"You can get a taste of everything" at Occidental College, notes Katie Hulting, a senior biology major with a minor in Urban & Environmental Policy, of the 2,200-student private school.
In addition to community engagement-heavy classes through the college's multidisciplinary UEP program, Hulting has examined food programs between area farms and preschools; helped manage health services for a poverty relief organization in the San Fernando Valley; and taught health to high school students across Los Angeles County through the college's student Peer Health Exchange.
Like many of her fellow undergrads, she taps into the myriad LA connections available to students at Oxy, located in the up-and-coming northeast neighborhood of Eagle Rock and one of only a handful of liberal arts colleges in a major metropolitan area.
"There's a huge emphasis on making sure you're not just learning in this little vacuum of a liberal arts college," says recent graduate Katherine Carey.
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To that end, all first-years enroll in two small writing-intensive Cultural Studies Program seminars, and students must also take classes that focus on at least two countries or geographic regions outside the U.S.
Thirty-one majors and some additional minors are available, with economics, sociology, biology, and diplomacy and world affairs among the most popular.
All seniors complete "comps" in their fields, which might take the form of a project, thesis, exam or other capstone experience. Most at Oxy appreciate the college's small size – classes average about 18 students – which they say helps them easily build close relationships with professors and their peers.
The place is "very accepting, and definitely has a push for diversity," says recent graduate Charlotte Krovoza. Slightly more than half of all undergrads come from outside California – from 45 states and 25 countries – and close to 45 percent are Hispanic, African-American, Asian, international or of two or more races.
The student body tends to lean left politically, and activism is common. There are "always people fundraising for something," says Sarah Sterling, class of 2013.
A passion for sustainability, for instance, is evident in the student-initiated organic garden and the solar array on a campus hill, which generates slightly more than one-tenth of the college's power.
There is no shortage of activity at Oxy, where students can participate in more than 100 clubs and groups, including music and arts organizations such as the popular Dance Production, which plans an annual talent show; yoga and boxing clubs; campus TV and radio stations; and fraternities and sororities, which count slightly more than 10 percent of students as members.
Close to one-quarter of undergrads play for the Division III Tigers, who participate in 21 varsity sports.
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The cozy 120-acre campus features plenty of greenery and stately Palladian-style architecture, and the place has served as a college setting in dozens of films and TV series, such as "Clueless," "Arrested Development" and "NCIS."
The atmosphere doesn't feel urban, yet students have easy access to LA thanks to public transit, Zipcars, rental bikes and the college-operated Bengal Bus service. Having a car, though, is a major plus.
Students at Oxy must live on campus through their junior year, a requirement that irks some. Still, most enjoy the range of living options, which include traditional dorms and apartments as well as themed communities like the Pet House or the environment-conscious Food Justice House.
Some wish the campus offered more common space and dining options, but the school does cultivate a welcoming atmosphere. Freshmen live in the same residence halls as their cultural studies classmates, giving them a built-in network for that critical first year.
"You feel like you're in a home," says sophomore Josh Needleman. "You're not surrounded by strangers."
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This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.