One of the landmarks on the campus of Northwestern University is "The Rock." It's a hunk of sediment, a gift from the Class of 1902, that students paint and use as a billboard to advertise events and share opinions and jokes. Painting the rock is so popular that students must camp out overnight to claim it.
"I don't think that rock has ever seen the light of day," a student recently told a group of visitors, who got a chuckle out of the latest advertisement on it. The rock had been painted to look like a soccer ball—an attempt by a group of rabid soccer fans to draw attention to the World Cup in South Africa.
Painting the rock is one of several long-standing traditions at Northwestern. Others include throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field on NU Day; a ski trip that draws more than 1,000 students to the slopes during winter break; a Halloween chemistry show in which a professor in costume demonstrates chemical reactions set to music and lights; and Armadillo Day, or Dillo Day, an all-day concert festival along Lake Michigan two weekends before exams. Each tradition serves its own purpose. But collectively, they show the spirit and sense of humor of an otherwise studious undergraduate student body.
"It is a work hard, play hard environment," says Maxwell Hayman, a senior majoring in political science. "If you're in the library all day long, then there is something really wrong with you."
Located along the shore of Lake Michigan, about 12 miles north of downtown Chicago, the main campus in Evanston, Ill., is home to about 16,000 graduate and undergraduate students, split almost evenly. The university follows the 10-week academic quarter system, so students can find themselves constantly writing papers and studying for exams. Freshmen rarely venture into Chicago.
Northwestern can afford to be very selective, and one complaint heard on campus revolves around the amount of debt some students rack up. "We haven't found the school to be very generous with financial aid," says Taryn Tawoda, a sophomore who is majoring in journalism and history and says she will graduate with a "huge tuition bill." But Tawoda reaches the same conclusion as other students do: "It's worth it," she says.
Students cherish the individual attention they get from professors, and they appreciate the fact that professors also act as their academic advisers. For Hayman, the best part about being at Northwestern is meeting students with diverse interests, from aspiring actors studying at the theater school to students in the journalism school training to be television sports broadcasters.
"Your closest friends are people who come here because they are really passionate about something, and that becomes sort of an infectious energy that you end up catching," says Hayman.
He would know. He left Northwestern for another school, in Massachusetts—and then came back.
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Plus factor: The school's dance marathon, which raised $917,000 for charity this year, is one of the world's largest student-run philanthropies.
Undergrad enrollment, fall '08: 8,476
Est. annual cost, 2009-10: $50,164
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