Warren Wilson College News

The New York Times Profiles WWC

Contact: Ben Anderson

Blue-Collar JobsComplement Liberal Arts Courses

From the New York Times

By Jacques Steinberg

 

 

When her beeper went off on a Friday night last November, Clair Jenne, an art student, was in a studio here at Warren Wilson College, applying charcoal to a giant canvas depicting the central female relationships in her life.

Ms. Jenne, a 23-year-old senior from Chapel Hill, dropped her pencils and walked briskly through the Blue Ridge mountain air to the front door of the campus building to which she had been summoned by campus security. There, she pulled out her tools and delicately picked the lock, so that a security officer, who did not have a key, could get in. She then returned to her senior art project.

It was a typical evening at Warren Wilson College, where Ms. Jenne is both an exhibited artist and the campus locksmith, and where she and each of the 679 other students are required to work at least 15 hours a week for four years as a condition of obtaining a degree in the liberal arts.

Over the last decade, the emphasis on community service has grown exponentially on college campuses across the country, as well as at elementary, middle and high schools. But few colleges have taken the step of requiring service for all — afraid, no doubt, that they would lose applicants, said Douglas M. Orr Jr., the president of Warren Wilson.

Unlike other universities, where students on financial aid work in the cafeteria and library, Warren Wilson also has students doubling as the campus garbage collectors, plumbers, electricians, custodians, security officers, mechanics and landscapers, regardless of family income.

Indeed, other than the president, the professors and several deans, the students are virtually the only employees on the payroll at Warren Wilson. And it has been that way since 1894, when the college was founded by Presbyterian missionaries for poor boys from Appalachia.

Though its niche in the academy may be offbeat, Warren Wilson is not alone. Six other small liberal arts colleges require all students to work on campus; the latest is Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vt., which instituted a work requirement last year. An eighth college, Knoxville, in Tennessee, is also weighing it.

As at those other so-called work colleges, administrators at Warren Wilson say their primary motivation is to combine a rigorous academic curriculum emphasizing English and science with life lessons. Students at Warren Wilson talk a lot about how the work of even one individual contributes something to society, about the importance of treating everyone equally and about the pride that is instilled by learning a trade or doing a menial but valuable task.

And students and professors say that timeless skills have a new importance in a fast-paced information age. Applications to Warren Wilson, and to other work colleges, have been rising steadily in recent years.

”Everybody’s got these things that they do in life that give them a sense of identity,” said Ms. Jenne, whose father is an assistant director of a political institute at the University of North Carolina and whose mother oversees a nursery school at a research center.

”I see myself as an artist and a locksmith, and here I can be both,” she said. ”I think a liberal arts education is less about learning how to do what you’re going to do in the world, and more about learning how to learn.”

On a recent below-zero morning, the three students riding a beat-up pickup truck to collect garbage were two prospective elementary school teachers and an aspiring journalist. Later, a 20-year-old prelaw student lay in a puddle of water beneath the sink in an old science lab, disconnecting the pipes. Above her, a 21-year-old senior disassembled the electrical wires from a wall-mounted fan.

As they work on their teams, known as crews, the students are supervised by licensed tradespeople who pick up a hammer or wrench only for purposes of instruction.

Overseeing all 111 crews is an administrator known, in all seriousness, as the dean of work.

He is Ian Robertson, a native of England, whose college major was pig husbandry and who was hired at Warren Wilson 19 years ago to supervise the campus garden.

It is Mr. Robertson who must encourage students who do not get the assignments of their choice to stick with the program. Seniors, who get first pick, usually snap up jobs on the campus farm or as landscapers; freshmen often wash dishes.

For some, there is a financial incentive. The annual tuition, room and board at Warren Wilson (after student salaries) cost $15,572, half as much as at some other private colleges. Warren Wilson, with a modest endowment of $31 million, saves as well, because everyone is paid the same: minimum wage.

Though almost none of the students enter these temporary trades, most describe a deep, newfound kinship with blue-collar workers.

When Kari Christin, 19, a freshman from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who collects garbage on campus, returned home for Christmas break, she said she looked for the sanitation workers on her block to give them cookies.

”I tell my friends at home I’m a garbage man, and they just sort of laugh,” Ms. Christin said.

Warren Wilson College, named for a 19th-century minister, no longer has a formal religious affiliation and now draws students from 45 states and many backgrounds. Applications have nearly doubled over the last decade, and the average College Board score is a respectable 1,149 out of a possible 1,600.

So that applicants know what’s in store, the cover of the catalog blares, ”We’re not for everyone.” Even so, about 30 percent of students transfer or drop out after freshman year — the national average for four-year colleges is 16 percent.

”Parents love the work program,” Mr. Orr says. ”Not every 18-year-old is ready to make that commitment.”

 

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