Warren Wilson College News

USA Today Profiles WWC

Contact: Ben Anderson

At this school, work is par for the course
By Mary Beth Marklein
Mon., May 18, 1998
Section: LIFE
Page 6D

SWANNANOA, N.C. — Like 63% of college students nationwide, Angela Meek works during the school year to help pay the bills. But unlike most students, the pre-vet major also gets graded on her work, which gets her out of bed at 8 every morning and which this day involves pulling a stillborn calf from its mother.

Work, she says, is “what brought me here.”

You’re bound to get a similar answer from other students at Warren Wilson College, where one campus joke says the letters WWC stand not for the school’s initials but for “We Work Constantly.”

Actually, students put in just 15 hours a week, but work is as central as academics at Warren Wilson, one of a handful of “work” colleges in the USA, so called because students are required to work, usually in exchange for some college expenses. Though each is unique, they share a philosophy that the experience of work can add up to more than a line on the resume or a way to pay for college. That also is reflected in Warren Wilson’s 35-year-old requirement that students perform community service, the third piece of a “triad” design blending academics, work and service.

“Work and service help prepare you for what it takes to build a community, to be a member rather than just a spectator in your own village,” says Ian Robertson, Warren Wilson’s dean of work.

Work may be a focus, but this is no button-down school. A commune-like culture pervades the 1,100-acre enclave just outside Asheville. Nearly all of the 650 students and about a third of the 125 full-time faculty and staff live on campus, which, in addition to a 300-acre farm, houses a food co-op, organic gardens and 25 miles of hiking trails.

Students, assigned this semester to one of 97 crews, have a hand in pretty much everything, whether baking bread, cleaning carpets, or fixing computers. Upper-level students tend to land the choicer slots, but everyone gets paid the same: $2,472 this year, which helps defray room and board.

Founded in 1894 by the Presbyterian Church to give poor boys from the Appalachian Mountains an education in exchange for work, Warren Wilson still provides financial aid to about 70% of students. But the common bond in 1998 is neither religion, income level nor ties to the region.

Rather, what brings these students together is what sets them apart. There’s no football team here. Students don’t join fraternities or sororities. They have joined a national Free Burma coalition, and 18 students were once thrown in jail for protesting at a U.S. Army facility. Few, if any, were even remotely interested in sitting on a high school prom court, and the closest thing to cheerleading would be when the drumming club plays at soccer games. As Joshua Schwartz, an environmental education major who worked on the entertainment crew, puts it, “I definitely march to a different drummer.”

The college catalog is careful to stress that Warren Wilson is not for everyone. First-year students expecting to get drunk a lot soon discover they can’t juggle that along with a demanding schedule of courses, community service and work. Yes, students party, but if you have to work the next morning, “you either know your limit or learn your limit,” says Eli Helbert, a heating/air conditioning crew member who just graduated with a degree in economics and political science.

Even students attracted to Warren Wilson’s nontraditional work philosophy and atypical student body may not stick around. While applications are increasing, retention remains the school’s Achilles’ heel, with an average 35% of freshmen over the last 10 years not returning as sophomores.

“We get a lot of seekers, searchers who are actively trying to define their life’s journey,” says president Douglas Orr. Even so, Orr relishes the school’s reputation as a magnet for idealistic, independent students who are passionate about their beliefs. But it is a mixed blessing, he acknowledges. “We go through lengthy discussions every time we add a dorm or take out a tree,” he says.

One ongoing concern centers on Orr’s plan, launched in 1991, to increase the student body from 450 to 800 by 2003. Already, some students fear the campus is losing its intimacy, but Orr says that, with more students, he could hire more faculty, pay them better and offer more upper-level courses — all without increasing tuition.

While some students don’t object, others say the policy has changed without their input, and about 150 students boycotted classes and skipped work in 1996 to protest.

The student body has continued to grow, and the issue is still a bit of a sore point. But Orr says students deserve to air their grievances, and he credits the work program with developing in students that sense of commitment.

“Because of the work, students take a real interest in the campus,” he says. “The most deadening thing in education is apathy. That’s not a major problem at Warren Wilson.”

©COPYRIGHT 1997 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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