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Colleges That Change Lives

Eckerd is a college that changes lives. It’s something you hear at every commencement ceremony and when our alumni gather. It’s also what noted higher education expert Loren Pope concluded about Eckerd and 39 other colleges around the country.

Since its first edition in 1996, Colleges That Change Lives has sold tens of thousands of copies and become required reading for many high school guidance counselors. The book, now in its fourth edition, is augmented by a non-profit organization whose goal is to advance and support student-centered college decisions. As the group’s website explains, recommended colleges “have never paid any fees to Mr. Pope or his publisher to be included in his books: the selections were solely based on the independent judgment and recognized expertise of Mr. Pope himself.”

Eckerd College is proud to be a charter member of this august group of schools. Here is what the book says about us:

On a sunny lush plot of land on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Eckerd College might seem like the perfect spot for an easy college career, four years marked by sun, surf and sand. But if you’re looking for a vacation, you should enroll elsewhere.

In its short fifty-plus-year life, Eckerd has established itself as a little college that could—a place where a B student in high school could develop his potential as a thinker, problem solver, dreamer, and adventurer under the guidance of a faculty and staff as caring and creative as any in the country. Eckerd puts a premium on mentorship, so much so that faculty cannot get tenure without an obvious commitment to mentoring students. At the vast majority of American universities, tenure review committees care about research first; teaching comes in a distant second. But at Eckerd, the commitment to student growth is so significant, faculty invest not just in students’ academic learning but also in the development of them as whole people. The value of this kind of investment cannot be understated (sic). It is life-changing.

Students call the professors who are academic advisers “mentors,” and everyone has stories about mentors and professors going beyond the call of duty to help a student. “My freshman year, I e-mailed a professor at ten p.m. because I had procrastinated, and I realized the night before my paper was due that I needed some help. He called me five minutes later,” a senior from Nashville says. A senior from Orlando told of her sudden medical leave because of heart problems sophomore year. “I had just chosen my mentor for my major, and she didn’t know me well, but she went to all of my professors and had everyone sign my withdrawal card. She handled all of the college-related stuff so I could focus on getting better.” Thanks to her mentor’s support, this young woman graduated on time.

Beyond their affection for students, faculty share an obvious fondness for one another, which is good news for students. The more collaborative the faculty, the more innovative they’re likely to be when dreaming up cross-curricular learning opportunities, and the more able they are to serve students. “My colleagues are fantastic,” says David Hastings, who teaches marine science and chemistry. Adds Dr. Kelly Debure, professor of computer science, “There’s something remarkable about Eckerd, about the level of collaboration among professors and students. I would not want to teach anywhere else.”

Perhaps because of its youth, Eckerd hums with a spirit of innovation. It was a pioneer of the 4-1-4 calendar (four classes in the fall, one during a January term, and four in the spring), now used by many colleges. Its 1,800 students have considerable power and responsibility for campus life. “We get to decide almost everything on campus, at least the things related to how we live together,” says a junior from Portland, Oregon. “We self-govern in a lot of ways, so we don’t have administrators stomping around enforcing a bunch of rules we hate. It’s really great to be trusted like that.” (A simple example: students staff the Pet Council, which oversees policies in the college’s popular pet-friendly dorms.)

And in a flurry of brilliance, Eckerd long ago dreamed up Autumn Term for freshmen. Three weeks before their upper-class peers come back, freshmen arrive on campus and take a one-course introduction to college-level thinking. A student’s Autumn Term professor becomes her first mentor and her professor in the Western Heritage in a Global Context course, a yearlong course that requires students to consider how human beings have known and expressed truth. The class reads a range of Western and non-Western works (from Homer to Dave Eggers’s What Is the What, about the lost boys of Sudan, for example) to fuel their learning.

The bookend to Western Heritage is the capstone Quest for Meaning, required in the fall of senior year. Through a combination of readings, lectures from various faculty, self-reflective writing, and a forty-hour community-service project, each student thinks about his purpose in life and his responsibilities to himself and his community. Second-semester seniors and alumni talk eagerly about the course’s seminal project: an essay and presentation called “This I Believe,” in which students have to write and then present their own beliefs in the context of the books and essays they’ve read in class. “It rocks you,” says a senior from Atlanta. “Nobody until that point in my life had asked me to write down precisely what I believe and why. Do you know how hard that is? I hated it, and then I loved it.”

