Wesleyan University: Where Weird Meets Academic Excellence

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Wesleyan Spring Fling
Students at Spring Fling, an all-campus music festival at Wesleyan University. © Aria Danaparamita.

In a small town between New York and Boston, overlooking the Connecticut River, lies quite the oddity. Wesleyan University, of The Transformers, Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild, MGMT, and How I Met Your Mother fame, is a private four-year liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut. As students spend sunny afternoons on Foss Hill, weekends in the concert halls of Eclectic house, warm spring nights around a bonfire at the local farm, or simply talking with friends over fair-trade coffee and organic granola bars, Wesleyan is, to me, an amazing place where ideas, friendships, and intellectual discoveries blossom to last a lifetime.

We’re that hippie environmentalist, that social justice protester, that avowed defender of gender neutral pronouns and bathrooms of the LGBTQIA generation, that kid who starts a clinic in Kibera and fundraises for girls education in South Asia and will march to Main Street or the state house or Zucotti Park if that’s what it takes to promote an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible world. We’re where racial, socio-economic, gender and sexuality distinctions matter less than who you are and what you want to do. We’re “Wesleyan”.

Founded in 1831, Wesleyan University is one of the prestigious “little Ivies” alongside its peers Williams and Amherst, providing academic, social, and cultural education of the highest caliber for a small, liberal arts college. It is also part of the NESCAC consortium. With about 2,900 students, the college promotes the liberal arts philosophy where a student is responsible for hir own studies without any required courses or curriculum. A Wesleyan student picks a major (or two, or three) or create a “University” major, selecting from the vast range of courses available with the guidance of an academic advisor.

My Wesleyan experience is in no way representative – in fact, each Wesleyan student pursues hir individual passions and shared concerns, creating a vibrant, engaging, culturally diverse and intellectually challenging campus atmosphere. Theater kids, political science geeks, the painfully “cool” hipster crowd, at “Wes” radically varied interests interact to birth creative thought, projects, and discourse as we explore our personal curiosities in an academically invigorating and socio-politically conscious environment. That said, let me give you a sliver of what a Wesleyan education can be – though of course, you make it what you want it to be.

Campus

The campus, an eclectic collection of colonial homes, erudite brownstones, and the iconic, neoclassical Olin Library, stretches over a 1.5 km2 area. The picturesque “college row” comprises of the North College, South College, a multi-faith Chapel, and Judd Hall, previous home of the university’s natural history and ethnographic museum and where in the 19th century Wilbur Olin Atwater discovered the “calorie.” President Obama spoke at the 2008 Commencement ceremony on Andrus Field and the Grateful Dead once played to an ecstatic crowd in MoCon. Wesleyan also hosts historic landmarks like Russell House, the Alsop family house, and the Davison building, exemplars of the rich architectural and cultural tradition of colonial New England. Charles Dickens had described High Street, the main street running through campus grounds, as “the most beautiful street in America.”

Student life revolves around the various campus spaces. The Usdan Student Center has dining facilities, including a café and an all-you-can-eat dining hall as part of the university’s meal plan. The Freeman Athletic Center has state-of-the-art gym, swimming pool, hockey rink, and basketball, volleyball, and squash courts for the more athletically inclined. The Center for the Arts is home to the vibrant music, theater, and studio arts programs.

Most undergraduates live in on-campus housing (provided along with meals). As a first-year student, you live in a dorm room (with a roommate or alone, if you prefer), and later have the option to live in “program houses” (eg. Asian-American House, Music House, Earth House). As an upperclassman, you can live in an apartment or a wood-frame house with your friends. Meanwhile, downtown Main Street is only a short walk away, providing you with restaurants, small shops, and – perhaps most importantly – public transportation access to Hartford, or by extension, Boston and New York.

Student Life

Wesleyan students do an infinite number of things and pursue an infinite number of passions, and I mean it. These range from playing the banjo to writing creative non-fiction to volunteering at the local food bank to campaigning for the Obama campaign, and in fact, you’d be surprised to find a student who is doing not one but possibly all of those things at once.

One thing that perhaps unites us Cardinals is dedication to some cause, whether it be environmentally responsible food production, sustainable energy, bringing education to local prisons, or outreach to community developments in impoverished areas across the globe.

Student groups are many and new ones form every year. These include anything from the Wesleyan Student Assembly (the student government), to music collectives, to creative publications, to LARP clubs which convene on the occasional evenings in the Butts. Go from a meeting for an academic journal to a gamelan ensemble practice to a stand-up comedy show before winding up at some concert at Westco café and commiserating with friends til late at night on subjects from Obama’s foreign policy to the gender-normativity of your favorite TV shows over a cup of tea or any decriminalized substance of your preference.

