Sure, we all know that Carleton is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. But too often, Midwestern modesty keeps us from blowing our own horn. It’s time that changed. We are one awesome college. Say it loud. Say it proud. Here are some things that make Carleton
All in This Together
Gather 2,000 high-achieving students from across the country and the world, set them on a residential campus in rural Minnesota, and there won’t be a single scrap? No Gretzky-style “dropping of the gloves” over whose science experiment yielded the best results? Nope. Everyone plays on the same team at Carleton.
In fact, Carleton’s supportive academic environment stands out among its peer institutions. Dean of Students Hudlin Wagner often fields phone calls from colleagues at other institutions who want to know how we’re able to forge such collaborative partnerships among students. “A competitive environment is common among some top liberal arts colleges, where students who were the academic and social leaders of their high schools may have been conditioned to be competitive in order to gain admittance to a highly selective college,” says Wagner. “At Carleton that pressure fades away.
“There is an unspoken core value that Carleton students work together as a community. There’s never one-upmanship over who earned the highest grade. More likely, you’ll find students forming study groups and helping one another learn.”
This collaborative spirit extends to Carleton’s residential life. Wagner appreciates students’ community-based approach to problem solving that doesn’t bog down in a war against the administration. “Students often initiate town hall–style meetings around issues such as race, ethnicity, and gender,” she says. “And they feel free to articulate what’s in their hearts with the expectation that everyone is there to reach a solution through tolerance and understanding.”
“You can’t take a cryostat to the coffee shop,” says physics professor Melissa Eblen-Zayas. Indeed, it would be impossible to haul such a space-age refrigerator (used to maintain the low temperatures of certain lab samples) to Starbucks. “There’s no equivalent to place-based student/faculty research in an online world,” she adds.
Many small liberal arts colleges highlight student/faculty research opportunities, but not all allow any student, regardless of class year and ranking, to participate. Eblen-Zayas has had students work in her physics lab as early as the fall term of their first year. “We welcome students from all backgrounds,” she says. “If they’re interested, everyone has an opportunity to get involved, gain skills, and test out what research is like. Students are equal collaborators. They don’t play a supporting role for graduate students, as they often do at research universities.”
Eblen-Zayas says collaborating with students is one of her favorite aspects of teaching. “You get to harness students’ natural curiosity and share with them your own questions about the work. It’s fun to explore it together, as partners,” she says. It doesn’t always make the research go faster, but it’s hard to say whether that’s a result of working with students or of working with those shifty colossal magnetoresistive compounds.
“There’s always chaos in the lab,” says Eblen-Zayas. “Sometimes it’s because of human error, but more often than not it’s because of scientific surprises.”
Go for Three
Carleton is the only top-ranked college still on a trimester system, and that system is key to many of our advantages. Paul Thiboutot, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, talks about Carleton’s devotion to trimesters with the same zeal as a knife salesman at a county fair.
“Picture this: You’re a first-year student. You’re not sure what to major in, but you’ve thought about English. So you take an English course fall term. At the end of it, you say: ‘What was I thinking?’ So winter term you try sociology. In that class, you read William Foote Whyte’s ethnography from the 1940s, Street Corner Society, and you say: ‘Oh my God. I don’t want to study this boring stuff.’ Spring term your roommate recommends an introductory geology course, and suddenly you’re hooked on rocks. Guess what? You just explored three major areas in your first year, and you can do that through three more terms your second year before you declare a major.
“Now let’s imagine you’ve chosen the building block of all majors, which is chemistry. Chemistry majors at all schools have to take four courses no matter what: intro, structures or elements, and two courses in organic. In a semester system, it will take you at least two years. At Carleton, you can do it in one year and move on to electives.
“But wait! The trimester allows faculty members to develop off-campus study programs that last just one term. As a result, Carleton has one of the highest percentages among national liberal arts colleges of students who study abroad.
“I’m not done yet! At Carleton, classes start after Labor Day and end at Thanksgiving. Students have the entire month of December off. Folks ask, ‘What do they do with that time?’ Anything they want. Students can do short-term internships or work on research projects. Athletes may stay on campus for training. History professor Harry Williams extends his fall term African American history class for three weeks after Thanksgiving to take students to Ghana.
“As you can see, there are many ways the trimester system makes Carleton unique. Are you sold?”
When it comes to sustainability, Carleton has become an expert for other colleges, government offices, and businesses. Macalester, St. Olaf, the City of Northfield, Just Food Co-op, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have consulted with Martha Larson, Carleton’s manager of campus energy and sustainability, and her team of student assistants to find out how Carleton got so green. In addition to the college’s two wind turbines, Larson is especially proud of these two recent initiatives.