A string of other innovations shows off the college’s student-centered culture: Professors’ offices open onto sidewalks, encouraging students to pop in to chat about academic work or life outside of class. The Freshman Research Associate Program funds about twenty first-year students who want to collaborate with professors on their research. And as students make their way through their college careers, each builds a co-curricular transcript that notes leadership, volunteer work, sports activities, and involvement in clubs. The transcript can supplement applications to grad school, fellowships, and employment to give a broader description of the student.

And then there’s the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College (ASPEC), which gives depth and nuance to this community of young scholars. ASPEC is a group of distinguished retirees with its own intellectual life, rife with forums, speakers, and events. But members of the group also contribute to college classes by participating in lectures and discussions. For students pursuing jobs or internships, ASPEC members conduct mock interviews, review resumes, and put students in touch with former colleagues. One student calls them “surrogate grandparents,” Another says, “I totally owe my internship to a woman from ASPEC who’s been mentoring me.”

Outside the classroom, Eckerd does just as fine a job focusing on the whole person. The most obvious example is the college’s emphasis on studying abroad. As many as 60 percent of students leave the country for a term or more. The 4-1-4 calendar allows students who have particularly tight schedules—like those on the premed track or double majoring—to leave for the monthlong Winter Term. Others, who have looser schedules, tend to go abroad several times. “It’s just part of what you do here,” says a junior who spent a semester in China and a January term in Eastern Europe. “Everybody’s talking about it, and your mentors are asking, ‘Where are you going? What’s interesting to you?’ When you come back [to campus], you just feel so much stronger and interesting—and you’re more interested in other people’s experiences too.”

While they’re on campus, students benefit from Eckerd’s impressive Waterfront Program, a blend of educational recreational activities that help Eckerd embrace its beachy locale. The Activities Center is well stocked with wakeboards, water skis, canoes, kayaks, fishing equipment, and a fleet of boats—everything a young adult needs to burn off some stress in the Florida sun. There are twice-daily water-ski and wakeboarding trips—eat your heart out, Syracuse—free to students. The college has a national sailboat team open to any student, and a Coast Guard–affiliated search-and-rescue team.

These resources also support Eckerd’s most celebrated academic program: marine science. With a reputation for rigor and an impressive track record of placing students in strong graduate schools, the program offers four areas of specialty: marine biology, marine chemistry, marine geology, and marine geophysics. Students benefit from access to major oceanographic research facilities, including the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory on campus. Marine science students speak enthusiastically about internship opportunities during the summer, and the program’s list of placements is notable. (Eckerd students have won more Hollings Scholarships—awarded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to students interested in oceanic and atmospheric science—than students at any other school in the country.)

Of course, marine science isn’t Eckerd’s only shining star. Eckerd gets high marks for offering exceptional opportunities across disciplines. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, author of Night, among dozens of other books, teaches during the January term. Drs. David Duncan and Joel Thompson got a beefy National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to take six students from any of the natural science or environmental-studies programs to conduct summer research at Xiamen University in China or Hong Kong Baptist University. Dean of faculty Betty Stewart (formerly the chair of the chemistry department at Austin College in Texas) teaches a senior seminar as part of the Ford Apprentice Scholar Program for students interested in careers in academia.

These vast and varied offerings often stem from faculty research interests. Eckerd’s strong teachers prove that it’s nearly impossible to separate research from teaching at liberal arts colleges—to the students’ benefit. For example, computer scientist Dr. Debure earned a hefty NSF grant to fund her work developing and refining computer software that identifies dolphins by their dorsal fins. Marine scientist Dr. Gregg Brooks has a partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, which has provided nearly one million dollars in funding for his research examining sediment grain size—a key to understanding the earth’s geologic past. Dr. Amy Speier, a medical anthropologist, won an NSF grant to study in vitro fertilization in the context of medical tourism.

In every one of these cases—and dozens more like them—students serve as research assistants. The experience is invaluable. “You can really make Eckerd whatever you want,” says a woman from Chicago with a double major in theater and human development. She says she “left high school depressed and exhausted,” but Eckerd revived her. She has contributed to a theatrical production each spring; she’s part of the school’s popular improv troupe, “Another Man’s Trash,” and she works a part-time job on campus. A week at the Sundance Film Festival, three as a volunteer at an orphanage in Malawi, and a four-month stint studying in London have rounded out her experience.

