Last year, Whitman College junior David McGaughey spent his fall semester sleeping under the stars, talking with biologists and ranchers about the reintroduction of wolves into the western United States, and studying other environmental issues—all while earning academic credit.
McGaughey, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was one of 21 students who participated in Whitman's Semester in the West program, a 14-week field immersion course led by one professor and two assistants. The students traversed 10 states, bonding with one another and their instructors as they learned and wrote about how scientific and political concerns affect environmental policy.
That kind of multifaceted experience is just one distinctive aspect of Whitman, a private college of roughly 1,500 undergraduates in Walla Walla, Wash. The city's quaint downtown gives way to the charm of the school's campus. Red-brick dormitories and other university buildings surround Ankeny Field, the sprawling green at the center of campus.
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The school attracts more women than men (at about a 58 to 42 ratio) and nearly two thirds come from out of state. The cost (tuition, fees, room, and board can run about $50,000) is fairly typical for a traditional private liberal arts education.
All first year students must enroll in a year-long "Encounters" course, which combines a foundational writing class with a cultural survey of texts from Euripides and the Bhagavad Gita to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Taught by more than two dozen faculty members, Encounters is designed to give students a "shared intellectual space" that they can refer back to in later classes, says Rebecca Hanrahan, associate professor of philosophy and director of the course.
Undergraduates can later pick from about 45 different majors and 31 minors, as well as a fair number of electives. Each major culminates with a "senior assessment," which could take the form of a thesis, test, project, or oral exam. "Students work very hard, but not to the point where they don't have a life," says 2011 graduate Gary Wang of Plano, Texas.
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Most students live in residence halls, but even those who find housing in town tend to stay involved with campus life. Intramural sports are popular and many students participate in drama productions at the school's Harper Joy Theatre. Debating is also a hot activity at Whitman, which generally excels in national competitions.
Though there are several campus fraternities and sororities, many Whitties see them as just another extracurricular option, not the guiding social force on campus. In fact, the challenge is more in choosing what to focus on. "Everybody wants to put their toes in a hundred different things," says Derek Thurber of Fort Collins, Colo., who graduated this past May.
Some students say Whitman can feel a little isolated in eastern Washington. Yet undergraduates rarely seem at a loss for something to do. The campus always seems in motion, particularly on sunny afternoons, when Whitties take to Ankeny Field for games of lacrosse, volleyball, Frisbee, and soccer.
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