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The Advantages of Attending a Small Liberal Arts College

It’s always fun to get mail.

The other day I received a note from the grandfather of one of my clients. He had just dropped off his granddaughter for her freshman year at the University of the South (Sewanee).  The grandfather had never been there before, and he participated in all the orientation activities for new students.  This letter was originally sent to the parents of my client, who were unable to attend the orientation.  As this note (which I have been given permission to reproduce below) indicates, he wasn’t really aware of how different the educational experience at a small college can be–in comparison with larger universities with which he is more familiar.

Rather than editorialize too much, I’ll just let this man’s observations communicate the ways in which a place like Sewanee (or any other similar institution) can be different…and make a difference.

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We were impressed with both sessions of “Parent’s Orientation”. The recurring motif was, “We look out for one another.” Sewanee is a small campus, the Dean told us, and as such, is transparent. It’s difficult to hide. Or misbehave. If a student is goofing off, cutting classes or taking drugs, everyone knows about it in a very short time. And the administration intervenes right away. The student gets a “Come and see me now” letter from the Dean, and a copy goes to the student’s parents. Same for academic problems: if student is cutting classes or struggling, she gets a letter from the Dean, with a copy to the parents. Before the Dean’s involvement, however, there are other remedies.

Above all, Sewanee is a community and each member is encouraged (and required) to contribute to its well-being. In short, they help one another out. Proctors and their assistants in the dorms are there to answer questions and offer advice and encouragement; professors invite students to supper in their homes (in fact, the University Provost, who shared a table with us at the Saturday evening picnic, invited your daughter to Thanksgiving dinner). Student/faculty discussion groups, prayer groups, extra-curricular groups, special interest groups meet weekly; that provides social contact and keeps loners from isolating. Sewanee keeps an eye on its students, going way beyond what large universities (Ohio State, Michigan State, U of Colorado in my experience) do to see to the welfare of their charges.

This atmosphere of camaraderie is emblazoned on the official Sewanee T-shirt: on the back, it reads, “On my own – but not alone.” The Sewanee motto says it all: Ecce quod bonum et quam iucundum habitare fratres in unum. That’s from the 133rd Psalm: “How good and joyful it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Your daughter is in good hands in a good and gorgeous setting.

[Lest you think I’m showing off by so facilely translating Latin, I copied it from the Sewanee glossary on its website: http://smith2/sewanee/edu/glassary/Glossary –Sewanee.html. The website has all sorts of interesting info, including the description of a small pond where the Sewanee birders hang out, and where you’ll find me the next time I visit].

In addition to the orientations calming parental unease, we learned two things of particular interest. First, the Study Abroad Program is very strong. Students can even attend classes offered by other colleges and universities and still receive Sewanee class credit. Plus, there is financial aid available so students can take advantage of this “transformational opportunity”.

Second, Sewanee alumni are actively involved with the students in a number of ways. They help students find internships (during the summer; also during the Christmas break) and get this: Sewanee has money to pay their internees if the company they’re interning with doesn’t do so (most don’t). Alumni also serve as mentors, helping students find their niche. They also help them find jobs after graduation. Students merely need to check with the on-campus alumni office, make a phone call and say, “Sewanee” to get connected. Sewanee is a tight bunch of folks, more than just “community”.

During his opening remarks, Dean Eric Hartman said Sewanee asks incoming students three questions and, during their four years on campus, helps them find answers. The questions:

Who am I?

What are my gifts?

What is my place in the world?

As the Dean pointed out, the question are apropos throughout life and the answers are always subject to change.

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Clearly the writer was impressed with the sort of education and community that a small college in a rural location can provide.  I was, too.  That’s why I recommended this college to my client.

Which college can I recommend for you?


Mark Montgomery
College Planner and Consultant



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  1. Having gone to a large research university, I think every high school student should seriously consider small liberal arts colleges.

    What I expected to find at my school were dedicated professors who had made a lifelong commitment to teaching. What I found were lifelong researchers who were contractually obligated to teach, and not too thrilled about it. Of course, there were exceptions, and some departments were much worse than others (I stopped taking math classes altogether because of the professors’ complete apathy).

    Learning is collaborative. Teachers should serve as mentors, not textbooks. It is great to hear about these proactive, caring professors at Sewanee. In a national university whose economy relies on research funding, those may be the exception rather than the norm.

  2. Hello, San, and thanks for your comments. It’s clear from your experience that many students do not really consider the ways in which the educational environment can be very different from one college to the next, and that size is one of the primary determinants in how educational services are delivered by various colleges. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

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