"On the Road" Reviews

Each summer, veteran Dean of College Counseling Lew Stival travels across the United States to visit colleges and meet with admission representatives with whom he works to match Blair students to colleges that best fit them in terms of programmatic offerings and culture. In the reports that follow, he recaps his summer travels (taken with his wife, Lois, Blair's day student coordinator) and gives insight into the pros and cons of various schools.

Dartmouth College

Bird's eye view of Dartmouth's The Baker Library
Bird's eye view of Dartmouth's The Baker Library

It was lazy afternoon in early August when we paid a visit to Dartmouth and, given that quite a few staff were off on vacation, we were not surprised to find a skeletal staff holding down the admission “fort.” Even so, that didn’t keep the many prospective students and families visiting for the afternoon from posing questions and seeking attention. It was busy. Throughout my time in the office, those staff members present were doing their best to cover every base, talking to students and families and reaching out to make sure each and every visitor felt welcome. Given its lofty place in the uber-selective hierarchy, Dartmouth College could certainly afford not to be so accommodating…goodness knows that applications will continue to pour into the office each year. What I experienced that day was, well, unusual. Over the years, I have felt the awkwardness of being a visitor in an admission office that appeared much busier than it had reason to be. Not the case at Dartmouth, not for one minute! True to its name, Dartmouth College remains just that—a college. It is the smallest and most isolated school in the Ivy League, where people remain at the forefront and where customer service is the order of the day. The little things still matter, certainly in the admission office on that Friday afternoon at Dartmouth!

Despite its quaint New England location, there is certainly nothing quaint about Dartmouth when it comes to resources and facilities—in every sense of the word, Dartmouth is a powerhouse! The best part…these resources and facilities are actually accessible to undergrads in ways that most of its Ivy brethren struggle to match. Even on a Saturday morning in August on a quiet and fairly desolate campus, many of the buildings—including the Baker Library, with its very cool Dr. Seuss Room (named for Theodor Seuss Geisel, Dartmouth class of 1925…a fitting tribute to an immensely influential writer/poet)—were open to anyone who strolled by. The athletic facilities? They were open as well. I was able to walk into the football stadium, the hockey arena and the indoor tennis center by simply opening a door or a gate. And, for a nominal fee, I could have used the Dartmouth fitness room or the swimming pool or the tennis courts. I can assure you that unfettered access is not the norm at most schools I’ve visited over the years. On top of that, the students on campus were a friendly and welcoming lot. I ran into a varsity tennis player helping run a kids’ clinic who had attended one of our rival schools. We recognized each other (I’m the former Blair tennis coach) and he immediately came over to say hello. We chatted while he fed balls to the toddlers on the courts, and it was evident that he was excited to be a Dartmouth student.

Perhaps the most telling comment about Dartmouth, though, is reflected in what I found during my weekend stay at the Hanover Inn, the grand old hotel that anchors one corner of the famous Dartmouth Green. Hanging conspicuously across from the elevator was a large wooden plaque, on which was written across the top in Dartmouth green: “Dartmouth in Town.” Turns out this rather extravagant message board listed the names and classes of those Dartmouth alums staying at the hotel or in town that weekend. Not surprisingly, there were quite few alums staying at the hotel, so it was a crowded board. As a conversation piece for those waiting for the elevator, “Dartmouth in Town” helped to bring alums together and reflected the spirit of community that remains tight-knit and very connected. In the truest sense, Dartmouth College has simply not outgrown its name…after all these years, it remains near the top of my “Top 10 Most Beautiful Schools” list!

Brown University

Campus green, Brown University
Campus Green, Brown University

To say that Lois and I are “foodies” is an understatement…we love good food! As such, Providence, Rhode Island, is one of our favorite restaurant destinations. With so many outstanding places from which to choose, Providence is a veritable cornucopia of fine dining options. Brown University, with its beautiful campus situated atop one of the hills of the city, is a very special place for us to visit. Beyond the food, Providence is a city that is easily managed. There’s plenty to do…it’s easy to access Boston (just over an hour’s drive, traffic permitting), and it’s a short trek to such places as Cape Cod and Nantucket and Newport. As such, it’s pretty easy for Brown students to get away from campus should the need arise.

