Geology and hydrology professor Martin Knoll drives a van full of students from Sewanee—University of the South past the campus equestrian center, off the main road, into a pre-selected site in the woods. There, students spike the ground with javelin-like equipment and other tools to map water tables for an afternoon lab class on the Cumberland Plateau in central Tennessee.
The woods represent just a fraction of the university's immense 13,000-acre property, known as "the Domain." It encompasses a number of lakes and caves, a golf course, and a 20-mile walking trail that bounds the area.
Located about 90 miles from Nashville and 50 from Chattanooga, Sewanee's "downtown" is so modest it requires only one traffic light. "We're in the middle of nowhere, but there's always something going on here," says senior Watson Hartsoe, of Maryville, Tenn.
Much of that activity revolves around the Greek system. About two thirds of students are members of the 12 fraternities and 9 sororities (mostly nonresidential), which often host events open to everyone.
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The campus movie theater screens recent films, and students can choose from about 100 clubs and activities, including a campus radio station, theater and arts groups, and sports and recreation leagues. The Sewanee Outing Program organizes hiking, biking, caving, and other trips around the Domain and the region. It also offers free gear to borrow.
For the civic-minded, the university helps operate a largely student-staffed volunteer fire department and emergency medical service.
Nearly all undergrads live in the mostly coed residence halls, some of which have themes, such as the environmentally active Green House (complete with chicken coop). The student housing is interspersed among the Gothic sandstone and limestone university buildings and ornate chapels that reflect the school's owners, 28 Southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Though about 30 percent of students identify themselves as Episcopalian, faith isn't strongly emphasized outside of certain clubs, the religion department, and the small graduate school of theology.
The bulk of the private institution's 1,500 undergraduates come from the South, but students of all faiths and geographic backgrounds are welcome. "It's broad enough that it aims to include anyone," says Jonathan Brenes Salazar, a senior from Monteverde, Costa Rica.
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In the classroom, Sewanee students immerse themselves in the school's traditional liberal arts curriculum, which includes some minors and preprofessional programs in business, education, and medical and health professions. Academic programs in environmental studies, forestry, and other sciences are able to tap into Sewanee's lush surroundings. Writing is strongly emphasized for all undergrads.
For the most part, Sewanee students are proud of their university's blend of tradition and eccentricity. Many students dress up for class; coats and ties or collared shirts are common for men, as are sundresses, pants, or skirts for women. The whole campus abides by an honor code, and students can sometimes take unproctored exams or leave property around without fear of theft.
Top students can earn a place in the Order of Gownsmen, a governing body and honor society whose members are distinguished by a black academic robe they can wear on campus. "I feel like Harry Potter sometimes," says recent graduate Gracie Becker, of Austin, Texas.
In 2011, Sewanee cut its tuition, fees, room, and board costs by 10 percent, and offers a guaranteed unchanging rate for all incoming students for four years. For students entering in fall 2012, tuition and fees run about $34,700, with another $9,900 for room and board.
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