Wesleyan is reputed for its effervescent music scene, bringing music professionals and up-and-coming indie acts to campus. My own musical taste is specific, but I’ve certainly enjoyed free concerts by the likes of Beach House, Dirty Projectors, and Kurt Vile over my time at Wes. This, of course, in addition to having attended jazz orchestras, South Indian voice artists, and Ghanaian drumming and dance performances by the best of musicians in the field.

Wesleyan students also tend to be rather artsy. You can expect to find students immersed in their latest work, whether in painting studios, photo darkrooms, music labs, or dance rehearsal spaces. Another great feature of student life is the student-run film program, the Wesleyan Film Series, which screens independent and new-release films at the campus cinema (yes, we have a campus cinema).

And of course, in our free time, we also try to study.

Arts & Humanities

In the humanities, Wesleyan offers intellectually stimulating courses in literature, foreign languages, cultural studies, and the visual and performing arts. The university is home of Center for the Humanities, a program which brings together scholars and students to engage in academic discourse on various interdisciplinary themes. The Center partners with the student academic journal for the humanities, Pyxis, which aims to showcase the best of student writing and engagement with the humanities. Another unique feature is the College of Letters, an interdisciplinary track where one studies European philosophy, literature, history and foreign language.

Wesleyan has an exceptionally strong English and writing programs. In addition to offering courses in a wealth of literary traditions and comparative literature, the English program provides excellent workshops and mentoring for creative writing. To help ESL students, the Writing Mentor program pairs a student with an older tutor to assist in adjusting to the American writing style.

Among the courses offered in visual arts: film and digital photography, printmaking, sculpture, and the university’s prestigious film program, producing the likes of Academy Award nominated Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Michael Bay (Transformers), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and Craig Thomas and Carter Bays (How I Met Your Mother). Wesleyan also offers a good Art History program.

In music, Wesleyan has impressive programs in classical, experimental, and ethnographic music. The university has a full Javanese gamelan ensemble, for one! Other musical traditions include European (including Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, Expressionistic, Neoclassical, Neoromantic, Gebrauchsmusik, 20th century, Contemporary, and Opera), classical South Indian, classical Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and West African music.

The dance program had been considered to be among the best in the country. Moreover, students choreograph and participate in pieces performed at showcases in the Fall and Spring semesters.

The university also offers a theater program, alongside supporting the student-run theater collective, “Second Stage.”

Social Sciences

Wesleyan offers rigorous academic courses in Government (political science), Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, History, Philosophy, and Religion. Additionally, one could enroll in the College of Social Studies, an intensive program which combines Government, Economics, History, and Philosophy.

Beyond those academic disciplines, Wesleyan encourages civic engagement through the social sciences, including interdisciplinary programs like American Studies, African-American Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, a certificate in Civic Engagement and International Relations.

The university also has the Center for the Study of Public Life which offers lectures and programs to proliferate socially responsible engagement beyond academia. The campus is also home of the Wesleyan Media Project, a nation-wide research center on political advertisement, campaigning, and the role of media in public life run through the Quantitative Analysis Center.

Moreover, Wesleyan encourages undergraduate research through providing study and research fellowships such as the Davenport grant for independent projects or research internships with professors. Additionally, Wesleyan proudly supports community service programs and many of its social science courses (and indeed, classes in other departments) feature a community engagement module as part of the curriculum.

Natural Sciences

Wesleyan offers competitive programs in the natural sciences and mathematics, including Earth & Environmental Sciences, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Psychology, Computer Science, and popular interdisciplinary majors like Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (MB&B) and Neuroscience & Behavior. Wesleyan students may also opt to take the pre-med or pre-engineering tracks during their undergraduate studies.

The Freeman Asian Scholarship Program

Now this is where this piece may be most useful to our readers. Wesleyan offers considerably attractive financial aid support for its students, but I only attended Wesleyan because of a full-tuition scholarship courtesy of the Freeman Foundation. Freeman Scholars are selected from 11 countries in East and Southeast Asia. “Freemans” receive need-blind, merit-based scholarship to attend the university. What’s the catch? There is no catch. My fellow Freemans and I are incredibly fortunate and grateful for the opportunities the scholarship provides. If you’re interested, see the application instructions here.

There you go. I am obviously biased, but I can safely say that there is no place like Wesleyan. The Wesleyan admissions homepage infamously asks: “are you Wesleyan?” I think I’m Wesleyan. And if you want to challenge your intellectual and normative boundaries, better engage with the world around you, and explore your passions among bright, creative, and incredibly motivated peers, then perhaps you are too.

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Aria Danaparamita
Aria Danaparamita, or Mita, is an intern at Voice of America Indonesia and graduate of Wesleyan University. She spent a semester at Paris IV Sorbonne, Paris, France and a summer research fellowship at the British Library, British Museum, and Royal Asiatic Society, London, UK. A History major and Freeman Scholar, at Wesleyan Mita was active with WESU 88.1 FM and other creative publications. She enjoys walks, coffee, and short stories.