Okay, so the real reason for my visit to Providence was to visit Brown University (and RISD, as you’ll later read). Like any Ivy League member, Brown University pretty much has it all—great facilities and great professors and wonderful resources. That stuff pretty much goes unsaid. What needs to be said about Brown is that it is different— markedly different—in that the curriculum is free and open. Students are able to chart their own academic course of study in ways that can’t be done at most other colleges and universities. There are no required courses (at least none I know of!) and students can elect to take some of their classes pass/fail. As a result, there is a spirit of freedom and flexibility among the students…they tend to explore more, to try out courses in areas of interest without fear of wrecking their GPAs and, by extension, their futures. “What I like about being at Brown,” our tour guide said, “is that most of the students are pretty down-to-earth. They’re serious about their education, for sure, and they work hard, but because there’s so much freedom and responsibility put on the students, they seem to be focused in other directions beyond wearing their Brown sweatshirts around campus.” Speaking of “Ivy gear,” I’d say that, as the student tour guide suggested, there is a general absence of self-identification by way of apparel. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but at some schools, it seems that everywhere you look, you are reminded of where you are. There is a richness of purpose among the students I’ve met at Brown…the really seem to know where they are and why they are there.

Another feather in Brown’s cap? In the many years I’ve done college counseling at Blair, there’s never been a year when a Brown admission representative hasn’t paid us a visit. Among the uber-selective schools, those that really don’t need to visit high schools, Brown is committed to doing so, certainly when it comes to visiting us. Their visibility and presence on our campus are perhaps the biggest reasons why Brown has been so very popular among Blair students. That personal connection is why we have always felt that there was someone in the Brown admission office with whom we could connect, someone who knew our school well and would advocate for our students. From a counseling standpoint, that’s as good as it gets!

The worst part about Brown? Parking. While I’m sure there must be places to park that would be considered convenient, I still don’t know where they are. I typically take my chances trying to score a parking place along the tree-lined streets next to campus, where it seems like the entire city of Providence has decided to park! Other than that, it’s really pretty hard to find things I don’t like about Brown…or Providence and its crazy-good food options. Add to that the stately beauty of the Brown campus and the unpretentious community and you have one very special place to spend four years as an undergraduate.

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)

RISD Museum of Art
RISD Museum of Art

I love art and I deeply admire those who can do it. I also admire those who choose to pursue their passion as undergraduates. That said, I must admit that when it comes to understanding art and being able to offer counsel to students thirsty for knowledge, I feel a bit inadequate. Fortunately, we at Blair have some wonderful artist-teachers who are able to provide a level of expertise and perspective that we in the college office simply can’t match. I was able to take a small step toward improving my art “IQ” during my visit to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, RISD for short. It’s vaunted reputation for attracting some of the most talented young artists in the world is well known, even among those like me who wouldn’t necessarily recognize a good work of art if they fell over it.

What I did come to know is that RISD is a serious academic place…of course, the kids there work very hard at their art, but they also receive a surprisingly well-rounded education. RISD’s affiliation with its next-door neighbor, Brown, allows for its students to take classes in all sorts of disciplines there. In that regard, RISD students literally do have “the best of both worlds” at their disposal!

In meeting with our admission representative, I came to understand more fully how RISD evaluates its applicants—with an eye toward talent in their field and an academic competency so as to survive the rigor of the academic experience. “Obviously, RISD students need to skilled and talented in their field of art and demonstrate a passion for it,” the admission rep pointed out, “but they also need to be motivated and capable students. The combination is critically important.” He went on to add that RISD also looks for signs that students could “accept some constructive yet often ‘pointed’ criticism regarding their art. “It’s very important that the students be able to ‘take a punch’ when it comes to the evaluation of their work. Our faculty are demanding because it’s important to their students’ development. Aspiring artists need to know what’s working and what’s not!” While there’s no check box on the application for having “thick skin,” the admission team actively seeks that out in its applicants. Without it, RISD students can find the going pretty tough!

I’ll be honest; I really didn’t tour all that much of the RISD campus…it’s literally built into the side of a hill and it’s a very tough walk. I’m sure that the facilities (galleries and work spaces) are cutting-edge and first-rate. I trusted our tour guide when she said that the RISD facilities were second to none…I likely wouldn’t know otherwise. With relatively unfettered access to the resources at Brown, RISD students really access and enjoy two very special places. For those students who have the artistic talent and the courage to follow their passion, RISD offers an amazing college experience.