Sunday, August 7, 2011

The College Quest--Part III: An Award-Winning Visit to William & Mary

   When I ditched my dad in front of the admissions building at William & Mary and left him to go park the car, I knew I had already lost the kiss-ass award at this place (not that I was really looking for it). 10 minutes late. Awesome.
   The kiss-ass award is something I formulated on the three-hour drive from Charlottesville to Williamsburg. In case you have problems in the world of deductive reasoning, it goes to the biggest kiss-ass at every school. Maybe it should not be what I am thinking about on these college visits, but some of these people are un-freaking-believable. I decided that if these people can attain a certain level of exasperation in my head, they deserve some kind of recognition. Plus, it adds plenty of entertainment value.
   So with myself out of the running for the honor, I walk up to the woman at the desk and humbly ask where I go for the info-sesh. She points me in the right direction, and I head off only to find every late individual’s worst nightmare: a closed door. And wouldn’t you know it, they put one of those obnoxiously loud push-bar things on there to announce my arrival. When I open the door, I am welcomed by 70 people all giving me that same “let’s see the low-life who I will destroy in the application process because of this moment” look. I felt like I might as well have come in with my shirt off or something.
   The speaker, however, gave me a (very unnecessary) “welcome!” and resumed. She was asking where everyone was from like the UVA woman had. I was all ready to throw out good ol’ AZ and be the farthest traveler again when some punk girl in the front row spat out Shanghai like it was the hottest thing since the freaking iPod. I should tell people I came from Moscow or something, if these things are going to turn into the godforsaken World’s Fair. She took hold of the kiss-ass award for now.
   The info-sesh was pretty standard, but W&M did have a unique aspect to it in the sense that they had a student come up and share his experiences and opinions on things. After a while you see that a lot of these places are looking for the same basic stuff: leadership and longevity in extra-curriculars, a challenging yet successful high school transcript, and test scores that reinforce that transcript. There was not a whole lot you could not find online or in a college book, so I had my fingers crossed our tour guide would be a good one.
   The three guides we had to “choose” from (you are usually assigned one, but my dad and I routinely ignored this and went with whomever we wanted) were all from Virginia, so we had to base it off of personality. The girl we chose was really loud and was a double major in English and History (did they plan this for me?), so it was hard to say no. Plus, she had a track t-shirt on, and you will never find a tour guide anywhere that does sports. We capitalized.
   Our campus tour took us in a triangle, as this is how W&M likes to describe the structure of their grounds. The tip of the triangle is ancient campus. Wren building is its only structure, and the history and tradition of the school had huge focus there. The place was something like 300 years old, and it held true to the colonial style of red brick, white trim. Colonial Williamsburg is probably 50 paces from its front door, and the Sunken Gardens (the massive quad in the center of campus) is 50 paces from its back door. Like UVA, W&M was a place that thrived off of its tradition, and they wasted no time in showing all of us their crown jewel in Wren.
   Heading West from Ancient Campus, you come to Old Campus. Old Campus is dominated by the aforementioned Sunken Gardens, and this vast lawn is the place to be for W&M students. A lot of the social events on campus happen here, from a King & Queen’s dance to an outdoor movie night (themes include Disney Classic night and Natalie Portman night).
   Old campus contains all of the arts-oriented classes, so all of your humanities as well as social sciences are located here. The architecture still sticks to the colonial red and white, so you are not going to see any of those unusual modern structures coming out of nowhere like some Transformer robot in disguise. Everything just seems to fit really well with everything else, even when you do see the recent additions on New Campus (By the way, favorite building was without a doubt the home of the English Department, known to students as the one and only Tyler Hall. Did someone just say “destiny?”).
   If you felt some excitement when I said New Campus, relax. This is “new” as in the 1970s. So new for W&M, just not new for you. There are some sleek new additions that do a nice job of blending in, but there is still no compromise by way of the traditional Virginian look. New Campus is appropriately home to the sciences, but it is here on the perimeter of the triangle that you will also find your dorms and dining halls. The dining halls looked decent enough, and W&M uses a flex point system that gives student credit toward off-campus eateries as well.
   The dorms, on the other hand, seemed to be what you made them. Not all halls had air conditioning, but you could bring your own unit and have it installed for you. The room that was showed to us was nothing special in terms of space or splendor, so I think it is a safe bet to say that in general on-campus residence is pretty standard. Upperclassmen however, have a shot at a lottery system for one of several lodges, the top-of-the-line housing on-campus. Those looked awesome, but it is a tough shot to be picked. So if you are lucky, you can live like royalty here, but if not, it looks pretty average.
   As we progressed through the tour, I began to lose a little focus and started in on some people-watching. The kiss-ass award was still in the hands of the Shanghai chick, and she was not even on the same tour as me. So I looked for another candidate. I found someone arguably worse. You know that feeling you have when you watch an interview and you feel like the questions asked by the reporters are planted? One dad had that whole vibe going on. Our guide was pretty cool, but this guy seemed to be testing her the whole time. Are all residence halls co-ed? Yeah they sure are; they’re segregated by floor. Nod of approval. You pass question number one. Occasionally she would throw him an answer and he would exchange one of those stupid “we know something no one else knows” looks with his daughter. W&M certainly is the place for annoying looks. Parents: I do not care if you went to the school yourself. That was a long time ago. Things have changed. You do not know everything.
   We continued onward to the library. That same dad’s daughter started walking up on the curb like she was pretending to keep her balance. You know, the thing you did when you were four years old. I wanted to tell the test-question father that Williamsburg probably had a great daycare program, but our guide was going into class selection and with my own father right over my shoulder, I felt some obligation to pay attention.
   At W&M they require what they call “general education” classes. These are not set freshman courses like English 101 and such, but rather classes you choose according to your interest. For example, to satisfy a history requirement, a biology student who is not so keen on the past can choose to take “History of Emergent Diseases”, something more suited to their major. Honestly I do not know if this is a really common thing amongst colleges or not, but I thought it sounded really appealing. It was as close to having an open curriculum without actually having that open curriculum as you could be.
   The library was above average, but nothing that made me want to grab a book right there and ditch the tour. Some people were more concerned with the technology side of things, and I think it is pretty funny how the people you think would ask about computers, ask about the computers. Call me a slave to stereotypes, but something about these East coast schools seems to attract the most predictable people in the country.

