Warren Wilson College News

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From the Greenville News OPINION Sunday, Apr. 29, 2001

David Shi: Hard work an essential element of a Warren Wilson College education

 

There are over 3,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they pursue quite different missions. The diversity of American higher education is one of its greatest strengths.

One of the most distinctive American colleges is near Asheville. Nestled in the Swannanoa Valley, Warren Wilson College requires every student to hold a part-time campus job. And the jobs include much more than filing, answering phones or running errands.

The 750 students at Warren Wilson mow the grass, fix the plumbing, and operate tractors and bulldozers, chain saws and trucks. They tend the college fields and organic gardens, harvest the crops, and maintain herds of pigs and cattle. In fact, other than a few licensed mechanics, the students perform almost all of the tasks needed to operate the college. They collect the trash, paint buildings, and serve as electricians and security officers. They also coordinate the college’s Web page and help produce many of the college publications.

An often-recounted joke among the students at Warren Wilson College is that the letters WWC do not simply represent the school’s initials. They stand for "We Work Constantly."

Juniors and seniors garner the most desirable campus work assignments, such as managing the 300-acre organic farm, but every student worker is paid the same — about $2,500 a year, which is credited toward room and board.

"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, the "dean of work" at WWC. A native of England whose college major was pig husbandry, Robertson joined the private liberal arts college in 1980 as supervisor of the campus garden. "Work also builds pride among the students," he adds. "They take ownership in Warren Wilson because they have a stake in the school and are not just passing through for four years."

The major religious denominations founded many such "work" colleges during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Furman and Davidson. They were intended to give students from impoverished, mostly rural, backgrounds a chance to earn a college degree in exchange for their on-campus labor.

However, as economic conditions improved and endowments grew, most colleges abandoned their mandatory work programs and sold their herds. Along with Warren Wilson, only a half dozen other work-centered colleges have survived. Now, however, their holistic educational philosophy is attracting a growing number of students.

Warren Wilson College was initially called the Asheville Farm School, founded in 1895 and supported by Presbyterians. In 1942 it was renamed for Warren Hugh Wilson, a prominent Presbyterian missionary who focused on improving the quality of rural life.

Warren Wilson has no football or basketball team and no fraternities or sororities. Students focus instead on music, creative writing, contra dancing and outdoor recreation such as cycling, hiking, rock climbing and kayaking.

In addition to working 15 hours a week, WWC students are also required to participate in some form of community service. The result is what the college calls "the triad," a character-building blend of academics, labor and service that helps students develop a strong work ethic and an engaged sense of social responsibility.

At first glance, Warren Wilson looks like a typical small liberal arts college. Its stone and wood buildings are graced by beautiful grounds and gardens. With its mountain backdrop, the campus is one of the most scenic in the nation.

But a closer inspection reveals the peculiar texture and charm of WWC. Students dress in casual work clothes, and environmental studies is the most popular major. The college’s president, Douglas Orr, trained as a geographer, is an accomplished bluegrass musician, as is his wife, Darcy.

Warren Wilson College justifiably celebrates it distinctiveness. As its admissions material proclaims, "We’re not for everyone, but then maybe you’re not everyone."

David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University.

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