacy, Nursing, College of Letters & Sciences and College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (CALS). It is possible to enter a specific college, or else as undeclared and then switch in later, apparently without much difficulty. Academic guidance begins the summer prior to freshman year, when students are assigned an advisor and supported by a program called Student Orientation Advising and Registration, or SOAR.


If you haven’t yet noticed, Wisconsin is particularly fond of acronyms, such as the Greater University Tutoring Service (GUTS) and Student Activity Center (SAC). Its First Year Interest Groups, or FIGs, invite cohorts of about 20 new students to take a set of three or four diverse but related classes centered on a particular theme and led by a single instructor. This introduces freshmen to a range of subject matter, provides a sustained opportunity to really get to know a group of fellow students and work closely with an instructor. They become part of their own little academic community that typically engages in field trips as well as classroom experiences.


Our relatively small and sedate info session snapped to attention with the arrival of our tour guide, Eric, a senior whose adrenaline level matched his evident excitement about graduating a few days hence. We were joined on our tour by three younger student-guides, who made conversation and answered questions as we went. Eric, meanwhile, was intent on entertaining us, peppering the usual patter about dorms, laundry, food, clubs and campus life in general with a bounty of one-liners such as: “We have more than 900 clubs at University of Wisconsin. You can go bowling, if that’s up your alley.”


Because we had so much ground to cover, we didn’t enter many buildings, but they looked pretty great from the outside. We did take seats in a typical classroom, but mainly just to get off our feet for a few minutes. Most memorable was our stop at a lakefront terrace, resplendent with an array of metal chairs painted in bright, Skittles-esque sunburst colors, and for which University of Wisconsin is famous. When the weather is warm the pavillion hosts concerts, open mic nights and food trucks. In the winter, when the lake freezes, it is a place for ice fishing and skating, among other wintry pursuits.

Our journey continued with an ascent up Bascom Hill, the big quad on campus. The suddenly upward trajectory of the terrain was striking because our drive from Chicago to Madison had been farmland beautiful but relentlessly flat. How was it that there seemed to be exactly one hill in all of Wisconsin, and it was at the heart of the Madison campus? The answer is glacial deposits, but all that really matters is that it creates an impressive effect, topped by the majestic Bascom Hall, the school’s primary administrative building. Directly in front sits a bronze statue of one of America’s most famous sons. “Anyone want to guess who this is?” Eric teased. The answer was so obvious that no one said a word. This was a moment made for Eric.


“I had one little kid guess Steve Jobs,” he ventured, to laughter. “And someone else said George W. Bush,” he continued, now doubled over, before relenting and telling us what we already knew: The statue was of Abraham Lincoln, whose Wisconsin troops trained on-campus during the Civil War. The toe of Abe’s left shoe glistened from the shine of endless undergraduates rubbing it for good luck before exams, one of those great college traditions.


Last stop for us was the Discovery Building, home of a public-private research partnership that opened in 2010 and whose ground floor is designed as a collaborative gathering and meeting place open not only to students but the local community, as well. The space evokes a traditional town center, complete with tree-lined walkways, lush with leaves that reportedly stay green year ‘round. The building’s windows open and close automatically to equalize the temperature. Cool.


From there, we headed back to State Street, a small but bustling row of shops including the campus bookstore, and restaurants such as Forage, which was packed with students choosing from an imaginative selection of grain bowls. Then it was time to depart this great, big campus nestled in an attractive, small city and head back to Chicago, a three-hour drive away.