Last Thursday, after leaving work a little early to pack, our middle daughter and I were on the road again. Our overnight destination was the Holiday Inn Express in North Attleboro so we wouldn’t have to deal with morning rush hour traffic in Boston. Next time, if there is a next time to visit Wheaton College, we will not – repeat not – follow Route 1 through Boston. I’m generally a pretty fearless driver and I’ve driven this particular stretch before, but I have to say that I didn’t care much for it this time and will avoid it in the future, no matter what the GPS says.
Getting from our hotel to the Wheaton campus in Norton was about a twenty minute drive and required a little back-tracking. On the way I noticed that it would have been as easy – longer probably, but less nerve-wracking – to have come down I-495 and approach it from the opposite side. A note for future reference.
Wheaton’s campus is right on the edge of downtown Norton, a town of about 18,000 roughly forty miles south of Boston and twenty miles northeast of Providence, Rhode Island. Visitors were directed to Mary Lyon Hall to check in before the tour got underway.
As with nearly all of the student tour guides I have encountered our Wheaton guide was fairly well-versed in the academic programs, campus life, and general demographics of the college, not to mention walking backward. The campus itself is small, with a traditionally arranged quad with the library, chapel, academic buildings, a couple of dorms, and one of three dining halls around its periphery. Other buildings surround these in the “lower campus” and clusters of residence halls. Most of the buildings in the upper campus were early 20th century, with the newer buildings spread out from there, not unexpected. The student center is one of the more modern buildings, as is the athletic center and field house. Some of the older buildings appeared more in need of repair than I would have expected. We walked into one of the newer suite-style residence halls, which did not strike me as being particularly high quality construction – it was okay, but clearly built on a budget – unlike the older dorm we visited, which was much more solid and substantial.
Along with the ‘official’ information he provided, our guide spoke about a couple of unique aspects of Wheaton campus life, such as “Peacock Pond” and “The Dimple.” The pond is a small man-made feature on lower campus where students gather for a candlelight ceremony as incoming freshmen and again four years later as graduating seniors. Some might think of this as hokey but I find it quaint and charming, a good use of ceremony and symbolism. There is a less official role for “The Pond” at Wheaton where one is expected to take a dip in it before graduating. It wasn’t clear whether doing so unclothed conferred any additional benefit, however. “The Dimple” is a feature of the upper campus quad, which used to be a pond. Under certain meteorological conditions, apparently it still is, but it is also used as a gathering spot, outdoor amphiteater, and outdoor location for commencement.
Academics at Wheaton seemed comparable to anything we had been looking at in this year’s edition of the college search. The program emphasized the close relationship between faculty and students, student participation and credit in research, interdisciplinary studies through Wheaton’s “Connections” program, social activism, and service learning. As we have since found out through the course of our visits, these are some pretty common themes for institutions of this size.
There was one thing that really struck me during the information session: A professor of art history was talking about two types of people, “track” people and “path” people, and how different institutions or programs suit them. “Track” people have a clear idea of what it is they want to do and stay on that track, while “path” people have less clearly-defined notions of what they want to do, often have many different interests, and go in occasionally completely different directions, following a more meandering path in life. The professor’s point in making this distinction was to say that if you are a “track” person looking for a small college setting, Wheaton could be a good choice for you, but that Wheaton should hold special appeal for “path” people. This struck me because, though I hadn’t thought about it in these terms, our middle daughter is much more a “path” person than a “track” person.
Since we had to get to Wellesley for an early afternoon information session and tour we really didn’t have time to linger, but I came away from our visit to Wheaton with a generally positive impression. The programs, campus feel, and what little sense I could get of social life seemed like just the kind of thing our daughter has been looking for, but it seemed to be working with considerably more limited resources than those I visited in 2008, or the schools we would visit during the rest of our weekend.