What Jumped out at W&M:
   Aside from another group of more-distracting-than-they-should-be tour mates, a lot caught my attention at W&M. The smooth blend of architecture from Ancient Campus to New Campus was nice, and there is some serious tree action all over the place. It looks great. The school seems to have a fusion between Southern-style and colonial-style, and they pull it off very well. 
   On the academic side of things, the open schedule structure was really cool to see, especially for someone like me who may not be so keen on some subjects as he is others. The fact that each student is assigned an academic advisor to help with course rigor and balance was a relief as well.
   Colonial Williamsburg seemed very student-friendly, with all of the standard coffee shops and bookstores that tend to hover around schools like this. It was definitely the place to be if you are a history buff, many of the plantation-style homes are still around, and the town has plenty of access to all things colonial. If anything, it is a very unique place.
   Williamsburg contributes to an overall sense of history and tradition at W&M that is hard to replicate anywhere else. Our guide told us about more student traditions and superstitions than I could keep track of, and the result was a sense of community that is truly rare for a state college. Unlike UVA, where it seemed like people were looking for more excuses to leave campus than anything else, W&M had a feel to it that said the students liked to be together, and that was really neat to be let in on.
   Resources seem excellent here as well, with a small student-faculty ratio and a more-than-adequate library. Students are also given a free laptop their freshman year, and another one their junior year (to “stay current”). Do not tell me that has no appeal to you.
   Despite all of this, I do have one major concern about W&M: sports. Going to a school with “cheer-able” sports teams is really important to me. After all, is not a major part of the college social scene revolving around athletics? At W&M, I am just not sure you have a whole lot of super competitive teams. They are Division I, certainly, but it is hard to compare the CAA (Colonial Athletic Association) to something like the ACC or SEC.

   It was maybe only twenty minutes after our tour before my dad and I had grabbed our usual school t-shirts (he usually finds a shot glass too, I still don’t know when that trend started) and were on the road again. We could not see much of Williamsburg outside of the colonial aspect of things, and that remains my only nag about this visit. But all in all, with W&M you have another state school that can stand toe-to-toe with any respectable private school.
   The nest day we were slotted for Wake Forest in the morning. How much excitement could a hyphenated town like Winston-Salem hold? Apparently enough to house a school with the Demon Deacons as a mascot. This place already sounds better than I thought.

The Sunken Gardens. They do mean that literally.
You like that camera work by my dad? Look at that great horizon line . . . unbelievable.

Wren Hall, or Ancient Campus.

My dad did that stupid thing again where he hollers my name and takes the picture as soon as I turn around to try and make me look stupid. Well I was ready. Maybe too ready. That's the Crim Dell Bridge in the background. They say if you walk on it alone you are destined to be alone for the rest of your life, but if you walk on it with only one other person you are destined to be with them for the rest of your life. Is that a win-win or a lose-lose?
Questions or additional comments about W&M? Share them in the comment section! I’m sitting on everything from hard numbers to more detailed information, so feel free.   

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