Southern California Road Trip: UC-San Diego

By + More

You're about to spend four years of your life on a college campus; you need to make sure it feels right. So hit the road—we did! We took three typical road trips: East Coast, West Coast, and in between. By the way, college visits don't have to mean hours on the interstate. Use our Directory to locate schools near you and walk through the gates. You may find what you're looking for.

Surfing and scientific research go hand in hand for students like Nick Ward. During his first two years living on campus at UC-San Diego, Ward logged many hours surfing, often between classes—the beach is so close that you can spot people walking to class towing surfboards. Now, as a fourth-year student, Ward takes classes at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography and conducts experiments in laboratories that are merely footsteps from the water. "If you like the ocean, there's no better place to be than UCSD," he says.

This year, there were only 19 undergraduates in Scripps's new earth science program. The major is ideal for students who want the combination of small classes and intimate contact with professors as well as the resources of a big university. For example, Senior Dondra Biller says professors organize overnight camping trips that turn into memorable learning experiences (one professor melted marshmallows over a campfire to simulate the way lava flows out of volcanoes). "I guess that is one of the awesome aspects of having a small major— you know everyone," she says.

[Check out our California Road Trip Photo Gallery.]

Faculty members have taught undergraduate-level courses on the main campus in the past, but undergraduates at Scripps now take the bulk of their coursework at the institution and work alongside grad students in labs and aboard the school's fleet of research vessels. Randie Bundy, another senior majoring in earth science, spent part of a summer on a vessel off the coast of San Diego helping a geochemistry professor collect data to help answer questions about the effects of adding iron to the ocean to combat global warming. Bundy and other students see the experience as a big plus when they apply to grad school. The downside, according to some students: not many opportunities yet to specialize.

On the main UCSD campus, which is besieged by spindly eucalyptus trees (including a sculpture tree that talks), there is no shortage of things to do. One spring day, students gorged on Korean barbecue and other ethnic foods while watching rock bands perform outdoors.

Students in the biological sciences (the school's most popular undergraduate discipline) are in a clear majority—the hospitals, biotech companies, and other research institutions that surround the campus were a major draw when they applied as undergraduates. Lars Knutstad studies biochemistry and cell biology and works as an undergraduate research assistant for a professor who's studying crops that grow without exposure to sunlight. Knutstad says any student who shows some initiative and dedication can thrive on a big campus like UC-San Diego. "It's not the school that limits what you can do here," he says. "It's all about you making the most of the time you have here."

More About UC-San Diego

Plus factor: Faculty and alumni have spun off almost 250 local companies.
Undergrad enrollment, '07: 22,048
Est. annual cost, '08-'09 (tuition, fees, room and board): in state: $19,731; out of state: $32,277

Southern California Road Trip

More Road Trips