Thursday, July 7, 2016

Rain and Change: Touring WashU and a Train to Chicago

Lucky you, I had a 6 hour train ride today and plenty of time to write about the details of my tour of Washington University in St. Louis! So here you are, an incredibly detailed summary of my day as a result of plenty of time relaxing on a train.

A rainy walk on a beautiful campus
After staying up late last night for evening activities in St. Louis, waking up in the morning was initially not the most pleasant experience. Neither was packing up all of my stuff after taking so much of it out of my suitcase for only a single night's stay. However, the hotel provided an extravagant, complimentary continental breakfast, complete with eggs (scrambled with spinach and potatoes), toast (with house made strawberry preserves) and yogurt, which put a cheerful spin on the day. 

Our tour was scheduled for later that morning, and since we were already staying on the campus of Washington University we planned to walk over to the building where the primary info session was being held. Things took a downhill turn again, however, when we stepped outside to be greeted by a torrential downpour of rain and the crash and flash of a thunderstorm! It was a soggy and adventuresome walk, but everyone kept a positive attitude. I was lucky to have both a travel umbrella and a light rain jacket, but my Converse still soaked through and our maps got so soggy we could barely read them! The rain lightened up as we walked along, so we were still able to get some pretty decent photos of the castle like campus with its brick walls and vast expanses of green lawn. It was good to get a realistic sense for what summer rain storms are like in Missouri, in case any of us end up there in the future!
A photo of sunny WashU... if only!

We eventually found our way to the information session, which was one of the most thorough and detailed individual college presentations I have seen and totally changed my pre-conceived notions about WashU. Our two presenters were Nancy, a young woman from Los Angeles California, and Sankalp, a young man from Mumbai, India. Nancy was a recent graduate in communications design (graphic design -- fonts and color etc.) and Sankalp was a current student majoring in theoretical mathematics, with minors in philosophy and economics. Both had plenty of anecdotes and opinions to share, which spiced up the presentation considerably. They were both very open and enthusiastic, and having a presenter who was also from California made everything more relatable. Unfortunately our walking tour of campus was cancelled due to the rain, but instead we were able to talk to a panel of WashU students who supported and filled in some of the gaps from the presentation. I didn't go into the presentation expecting to like WashU, but after hearing all of the students and staff talk I could easily picture myself going there.

Alice and the metalic-grey rabbit
The very first issue they spoke on related to one of my main concerns about the university: diversity. They emphasized that one of the main values of the school was inclusion of a diverse student body, and that this was one of the unique and defining qualities of the institution. This came as a surprise to me, since I as a Bay Area resident am generally biased about the midwest when it comes to diversity, and I was very pleased to hear it. A bit of research after the presentation (efficient use of Amtrak wifi) gave me more insight -- according to the WashU website, over 90% of students come from out of state, and all 50 states as well as over 80 countries are represented. That being said, Forbes' breakdown of enrollment by race has 55% of the student body as white, with the next largest group, Asian, at 17%. The WashU breakdown is still above the national average for diversity (which may or may not be an ideal standard to judge by) and of course we must consider that the percentage breakdown is an oversimplification of reality. But what struck me most was not the numbers or examples, but the fact that Washington University has an entire branch of its website dedicated to its mission of diversity and to its Center for Diversity and inclusion, which communicates an awareness of the issue of diversity and consistent action being taken to improve it. They also have many opportunities for cultural diversity on campus with festivals and events. This was unexpected and comforting, and got me listening for more information.

Next they explained the breakdown of the university into five different schools: Arts and Sciences (the largest school and the "heart" of the university), Engineering and Applied Sciences, Business, Arts, and Architecture. When you apply to the university, you actually apply to one of the schools specifically. It is totally ok to be undecided when you do this, but it gives you a home base and a place to start exploring. Nancy described her experience coming in as an undecided freshman who applied to the school of arts and sciences. She took a slew of classes from across the different schools, from Psychology to Latin American Studies to Linguistics to an Engineering class (because why not), and also decided to try our an art class. But after taking art and loving it, she switched to the college of arts to find a major she had never seen herself in before. Sankalp shared a similar story, of coming in knowing that he would be an economics major and then deciding that he hated economics. Three days later he was a math major, but still able to pursue economics and also philosophy. Others shared stories of staying on campus for the summer to research a subject they discovered for a class they took on a whim, or of studying abroad and coming home to include their study in their senior thesis. 

Pretty building! (and a hint of the on-giong campus construction.
At first I was blown away by the number of subjects Sankalp was pursuing, but it came out in the panel and later in the presentation that interdisciplinary studies and multiple areas of focus are extremely common and well supported at WashU, a massive plus for me. Students described academic flexibility and, as Nancy put it, the freedom to study the things that work for you. Sankalp added that so many of his friends were able to find "oddly specific" programs that covered multiple of their many interests. The school also has a tight and widespread network of advisors and counsellors to help guide each student through their individual path and help match their studies with research opportunities and careers.

The culture at WashU, both on and off campus, was also enticing to me. Nancy described a huge number of clubs, including disney a cappella groups, swing dance teams, theater productions for non-majors, and various orchestras and jazz bands that caught my attention. All of the students are given free metro cards, which gives them access to tons of parks, zoos, museums, shops, and restaurants in the St. Louis area. According to the panel of students, class sizes are generally small and only a few of the most impacted classes are taught by TA's. Students are generally supportive of each other, and staff are passionate and willing to help. The panelists agreed that ultimately, you get out of the WashU community what you put into it.

Leaving St. Louis by train
There was more information than this, but since I'm sure I've lost some of you already with all this gritty detail. I'll cut it off here. The point is, so many things about Washington matched up with my criteria for a school: diversity, interdisciplinary opportunities and an emphasis on exploration, personal connections with professors and counselors, balance of tight knit community and breadth of opportunity, many clubs and activities on campus as well as a vibrant surrounding culture, a supportive and collaborative student culture, opportunities for research, service, and study abroad. And there were even some programs that seemed very appropriate for me that I hadn't really considered before. My perspective was definitely changed, and I was thankful for it.

After WashU, Ms.Scott informed us that the walking tour was not the only thing cancelled due to the storm. Our flight to Chicago had also been cancelled. So, after an unfortunately unimpressive lunch at the WashU dining hall, we got our stuff from the hotel to head to the train station. Goodbye St. Louis, and HELLO CHICAGO! Our evening in Chicago was relatively mellow, with a long cab ride to the hotel and dinner at a nearby Asian Fusion restaurant. Overall, a few minor ups and downs but an important day for learning on this trip.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoying your blog. Feels like being with you. Hugs and kisses