Last week, I discussed various problems that should be fixed at UR. Now I’d like to discuss the best parts of the school. In some ways, this is the harder piece to write – it can be trickier to express gratitude and wonder than to complain.
The University is a Tier 1 research institution, churning out patents and receiving federal grants like nobody’s business. The work done here over the last eighty years, especially in medicine, physics, economics and political science, has literally changed the world. The University is therefore an idea factory, an institution where bright and talented individuals are given intellectual free rein for the benefit of the greater good. With the possible exception of Google, there are few corporate-funded idea factories today, so universities have to pick up the slack. Rochester does so to an astounding degree.
Incredibly, the professors aren’t the only ones manning the idea factory. Rather, this school allows and encourages students to staff labs, handle archival documents, code websites and even teach classes and workshops. Our culture of student research and teaching is so robust and omnipresent that it seems like a normal facet of college life. However, most American colleges don’t let undergraduates take on such responsibilities. Usually, grad students are the T.A.s, and research is reserved for advanced students. Rochester is unique among American colleges for the trust it has in its students’ abilities.
Rochester is also unique for its lack of a core curriculum. Think about it – we have no school-wide mandated courses, except for WRT 105. Sure, science and engineering degrees are pretty structured, and every major has its own required classes, but the sheer range of classes and credit combinations within departments ensures that each student’s course of study is distinct. There is no mandatory curriculum for all students – you know, those giant, often boring lecture classes in statistics or calculus or ethics that students at other colleges are required to take. I believe that a core curriculum treats college students like children, preventing them from exploring their academic interests like adults. Rochester laudably treats its students like adults from Day One of Orientation, allowing young men and women to choose their own paths. I may be politically liberal, but I cannot deny that the personal responsibility given to students at Rochester gives credence to the conservative notion of freedom of choice.
One of the best elements of this academic environment is the opportunity to move easily between Eastman and the River Campus. We River Campus students can take music lessons or humanities courses at Eastman for enrichment; similarly, Eastman students can slip out of the conservatory environment for a while, even if only to check out a book from Rush Rhees Library. For the truly ambitious, dual degree options exist. People often complain about the lack of social interaction between Eastman and River Campus students, and while that may true, the academic channels between the two wings of the University enable much student interaction and movement.
Still, the caveat of Rochester’s absolute academic freedom is the possibility that you might make unwise choices or feel adrift. To minimize those risks, Rochester has exemplary support services in place. The offices of Res Life, CCAS, CETL and RCCL, plus the system of freshman and degree advisors, help to steer students in safe directions within our culture of individual freedom. You do have infinite choices here, but if you feel lost, are overloaded with work or long for a connection to the off-campus community, there are many adults on staff who can help you. Additionally, the University has developed a strong commitment to mental health and wellness through UCC and the CARE Network. The free group therapy programs, offered for a variety of problems, are particularly effective – they show students they are not alone and give them a peer support network. UCC and the CARE Network save lives at Rochester every year, and that is something to be celebrated.
At the risk of sounding corny, I would say that being a Rochester student enables you to appreciate the sheer variety of human life. Without a core curriculum, and with a masterful balance of personal choices and advisor support, the culture here produces vibrant, quirky and remarkably diverse students. You can be a pure engineer or scientist, never go to an Eastman concert or never take out a fiction book from the library. Alternatively, you can study the humanities and feel as if you’re attending a superb liberal arts college (within the context of a major research school, of course). The people you meet at UR defy easy categorization or explanation. America needs more people like this.
I’ve been at Rochester for a fairly brief period of time. Four school years and one summer on campus went faster than I ever could have imagined. In that time, I never felt unwelcome. I never felt like I was forced to conform to some cookie-cutter template of a proper college student. That’s not to say everything was perfect. Like any community, the University has its share of bigots and bullies, and sometimes I ran afoul of them. Sometimes the bureaucracy made me crazy, and sometimes Danforth’s more creative dishes made me feel ill. Sometimes I did feel adrift amid so many choices and such a fast-paced intellectual environment. But there were people who caught me when I was about to fall, and for that I will feel loyalty and gratitude to this University until the day I die.
I know not everyone has a positive experience at Rochester. People do slip through the cracks here. Furthermore, most students like to complain about the problems I listed in my last piece. I’ve heard a lot of complaining from my peers over the last four years. To the grouches, I say this: perhaps you should say “Thank you” and “Wow” more often. And to the lonely, I say this: you are not alone.
We have been blessed to study at UR, where we will never be bored, and where passion and ability truly do drive ambition.
There’s one last thing I’d like to mention, although I swore this article would be wholly positive – the Wilson Quad clock tower is about six minutes fast. It’s not necessarily a problem, though. If anything, the clock encourages students to get to class sooner and set their minds in motion.
Gorman is a member of
the Class of 2014.