Virtual Impressions: Sewanee, The University of the South
There are small liberal arts colleges, but none with a setting like Sewanee-The University of the South. Situated atop the southern rim of the Cumberland Plateau, Sewanee has one of the most beautiful campuses anywhere. The views of this gorgeous campus from the air or the ground on videos were breathtaking. I’ve also collected a few photos for you. Sewanee’s campus reminds me of Oxford, Princeton or Yale, only without an easy walk into town. It might remind Harry Potter fans of Hogwarts. This school is actually quite far from any city by car. It’s 45 minutes from Chattanooga, an hour and a half from Nashville.
This school has carried traditions forward, including Oxford gowns and an honor code. Its common for students and faculty to wear gowns or dress up to go to class. One interesting tradition is “Touch the Angel.” You “pick up an angel” at Sewanee Angel Park before you come to campus, then “drop off the angel” after you leave. Purple and gold angel bowties, among other gifts, are sold in the university’s bookstore.
Sewanee has fewer than 1,700 undergrads. About 60 percent come from the Southeast and Southwestern states. Its campus and environs, The Domain, cover 13,000 acres. Its doubtful that any college of any size offers more opportunities for climbing, caving, hiking and kayaking so close by. Thanks to the Sewanee Outing Program, no prior experience is necessary. It helps to be curious about the outdoors. This might be one of the most campus-based schools that you will ever visit. The admissions office gives you a nice introduction to campus and community. Check out Sewanee on YouTube , including clips that parents and students made on their own.
Everyone lives on campus at Sewanee. Even the newest residence hall, Lucy and Herbert Smith, follows the Gothic theme of the campus. There are no freshman residence halls, nor can freshmen choose roommates on their own. Upper-class proctors live in the halls to help the newest students. Rising sophomores, juniors and seniors can opt to live in theme houses. Themes can be based around speaking around a foreign language, common interests, community service, and more.
Over half of Sewanee men and nearly two-thirds of the women are members of Greek social organizations. But the school has no Greek Row. Few members live in the houses which are mainly used as meeting spaces. While brothers and sisters choose their affiliation, Greek events are open to everyone on campus. Sewanee is not a sports power, though it plays football, among its D-3 sports. Thirty-five percent of the students are varsity athletes.
Important to your education is the Sewanee Pledge. The school commits to a funded internship and one semester study abroad. It also pledges to help you graduate in four years with a major, or you get an extra year tuition free. Sewanee’s general education requirements are similar to many other selective liberal arts colleges. They cover only 13 of the 32 courses you will take over four years. Sewanee makes it quite easy to double major or carry multiple minors. One Sewanee story featured a football player who tackled a triple major in Chemistry, Math, and Physics. Few schools of any size would offer the flexibility or the scheduling to make that happen. Sewanee has mainly liberal arts majors, with the additions of Environment and Sustainability and Forestry.
Next year, Sewanee’s estimated total cost of attendance will be just over $65,000. The experience is not cheap. But it’s less expensive than most of the selective liberal arts colleges on either coast. Starting with the current admissions cycle, the university committed to meet the full financial need for the accepted students who decide to come. As a result over 5,000 students have applied to join this year’s freshman class. Just over 2,300 have been accepted.
From 2009 through 2018, according to its 2019-20 Fact Book, Sewanee lost between 10 and 15 percent of each freshman class. Between 72 and 76 percent of the freshmen who arrived from 2009 to 2015 finished in four years. The performance is good. But I have been to similarly selective liberal arts colleges that have done better at retaining and graduating each class. Private liberal arts colleges lose freshmen for various reasons. Costs and changing academic interests are common reasons to transfer from any school. But I also wondered if the air of formality, the Oxford gowns or dressing up for class, would be for everyone. The balance between private/parochial school graduates, more accustomed to formality, and public high school graduates is about 50-50.
Outside Nashville and Chattanooga, Sewanee has fairly large alumni communities in Atlanta, New York and Washington DC registered in LinkedIn.com. It also has an endowment of over $400 million, larger than Barnard, Franklin & Marshall, even Michigan State! The resources are there to continually improve the Sewanee experience and make it more affordable.
I was referred to the school’s First Destinations report for the Class of 2018. Fifty-five of Sewanee’s 407 graduates had found employment in Nashville. Forty-three were working in or around Washington DC, four for members of Congress. Nearly 40 percent of the class had found work in Business, Finance and Consulting. Over 40 graduates were employed in government or public policy, and over 40 in health care.
Sewanee has reached out beyond its traditional feeder schools to recruit new students outside the South and Southwest. The university is an attractive alternative to New England and Mid Atlantic liberal arts colleges. Prospects who check out Sewanee also consider other Centre (KY), Rhodes (TN) and Washington & Lee (VA). They also aim for the honors college options at public universities.
It’s hard to ask a private liberal arts college to do more than Sewanee does for its students. But you must visit to get a sense of the campus and community. There’s nothing like this setting anywhere else.
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