A Rigorous Respite in North Carolina: The Liberal Arts Experience

Liberal Arts College Experience

Monthly Series: Learning about the tests and new findings in educational research can be fascinating, but we know high school students and their parents are always thinking about college — even after applications are in, there are still so many questions. How do people pick a school? What is college like when they get there? This is the second article in a series about the college experience. This month: Tutor Manager Marshall Findlay and Curriculum Coordinator Emma Vigneault, both alumni of Davidson College.

When I sit down with Marshall to chat about his college experience, he finishes off his daily PB&J and closes the Latin grammar book he’s been reading in preparation for an afternoon tutoring session. “How about I tell you about my experience, and you jump in if I miss anything important?” he begins.

As Marshall opens his story, at boarding school in the Northeast, it’s clear that pragmatism and clarity of purpose were no less evident in his high school self. He applied to a long list of schools, but “they all fit the same mold,” he explains, “2000 to 3000 students. After meeting with my counselor, it was clear that I wanted a small liberal arts college.”

Emma’s experience was similar. “I applied to a lot of schools,” the Atlanta native recalls. “mostly liberal arts schools, but also Georgetown and UGA. I knew I wanted to study something in the humanities.” When I greet her for our interview, Emma is curled up in her warmly lit nook of the Applerouth’s Instructional Design department. Wrapped in an oversized scarf that she knit out of bold orange, red, and pink yarn, she hops up, eager and ready to discuss.

For Marshall, the slew of liberal arts options came down to Davidson in North Carolina or Middlebury in Vermont. For Emma, it was Davidson or Haverford in Pennsylvania. “When I visited Haverford on accepted students day, all the students were running from building to building, because it was so cold,” says Emma. “At Davidson, it was beautiful. Everyone was laying out on the lawn, and I just loved the overall feel of it.”

Marshall too found Middlebury cold and Davidson in full bloom. “It sounds superficial,” he says, “but you should think about the bleakest times and the most sweltering times on the campuses you’re considering. Is the campus a place where you’ll want to spend time?”

Emma and Marshall both attest that one should especially take locale into consideration when applying to secluded liberal arts schools like Davidson. “98 percent of people live on campus, and there aren’t many other options,” Emma explains, “It’s very much a small college town. That can feel insular, but the school was great about bringing music, art, lectures — there was something happening pretty much every night of the week.”

“There was an annual Cake Race,” Marshall recalls, “when neighbors in the community bake cakes and the winner got to pick the cake of his choice. There was a croquet club where everyone would dress-up super preppy and head out to the lawn. Davidson is good at coming-up with activities that make people want to be there — it’s a close-knit group.”

Davidson, it seems, fosters that closeness from day one. “Everyone takes a freshman writing seminar in the fall,” says Emma, “and mine was on Alfred Hitchcock and film studies.”

“I did this thing called Freshman Odyssey before my freshman year,” Marshall says, “It was a canoeing camping trip for eleven days — we didn’t shower for eleven days. I don’t think I could have jumped into college the way I did without getting to know ten or fifteen people well before school started and getting out of my comfort zone.”

Davidson, however, was not all quirky seminar topics and outdoor adventures. “The academic environment was rigorous,” Emma explains. “There were very high expectations. Students tended to take pride in workaholism, in who could be in the library the latest.”

“If you’re more social,” Marshall recommends, “consider whether it would bother you for everyone to be consumed and stressed during exam time. My friends spent 10 or 15 hours prepping for each exam.”

That said, the overarching theme in Marshall and Emma’s recollections was that Davidson afforded them space to explore their interests and flexibility to customize their respective college tracks.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Emma says. “I just loved school and learning new things, so I focused on classes that interested me and professors I enjoyed. I only took one science class — “The Physics Around You” — it was about how boats float, how magnets work, why heat stays in a room. I ended up taking a lot of political philosophy classes. I don’t really think of myself as a philosopher, but they were all taught by my favorite professor.”

“I chose a route that enabled me to study what interested me and do all the other non-academic activities I wanted to pursue,” explains Marshall. “I scheduled my classes in the morning so that I could play Frisbee, go on hikes, and hang out all afternoon. It was important to me to have balance.”

“That’s a big plus about going to such a small school,” Emma says. “You have more opportunities to join and lead things. I was in the choir, which took us on a few international trips, and I was music director of my a cappella group for my last two years.”

Emma ended up earning degrees in Political Science and Music. Marshall settled on Classics, because he had tried a lot of language classes and didn’t want to settle on just one. “I thought Classics would be a good foundation for whatever I would eventually pursue. I’d bought into the understanding that your major isn’t necessarily what you’re going to do.”

For Emma, it wasn’t. “I moved up to D.C. after college to see if I wanted to work in politics. I loved D.C., but it quickly became clear that was not what I wanted to do.” While scoping out the political scene, however, Emma’s love of learning led her to start tutoring and eventually to start writing test questions. She now puts her creativity and intellectual savvy to work crafting the reading and writing content for Applerouth’s books and online resources.

“Honestly, my specific studies don’t really impact my job now,” she reflects, “But obviously the research and writing skills I learned have a huge impact on my job.”

Marshall’s pursuit of language and culture prompted him to teach in China after graduation. “Just like my decision to go South,” he says, “I felt I needed to push my horizons more.” Marshall went on to further his track as an educator in the U.S. He continues to work with Applerouth students and mentors Atlanta tutors.

Any final words of wisdom? I ask at the close of each interview.

“Know your temperament going into college and lean in the other direction,” says Marshall. “If you’re hesitant to get involved, push yourself to join things. I wish I had done the opposite — that I hadn’t overcommitted so much.”

“Remember the good habits you were taught in high school, because no one will ask you to turn in your notes or whether you’re on top of things in college,” Emma advises. “The handholding goes away. I knew people who had come from more relaxed high schools and struggled when they were thrown into rigorous, but hands-off classes.”

Students headed toward liberal arts schools would do well to carry both insights in tow — prime yourself for academic challenge and pay attention to your predilections. You’ll be free to delve deeply into what you love if you listen to what that is.

Go-to Food: “The $5 chili bread bowl at the student union” – MF

Best Study Spot: “There was a coffee shop downtown, Summit Coffee, where we studied a lot. The weather was so beautiful though that we used to study on balconies and on the lawn.” – EV


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