Internships may be all the rage these days, but Vassar’s been doing its own version of practice-meets-theory coursework since the ’40s—in fact, its popular Field Work program is one of the oldest in the nation. Every year, 500 students engage in internships off campus, lending their talents to and gaining hands-on experience at nonprofits, government agencies, human services organizations, and businesses as far away as NYC. A sponsoring professor consults with each student to guarantee the educational merit of the internship and provide it with structure, such as writing a final paper or maintaining a journal throughout. “It’s a real opportunity for students to get out in the larger community and get some experience,” says a psych professor. “But it also explicitly links back to [the] academic program.”
In the summertime, the Field Work Office lands students at local institutions that promote social justice for ten weeks of full-time paid work. Potential placement includes the awesome Spark Media Project, which teaches filmmaking to inner-city youth, and the Grace Smith House, a shelter for women and children in danger of domestic abuse. And outside of the Field Work Office, there’s the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute, a ten-week program for burgeoning scientists looking to make a difference—whether stimulating nematodes with blue light or designing robots to simulate evolution, there are lots of good projects to get involved with. Meanwhile, students with a zeal for the humanities or social sciences can opt to create original scholarship in the Ford program. Sample projects include studies of Russian sci-fi cinema, the corporatization of America, and the relationship between the ailing oceans and twenty-first century Caribbean art.
Vassar’s 2,400 attendees enjoy an “insanely small student-professor ratio,” according to an American studies major. At 8:1, it’s one of the lowest in the nation, and of more than 1,100 classes sections, a mere eight have more than forty enrolled students. In fact, more than half have fewer than twenty! A biology/English student cites Vassar’s commitment to intimate learning as one of the school’s main draws: “The class sizes were smaller than other schools, which was really important because it meant that there were more opportunities to meet classmates and interact with professors.” Another phrase that came up when we asked students about their teachers was “absurdly accessible.” Students report a faculty that regularly makes themselves available—whether it’s extending office hours to be more convenient for a student to even loaning out their cars! (Pro tip: Don’t ask—let them offer.) Plus, unlike at some large, research-based institutions where the faculty is more invested in their research than in the classroom, “professors at Vassar are here to teach students,” a philosophy major states. “I’ve never had a professor who didn’t know me by my first name.” As for caliber and instruction style: “I adore all of my professors here. Recently, in a women’s studies class, our professor asked us permission to give a lecture. It’s quite out of the ordinary to have a professor talk at you for seventy-five minutes. As a student, you are expected to participate in class discussions, so you definitely have to prepare before class,” an English major shares with us.
Prominent faculty include Robert Brigham, the first U.S. scholar given access to the Vietnamese archives on the war, acclaimed pianist/composer Richard Wilson, and Debra Elmegreen, the first liberal arts college professor elected president of the 110-year-old American Astronomical Society. But more often than not, students find themselves enthralled with a staff member they’ve maybe just discovered—for instance, Michael Joyce (one of the first writers to create hypertext works) or Mia Mask, a go-to source on African American cinema.
Vassar’s legacy has turned out numerous exceptional graduates over its 150-plus years in operation. Interestingly, the school has especially appealed to remarkable female poets, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, and Mary Oliver, and talented actors, such as Meryl Streep. Other highlights on the alumni list include computing pioneer Grace Hopper, astrophysicist and MacArthur “genius” John Carlstrom, comic and novelist Greg Rucka, public health innovator Dr. June Jackson Christmas, Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, and indie film darling writer-director Noah Baumbach. Beyond the illuminati, however, are more than 38,000 living alums who do much to make their alma mater proud. An impressive two-thirds of Vassar graduates go on to pursue a further degree, and the school routinely appears among the top ten producers of Fulbright Scholars. Their alumni association provides students with a directory of 30,000 other graduates, which is no doubt a boon when job-hunting or just seeking a little career advice.
Built in 1997 with funds gifted from the class of 1951, the state-of-the-art observatory is an incredible spot for physics and astronomy students to get real-world experience researching supernova, quasars, and objects in our solar system. The observatory boasts two big telescopes (the thirty-two-inch is one of the two largest research scopes in New York) and several other smaller viewing tools. A bonus for local residents: The observatory is open to the public for viewing every Wednesday night while school is in session. The Class of ’51 structure is a replacement for the beloved Vassar College Observatory, first erected in 1864 for Maria Mitchell—the world’s first widely recognized female astronomer in the United States and Vassar’s first hired professor. (Today the building is an official National Historic Landmark and houses the Education Department.)
Another real campus gem is Vassar’s own dedicated art center, housed in a stunning building designed by celebrated architect César Pelli, that houses an astonishing 20,000 artworks by masters such as Picasso, Rembrandt, Du¨rer, Bacon, Calder, O’Keefe, and Pollock. The Center hosts several major exhibitions annually—from early daguerreotypes to contemporary abstract works. For students of studio art and art history, there’s no better way to understand a particular technique or period than to experience the art directly, and the art center goes out of its way to do just that. Professors from any department can request artworks be displayed in the Project Gallery for the purpose of student inquiry, and students can get up close with works by the masters in the Print Room. Enthusiasts who’d like to be more involved—possibly as preparation for a career in museum work—can even become student docents or curatorial assistants.