By Ethan Shaw, Class of 2015
On a mild Birmingham morning a couple of months ago, the Westminster Class of 2015 stood assembled in the upper parking lot to stuff themselves into two luggage-laden vans, the gateway to their future lying before them. Our four-day trip would include six colleges in three different states, along with quite a number of hours driving across the southeast. As the group embarked, the beacon of academic promise dispelled the shadows surrounding GPAs, ACT scores, financial needs, and the over-arching mystery of the college experience. No one could fear with the intrepid Mr. Herring and three dauntless chaperones as their guides; the exciting journey had officially begun.
At least, that is what an unsuspecting reader may be led to believe. Yet the story did slightly differ from this idealized vision. Campus after campus, questions abounded more and more in everyone’s heads. Ever-smiling admissions counselors, armed with excesses of college information and statistics, left many in a daze. The campuses themselves, on the other hand, sparked unique curiosity: the breathtaking view from Covenant’s Lookout Mountain, the gorgeous Swan Lake overlooked by Furman’s impressive bell tower, and the imposing Gothic facades of Berry’s Ford Complex offer a few examples. Each of these, in its own way, calls out clearly with a sense of home. The student’s difficult task, however, was to begin to discern which of these voices—if any—spoke most clearly to his or her mind. Do UGA’s multi-faceted research opportunities and student body of 26,000 seem most appealing? Or does Covenant’s intimate, isolated Christian learning community immediately strike a chord? Prospective students can find a vastness in the physical campus (take Berry’s fourteen-to-one acre to student ratio) just as easily as a vastness in the array of program opportunities at UGA or Vanderbilt. Slowly the realization arrived that the American college experience comes in just about any package one desires, with a spectrum that encompasses a multiplicity of options.
Some brief general takeaways from the campuses visited are as follows:
UGA (University of Georgia, Athens): a large campus with an urban feel. There is plenty of college tradition to go around between the historic black iron arch and chapel bell-ringing. Well-known programs exist in journalism, business, and agriculture.
FURMAN (Greenville, SC): a smaller yet beautifully manicured campus complete with a lake and lots of greenery. Furman stresses its liberal arts curriculum and close professor-student interaction. The dining hall was, on all counts, voted the best of those visited. The amazing city of Greenville is small yet vibrant, with a spectacular pedestrian river bridge.
BERRY (Rome, GA): 27,000 acres that comprise an outdoorsman’s wonderland. Students can mountain bike, hike, ride horses, and quite literally run with the deer all while on campus. Quaint and isolated “Mountain Campus” houses the WinShape Foundation’s retreat center and scholarship dorms. Berry capitalizes on the work-study experience. The school guarantees students paid jobs related to their major while on campus, while at the same time espousing a solid liberal arts curriculum.
COVENANT (Lookout Mountain, GA): an enclave of Christian scholarship nestled in a stunning mountaintop setting. Covenant offers a clear departure from the bustle of city life. As a PCA affiliated school, Covenant takes its mission of Christian liberal arts education seriously and seeks to infuse academic and gospel truths on a variety of levels.
VANDERBILT (Nashville, TN): considered one of the “Southern Ivies” by many, Vandy appears as an imposing academic institution. Although it houses quite a few large graduate programs, Vandy stresses its balanced commitment between undergraduate education and advanced research. Its student body is both diverse and socially active. Vandy works to balance small class sizes with a large menu of majors and programs offered.
BELMONT (Nashville, TN): a medium-sized university largely known for its fine arts (specifically, music) programs. Like Vandy, it strives for a happy medium between offering varied opportunities while remaining a tight-knit community. The campus could be described as peaceful and pleasantly old-fashioned. The very artsy student body is heavily involved socially and hardly homogeneous. While many students major in music, many others do not (nursing and business are other common choices).
In retrospect, touring a college campus for the first time may seem intimidating; and it certainly is no idealized jaunt through the world of dreams. Even so, practicality can never fully quench the flame of hope. At the same time, experiences like the Westminster college tour add life to the process by fostering corporate interaction. Students make memories eating breakfast together at the hotel and during cramped, four-hour drives just as much as while walking the college campuses. Over the course of four days, college choice transforms from a self-consuming endeavor to a shared quest. Though the paths may lead to vastly different places, each student continues learning to trust in God for whatever the future holds.