Contact: Ben Anderson
A College That Isn’t For Everyone
By Michael Kenney, Globe Staff
SWANNANOA, N.C. -
There’s an admissions department ”open house” at Warren Wilson College on a midsummer morning and as the hundred or so high school students and their parents gather in the college’s theater, up on stage three folk musicians are playing
Their instruments – a guitar, a banjo, and a mountain dulcimer – sound appropriate for the location high in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the folk songs have an aim-for-the-heights air appropriate for the occasion.
But to the youngsters, it’s just three middle-aged folks filling up time before the pep talks and the campus tours begin.
That is, until the guitar player stands up, steps to the microphone, and introduces himself – ”I’m Douglas Orr, and it’s my privilege to serve as president of this college.”
Mouths open, eyes widen, and kids sit up and take notice. This clearly is not your usual college – a point that Warren Wilson College underscores in its admission brochure pitch: ”We’re not for everyone – but then, maybe you’re not everyone.”
And it’s a point that quickly becomes clear to a visitor to the college – as I was as a participant in one of the Swannanoa Gathering music camps held every summer at the college.
On paper and with its setting, Warren Wilson could double for any small upcounty New England college, a Middlebury or a Williams, perhaps.
Founded in 1894 by Presbyterian missionaries as a farm school for mountain youth, Warren Wilson still retains – and acts upon – a firm belief in the importance of the work ethic, even as it has been transformed into a four-year liberal arts college.
Enrollment this year is 728 – 457 women and 271 men – as the school moves toward a goal of about 800 students by the fall of 2003.
For whatever annual college rankings may mean, US News & World Report ranks Warren Wilson among the best regional liberal arts colleges in the South, while Time magazine has rated it as one of the 20 prettiest campuses in the country.
It offers bachelor’s degree programs in most of the standard academic fields – English and history, biology and chemistry, business and mathematics, education and psychology – but its majors also include environmental studies and there are minors in Appalachian studies and outdoor leadership, with the North Carolina Outward Bound School located on the campus.
Warren Wilson also offers a master of fine arts in creative writing, which brings writers to the campus for two weeks in the summers.
For all its apparent emphasis on its mountain region, students are guaranteed as part of their tuition a trip abroad at the end of their junior year. There is also a special pre-Peace Corps program of study from which an average of a half-dozen students a year join the program after graduation, one of the highest percentages of any college.
But the one thing that sets Warren Wilson College apart from the small colleges it might seem to resemble is the 15-hours-a-week of work required of all students – work which does not mean the usual run of campus jobs doing research for faculty members, shelving books in libraries, working in dining halls, or on dorm crews.
At Warren Wilson, a campus job could mean landscaping or forestry, carpentry or construction, plumbing or vehicle maintenance, or working on the college’s organic farm.
It’s a requirement shared by very few American colleges, mostly notably, Berea College in eastern Kentucky – to which many Warren Wilson students used to transfer before it became a four-year school in 1967.
On the practical side, Warren Wilson relies on its students to do just about everything on campus except teach courses and build new buildings – except that student crews do much of the site preparation work and all the post-construction landscaping. As Ian Robertson, probably the only academic administrator to carry the title ”dean of work,” puts it, ”if you don’t do the job, then who will?” A $2,472 credit for the work program goes toward room and board of $4,644. Tuition this year is $14,125.
But beyond that, a day spent wandering around the campus and talking to student workers reveals a sense of pride in something more tangible than an academic accomplishment.
As Stephanie Anderson, a landscaping supervisor put it – after climbing down from the backhoe she’d driven up from a work site – ”every hole that has to be filled on a construction site, we fill. And any drainage ditches or pathways that need to be built, we build them.” And stepping away from the mower she was running, Priya Thakkar pointed out features of the formal garden that she and a student crew laid out and planted on the once-a-year all-college work day, a day in April when classes are cancelled so that all students – and faculty – are available to work on major projects.
”There are so many students working,” she said, ”there’s no way anything can be unacceptable, because it’s for us that we’re doing it.” There is a possible downside to the work program that is reflected in college’s chronically low retention rate of 63 percent. ”The work program may be a factor,” said college spokesman Ben Anderson, ”but we can’t separate it out” from another possible factor, the requirement that students must perform 100 hours of community service during their four years – and those two factors on top of the academic requirements.
While not a factor, but a consideration, Anderson noted, is that Warren Wilson ”attracts a large percentage of searchers and seekers.” And that comment finds an echo in a remark by college president Orr.
Not surprisingly the reference point was music, considering Orr’s music-making at the admissions open house – and the fact that he may be the only college president who does gigs, not as often as when he had a folk band while at the University of North Carolina, but at least on occasion.
”The experience of playing music,” Orr said, ”is about living – and about taking risks.” Which neatly summarizes the Warren Wilson approach to learning.
This story ran on page C05 of the Boston Globe on 9/24/2000.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.