For the entering class of fall 2015, William & Mary rolled out a new general education curriculum designed to help students explore various academic disciplines and make meaningful connections between them, as well as expand their perspectives on the world and provide active, inquiry-based learning that breaks students out of their comfort zones—and out of their classrooms. This game-changing strategy is the brainchild of the university’s excellent and dedicated professors. Says Dr. Eugene Tracy, chair of the physics department, “The recent curriculum overhaul . . . [was] led by the faculty through a long series of committee discussions, open meetings, deliberation, and debate. The administration played a supporting role, and once the faculty decided what we wanted to do, they help us to make the new curriculum a reality.”
For incoming first-years, this means enrollment in two classes (COLL 100 and COLL 150) that immediately ground them in the university and its incredible resources, challenge them to the rigors of college-level study, and sharpen their communication skills. In later years, students are asked to step outside the university setting and interact with different cultures or environments, and then participate in a capstone experience by, say, problem-solving in an applied setting or creating entirely original scholarship. “It is sometimes said that an education is what you need when you encounter a problem your skills didn’t equip you to handle,” one professor wisely notes. This updated, all-new curriculum is designed to provide just that support and personal development to students.
For first-years looking to jumpstart careers in activism, there’s the Sharpe Community Scholars, a program hosted by the Charles Center for Academic Excellence that combines academic study with community engagement. Each year, between sixty and seventy-five incoming do-gooders enroll in specialized coursework and commit at least five hours a week to outside research, mentorship, collaboration, and action that benefits others—and that prepares them for a lifetime of service to the greater good. “There are some skills that are better learned through practice and experience than just a professor lecturing,” reports a recent grad. “For me, I’ve been able to realize my own abilities and interests in terms of service, and how I can work toward making a stronger community.” But passion for giving back extends well beyond first-year studies. Often through the Office of Community Engagement, students at William & Mary complete more than 30,000 hours of community service each year, and an amazing 70 percent of students volunteer—two feats that have landed the school on the President’s Honor Roll for Service six years in a row and counting. In fact, William & Mary has been recognized as one of the top producers of Peace Corps volunteers over the last decade. “Our students are working now to make the world a better place rather than waiting until graduation,” one international relations/environmental studies student proudly remarked.
Despite the word “college” in its name, William & Mary is actually a university. The school explains, “Part of what makes us a university is that we make more than our share of a university’s contributions to the creation of knowledge—otherwise known as research and scholarship.” As Dr. Lu Ann Homza, professor of history, attests, “This is perhaps the single thing which W&M does best: meaningful undergraduate student research with the intensive mentorship of faculty. Such experiences can occur at any time in a typical undergraduate career, from freshman through senior years.” In fact, it’s quite possible for undergraduates to leave as published authors in peer-reviewed journals. In addition to capstone experiences within many of the majors, about 10 percent of seniors undergo research projects though the Department Honors Program, which gives them the opportunity to complete an extended research project (over two semesters) under the mentorship of a faculty adviser. Students write up their findings in a thesis, which they will orally defend at an annual Honors Colloquium at the end of the semester.
The Charles Center even offers a “kickstarter” through which students can raise funding for their thesis projects. There are summer research options as well as student-faculty research. Dr. Homza enumerates a few recent projects: “We have professors in Biology who routinely supervise students in testing for mercury contamination in Virginia rivers; professors in Sociology and Hispanic Studies who take students to the Arizona-Mexico border to study illegal immigration; professors in Anthropology and Geology who sponsor students on field trips to Hawaii and Oman. Yours truly takes groups of undergraduates to Pamplona, Spain, over Spring Break to allow them to read legal cases from the seventeenth century, which are held in state archives. In March 2015, a professor in German Studies led ten undergraduates along the Rhine River in Germany to explore the migration routes of medieval Jews.” William & Mary’s accessible size means that it can provide research opportunities for undergraduates that other schools fill with graduate students.
With more than 600 full-time faculty members at William & Mary, the student-to-teacher ratio clocks in at an awesome 12:1—one of the lowest in the nation—and an impressive 85 percent of classes have fewer than forty students. But the student-faculty relationship is about more than nice numbers: “The professors here are frequently the nation’s and world’s leading figures in their field,” shares one linguistics/government major. “They are nothing short of inspiring.” And with former faculty members like George Wythe (the nation’s first law professor, who schooled the likes of Thomas Jefferson) and William Barton Rogers (founder of a little school called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), it’s no surprise that William & Mary continues to draw top-tier researchers and scholars. Despite their high standing, W&M professors are also incredibly approachable and enthusiastic about their work in the classroom—an opinion echoed by pretty much the entire student body. “Professors at W&M are dedicated to both teaching and research… They conduct their own research (and gladly share research opportunities with undergraduate students), yet still find time to be extremely accessible to ensure that you get a quality education,” reports a student of biology and Chinese. Turns out all this respect is a two-way street: “What I am most proud of is when I go to faculty social events, and hear my colleagues brag about their students,” says Dr. Eugene Tracy, chair of the physics department. “We are amazed by them, and want to help them succeed.”
William & Mary has been cranking out incredible graduates since its doors opened in 1693. Three American presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler) once roamed its halls, as did Speaker of the House Henry Clay and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. All in all, sixteen signers of the Declaration of Independence attended the university. Not surprisingly, this track record of excellence is one of the university’s main appeals today. A recent graduate from the government department told us, “It was important for me to attend a school with a strong historical tradition. I wanted to constantly be surrounded by the inspiration of those who had come before me.” More recently, its exceptional alumni include Robert Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Defense; NASA astronaut David M. Brown; Emmy- and Tony-award winning actress Glenn Close; and Emmy-award winning host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart.
Once graduates have sprung out into the real world, the alumni network can prove a valuable resource in job hunting. “The College has provided me with both the personal development and professional network to set me on the path for a successful career,” says one former student body president. “Already in . . . my career, I have been extended opportunities from alumni of the College that have placed me on my current trajectory. It is the shared experiences of academic rigor, extracurricular passions, and commitment to service that allow alumni to have confidence in each other.”