“Tanquam lignum quod plantatum est secus decursus aquarum.”* Columbus Day at Connecticut College in New London.
Eighteen months ago I was reintroduced to the world of higher education visiting colleges and universities in the Washington, DC and New York City areas. Sitting through information sessions, walking around on campus tours, listening to presentations on the ins and outs of admissions and financial aid made me realize how little I really knew about all this. Fortunately, going through seven of these in five days served as a kind of crash course in how contemporary higher education works. Truthfully, though, I’m still not sure I know very much, at least about this.
With all the talk of SAT/ACT scores, admit rates, “demonstrated need” financial aid, and the difference between core curriculum and distribution requirements, I think I learned more about our eldest daughter than I did anything else. I looked forward to the visit to Connecticut College with our middle daughter, and the visits we will make in a couple of weeks to Wheaton, Wellesley, and Vassar.
Last Sunday afternoon we packed what little we needed for an overnight stay in New London and headed south. The roughly three and a half hour (almost four, if you count the slowdown near Haverhill, Lawrence, and Lowell) drive was spent talking about nothing and listening to the New England Patriots lose their composure and early lead to the Denver Broncos. We passed the main entrance to Connecticut College in the early evening darkness, several of the buildings lit up giving us our first glimpse of where we would spend our Monday.
The next morning, after recommending Red’s Eats in Wiscasset to a couple from Georgia on their way to Maine for the first time, we found our way back to the college’s main gate and went in to register for the open house. Based on the number of people crowded into the hall of the Palmer Auditorium I expected the place to be packed. Kids signed in and wary parents found their way to the coffee and seats waiting for the program to begin while a jazz trio played on stage. The welcoming session emphasized the college’s honor code and shared governance model, its mission to put liberal arts to work in the world, and study abroad opportunities. It was also interest that the first thing the college president, Lee Higdon, was to assure us that the institution was in solid financial shape. This struck me as a little odd, but considering the beating colleges and universities have taken on their endowments over the last two years I really shouldn’t have been surprised.
Through the rest of the day we had the chance to wander around campus, attend sessions on study abroad opportunities, financial aid and admissions, and have lunch according to different majors and areas of interest. On our way into lunch, daughter #2 saw that Table 29 was supposed to have faculty from American studies and history, so we made our way over there. We were the only two who sat at that table; unfortunately, without a faculty member. We didn’t feel too badly about it, though, because the “Urban Studies and Planning” table had no one at it and, while we were eating, talking, and reading the information about American studies and history at Connecticut College, President Higdon came over and talked with us for a bit.
The actual academic and residential part of the Connecticut College campus is not all that large, about a ten minute walk from one end to the other, though it is surrounded by several hundred acres of trees and trails. Nearly all of the buildings were of light gray stone – granite, I would imagine – and very typical of traditional college architecture with classical style elements. The Cummings Art Center was one exception to the overall style, being more modern with an abundance of north-facing windows but still of the same stone as the other buildings. As a campus setting I found it pleasant and peaceful, being able to look out over the Thames River, Long Island Sound and, off in the distance, the far eastern end of Long Island from the highest point on campus. There were signs for activities and events all over the place, from the art center, to the library, and the student center, while small, seemed to have plenty of students engaging with each other.
In the “Freshman Experience” talk, I didn’t get the sense that there was much connection between the college and the surrounding communities of New London, Groton, Waterford, etc. Some, but not a lot. Connecticut also didn’t seem to be what, I have come to understand, are called “suitcase schools,” where everyone packs up and goes home (or at least somewhere else) for the weekend. In one of the opening addresses the dean of admissions spoke about the process of finding a school and how stressful it can be. She said that one of the things Connecticut tries to be is a place where students can explore while they continue to grow and change, and not expect them to know exactly what they want the minute they walk through the door. Nothing I saw or heard wandering around campus for the day would make me think differently.
Talking with our middle daughter on the way home, she came away with a favorable impression, but felt that it would really take a couple more visits to have a clearer idea since she has nothing to compare it to. In a couple of weeks, maybe she’ll have a better idea. For me, I keep finding myself wishing (in some ways) that I could be making the journey again.
*”Like a tree planted by rivers of waters” (that bringeth forth its fruit in its season.) (Psalm 1:3)