East Coast Campus Visits Part I: Places and People

The landmark Nassau Hall at Princeton University, which famously was the capitol of the fledgling US government in the waning months of the Revolutionary War.

The Fitbit monitor read 20,805 steps. It was one very full day of walking – walking to subway stops, through train stations, around university campuses, down the streets of Manhattan, and walking, at long last, down the long corridor to our hotel room, flopping down, exhausted, to recount with my colleague Kate Knight the three very different universities we visited that day: Princeton, NYU, and Parsons School of Design/The New School. No more diverse a set of school tours could have been lined up for us, representing the traditional, the contemporary and the innovative; each school excels in its own way, but very obviously attracts a different range of student types.

In late April, my fellow university counsellor and I travelled to the east coast, visiting 15 schools in the US and Canada in 8 days. (This post focuses on the American universities. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks for Part II, which covers our visit to Canadian schools.) Our goal was to get better acquainted with institutions – their programs, campuses, staff and students – to better assist students as they look toward post-secondary life.

Following that busy three-campus day in New York City, we enjoyed time on subsequent days touring the campuses of Columbia University, Barnard College, Fordham University (Lincoln Center campus); venturing by car a little farther afield, we also toured Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY) and Yale (New Haven, CT) campuses as well.

So, what did we learn from our visit to these eight diverse universities? More importantly, what did we learn from a campus visit that would not necessarily be evident from the school’s website? Visiting schools provides important insight into the university experience, offering a chance to meet people and get a feel for the size and scope of the institution. A university or college is more than the programs it offers; it is also a product of its people and place. A visit allows you to get a sense of the campus in action by meeting people (current and former students, as well as faculty and staff), and seeing the physical and geographical environment of the school.

Just the contrast of the physical environments of the schools we visited helps narrow down an important aspect of college life: that is, on what kind of campus do you see yourself thriving? Do you like a small-town, dedicated campus with that traditional collegiate feel? Then schools like Princeton, Yale and Vassar would appeal to you. Both Princeton and Yale are larger campuses than Vassar (which hosts about 2,500 undergraduate students), but all three provide that sense of a campus set apart and steeped in tradition. Columbia University and the adjacent women’s college, Barnard, give you both: a more traditional collegiate-style campus but nestled in the Upper West Side of Manhattan (you get the big city AND the distinct campus!). Fordham University offers two separate campus experiences: its leafy college campus is set in the Bronx (about 40 minutes by public transit north of Manhattan), or the downtown urban feel of its Lincoln Center campus. This campus is just blocks from Central Park, and it exudes a strong sense of connection to its lively urban surroundings.

Then there’s NYU, a humming downtown urban campus that sits on three sides of Washington Park in Lower Manhattan. Neighbour to Greenwich Village, Little Italy, SoHo, and Chelsea, the NYU campus could not be more quintessentially New York. From high-rise towers housing classrooms, lecture halls, libraries and university services, to the Washington Mews, a quaint oasis on an old street that hosts the International Houses and Institutes, the NYU campus radiates energy and opportunity, as you would expect of any university with 55,000-plus students.

Too big, too overwhelming for you, but you still want the buzz of the urban campus? Walk north about six blocks to the campus of Parsons School of Design/The New School. This innovative institution (established in 1919) is an amalgamation of specialist schools offering arts, design, media, music, liberal arts, international affairs and management programs. It is still very much an urban school, with its buildings nestled around the intersection of 6th Avenue and 12th Street in Lower Manhattan, including the spectacular new University Center. Parsons School of Design/The New School definitely has a vibe that combines academic pursuit with a progressive spirit, and at just under 7,000 undergraduates, it is a smaller community for undergraduates to navigate.

At each of these institutions we met current students and admissions advisors to hear about their experiences and perspectives. In each case, we were reminded that a successful university experience is about people first. You can have great programs and a top-notch campus, but without an engaging, dedicated, welcoming faculty and staff and a vibrant student body, a school has no life, no matter what the brochures and websites tell you. If you get the chance, visit a few schools and you’ll see what I mean.

(photos by Ruth McGhee and Kate Knight)

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Ruth McGhee
Ruth McGhee is a University Counsellor at St. Michaels University School.

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