Waste Management Program
“Sustainability assistant Courtney Dufford ’14 (Stockton, Ill.) conducted a yearlong pilot program to place compost receptacles in academic buildings. Previously they were located only in the dining halls. She consolidated the three waste streams—compost, recycling, and trash for landfills—into one location per floor. The pilot program was so successful that we implemented the tri-section waste receptacles campus wide. The receptacles tidy up our hallways, reduce contamination between compost, recycling, and trash streams, and rebrand trash as landfill.”
Local Food/Carleton Farm
“Thanks to student-initiated improvements, in summer 2012 the 1.5-acre student-run Carleton Farm plot produced more than 6,000 pounds of produce for direct use in our dining halls and earned sales of nearly $16,000. Food service provider Bon Appétit purchases the produce from our student farmers, who use the earnings to fund stipends for the following year’s farm internships and operating costs. In addition to supplying fresh food and reducing transportation costs, our farm raises awareness on campus of the benefits of eating locally. Students feel a connection to the small agricultural town in which they live.”
Big Ideas, Small World
The Bald Spot isn’t exactly the crossroads of the world, but increasingly it’s a place where international perspectives matter. Nearly a century ago, President Donald Cowling argued that the future of the liberal arts must include broader engagement with the international world. Since then, the college has made concerted efforts to attract and retain international students.
This year, 172 degree-seeking international students from 38 countries are on campus. And an astonishing 71 percent of all Carleton students participate in at least one international off-campus study program, making Carleton a leader among its peers in study-abroad participation.
What’s more, Carleton develops and organizes more than 30 faculty-led international programs. “If we know what group will be going to Peru or France, we can organize preparatory classes for them in advance,” says French professor Scott Carpenter, who is codirector of the college’s Global Engagement Initiative and recently led a program in Paris and Madrid.
The college is exploring ways to expand such education into post-trip mini courses that would allow students to apply their off-campus experiences to on-campus studies. But already, global perspectives are woven throughout the curriculum at Carleton and enhanced by bringing such internationally renowned speakers to campus as writer Salman Rushdie and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad.
“Global is increasingly connected to local,” says Carpenter, who notes that many students participate in nearby service projects that require Spanish skills or involve working with immigrants from Laos or Somalia. “Those are global connections that we deal with locally on a daily basis.”
College to Career
Everywhere, it seems, people are questioning whether a liberal arts education adequately prepares graduates to enter the workforce. But in the face of this heat, Carleton stays cool.
“We have no doubt that a Carleton education is completely worth it,” says Kim Betz ’91, director of the college’s Career Center. “We’re not going to change who we are or what we do. We have, however, made a commitment to help students transition successfully from college to career.”
It’s a bold statement enforced by key players. Betz introduces us to the Career Center’s brute squad.
The Institution: “A central focus of President Steve Poskanzer’s strategic plan is a commitment to preparing students for fulfilling lives and careers postgraduation. The college has committed resources to programs that help students prepare for their future. This includes, for example, the Pathways initiative that maps out opportunities—classes, extracurricular activities, internships, and alumni connections—for students who have an interest in a particular field.”
Alumni: “Carleton alumni are uniquely committed to current students when it comes to career preparation. They serve as mentors and provide informational interviews. Today, employers don’t ask, ‘Did you do an internship?’ they ask ‘How many?’ Some alumni provide internships or serve as hosts so students can accept internships in other cities. Others provide funds that permit students to accept unpaid internships during the summer when they might otherwise need to work at paid jobs.”
Curriculum: “Students have come in to the Career Center worried that they haven’t done anything résumé-worthy, and we discover that they’ve launched a major community initiative as part of a class project. Faculty members also help students obtain internships and
explore career opportunities. They frequently connect students to Carleton alumni who can offer career insight and resources.”
Value of the Liberal Arts:
The Examined Life
In 2011 the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses rocked the academic world with its claim that a college degree isn’t worth the cost and time it takes to receive one. The authors analyzed survey responses, transcript data, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester and again at the end of their second year. They found that students demonstrated no significant improvement in a range of skills, particularly those promoted by liberal arts institutions, including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.
But Carleton students were an exception. “We participated in the study, and our students’ performance was extraordinary,” says Beverly Nagel ’75, dean of the college.
So what’s our secret? All of our distinctive traits work together to create what Nagel terms an intellectual adventure. “Most students don’t come to Carleton on a specific career path,” she says. “They arrive with a curiosity and an eagerness to experiment, which is encouraged by their professors and peers.”
This sense of adventure is built directly into Carleton’s structure. The academic calendar accommodates study abroad, internships, and even a few changes in major. Carleton’s supportive environment, often cited as “collaborative versus competitive,” enables students to take risks without fear of failure or judgment. A holistic system of advising ensures that students receive support from a variety of sources that help them make connections between their academic, social, extracurricular, and career pursuits. At Carleton, students develop skills that prepare them for whatever life they seek and for careers that we can’t even envision.
Phoebe Larson (St. Paul) and Joel Hoekstra (Minneapolis) are freelance writers and editors whose work often appears in the Voice.
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