The flip side of Eckerd’s flexibility is students’ responsibility. The ones who are happiest report participating in the college’s unique offerings at much higher rates than students who are less enthusiastic. This phenomenon is hardly unique to Eckerd, but it bears mentioning, especially in a place where it’s tempting to spend just a few more minutes basking in the sunshine instead of trekking to the library.

Students describe themselves as happy, accepting, and politically liberal—though a few bemoan the student body’s lack of activism. If they have a complaint in common, it is the dorms, which many say are in need of updates. They agree that Eckerd’s geographic diversity is a boon: The average student travels more than nine hundred miles to live here. They’re trailblazers. (And they look like pure geniuses in February, when their friends up north are trudging to class through piles of gray snow.) Students come from forty-three states and thirty-five foreign countries, so nobody has a home-field advantage. The vast majority show up knowing nobody else and leave four years later with enduring friendships with their peers and professors.

And it’s not just the students who benefit. One afternoon during a January term, a group of professors sits around a table and chats about their work at Eckerd. The conversation quickly turns to students and alumni who have amazed them. “We shared a student who loved physics but wanted to be a technical writer,” says Dr. George Meese, retired professor of rhetoric, as he points to Dr. Harry Ellis, a physicist. “The student did an incredible thesis on how chaos theory is interpreted by the mass media.” He beams. Professor Morris Shapero, who teaches international business, has brought along an e-mail from a graduating senior who is headed to Shanghai for an intensive Mandarin course. The student writes: “[I am] appreciative to you for taking a chance on me during our first class together freshman year. You may not realize how significant taking that class was for me during that period of my life. My relationships with teachers before college were something that had discouraged me. … What stands out to me from our initial class together is how you treated me with respect and dignity and valued the work I was doing in class. Thank you for your confidence in me as an individual and awareness to reach out your guiding hand to someone who wasn’t really sure how to ask for it.” This student, the professor notes, had been a C student in high school.

Shapero, who has an MBA from the University of Southern California and worked for thirty years as a corporate executive with companies expanding their Chinese and Taiwanese offices, sums up the professors’ sentiments: “Nothing I did before this was half so rewarding. Being a teacher is my first love.”

Perhaps the most emphatic endorsement of what Eckerd has to offer comes from a not-so-surprising place: the president’s office. Dr. Donald Eastman came to the college in 2001 from a string of large universities: the University of Tennessee, Cornell University, and most recently the University of Georgia. As he rose through the ranks of administration in academia, his children attended small liberal arts schools—Davidson College and the College of Charleston. And the disparity in undergraduate experiences was significant, President Eastman says. “By the time I was looking at this position, while I loved each of the universities I worked for, I was less and less convinced that they did the kind of job by undergraduates that parents and legislators would want. The modern research university is geared toward the interests of graduate students, faculty, and administrators.”

If more high-school students and their parents understood the value and potential in earning a degree from Eckerd, the college would be as selective as the Ivies. But here’s the good news: Eckerd accepts between 65 percent and 70 percent of its applicants. “Eckerd is willing to take chances—calculated risks [on borderline students],” says John Sullivan, dean of admission. “It’s part of who we are, and often those students are the ones who blossom most.” The average GPA for admitted students is about 3.3. Students in the middle 50 percent of the admitted pool earned between 23 and 28 on the ACT, or between 1010 and 1230 on the SAT.

So if you’re still figuring out who you are and what you want to do with your life, and even if you haven’t hit your academic stride yet, Eckerd might be a good fit. If there’s one lesson to learn from current students, it’s that what you invest in Eckerd will be rewarded tenfold. Consider this story from a senior marine science major: Because of financial problems at home, she couldn’t return to Eckerd in the middle of her college career. She returned to campus, packed up her things, and sat sobbing in dean of students Jim Annarelli’s office for her exit interview. When she told him why she was leaving, he asked if she wanted to be there. “I nodded. I was hysterical.” The dean made a few phone calls and found the few thousand dollars she needed to stay. “If that doesn’t tell you the kind of place this is, I don’t know what will,” she says. “I will love Eckerd my whole life.”

Colleges That Change Lives book by Loren Pope, revised by Hillary Oswald
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