Few things can match the opening of a new academic year. A new class of first-year students, and a new semester, bring the excitement of hundreds of new possibilities. That has never been more true than this year. The Class of 2020 is the largest class in Wheaton’s history—approximately 530 young women and men from 28 states and 36 countries. They are an amazing group.
Throughout their first week on campus, I took every opportunity to ask our newest students to share what they are interested in studying and what they hope to do with their college degree. The answers cover a wide range of occupations and goals—practicing medicine and the law, changing public policy to promote social justice, living a life in the arts, starting a business, digging into a career of scientific research, traveling the world.
The breadth of incoming students’ interests is striking. What makes this college so special is the answer that we give to all those goals: You can do that at Wheaton. We offer a liberal arts education that is untethered by rigid requirements, unconstrained by arbitrary boundaries separating academic disciplines, and free from restriction on where and how students learn. The result is the kind of wide-open education that is limited only by imagination, energy and intellectual curiosity. Which is to say that it’s unlimited.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine an intellectual interest or academic question that a student would not be able to pursue at Wheaton. Not only do we offer 47 majors and 59 minors, our faculty work with students to design independent majors, such as international business, or peace and conflict studies.
The number of majors we offer only hints at what is possible for students to explore. The very idea of the liberal arts is centered on exposure to a breadth of disciplines. So every student experience ranges across a wide variety of academic areas. And thanks to our Connections curriculum, Wheaton students learn to appreciate insights and ways of thinking that are unique to each discipline from the perspective of a topic that interests them.
Coursework is not the only way to learn. To its credit, Wheaton has always held that belief. Campus life is managed and directed by students to a remarkable degree, and those opportunities for leadership are fabulous. In addition, the college was an early leader among liberal arts colleges in championing experiential learning. Through internships—which at Wheaton range from a paid position with a financial firm to a volunteer position at a research lab—students can apply their developing skills to have an impact right away.
The variety of options is truly amazing. Wheaton is able to offer so many options because the size of our student population allows us to treat every student as an individual. Our faculty are committed to that idea and have been supporting unique student journeys for decades. When alumnae/i talk to me about their own experiences at the college, they describe the place that I have had the privilege to get to know over the past two years.
At its essence, what Wheaton provides is possibility—to explore a newly uncovered interest, pursue a passion, develop a set of skills, make progress toward a lifelong dream. Sometimes, the Wheaton experience can be all of these things at once. Students follow their own paths, and we don’t—nor should we—seek to apply a single program for every individual. Instead, we aim to offer a singular education that responds to each person’s interests, talents and needs. It’s something we do spectacularly well.
Photo by Keith Nordstrom