Road Trip: "Aha! Moments" at Union College

Schenectady may not be a magnet city for college students, but Union College is embraced as home by 2,200 undergraduates and Aha! the sense of community is huge at Union. A Chinese National student of mine just finished her freshman year at Union and confirmed my Aha! She is thrilled with her decision to attend Union.

Union’s sense of community is in part due to the accessibility of and relationships with professors. According to the admissions officer I spoke with, she chose to attend Union as an undergrad because "it did the small college thing better." At her admitted students day a professor spoke about how different it was to teach at Union — students actually come to office hours! My own student shared, “I thought professors are supposed to be cold and away from students. However, at Union, they are like advisors who are always here for helping me.”

Union’s close community is also in part the natural outcome of a small campus and the fact that, my student’s observation, “you can see the same friends 3 times in one day”.  But, Union intentionally groups students at orientation, 2 days before classes, with their 1st year precept class.  They also offer pre-orientation sessions that about a quarter of the students attend.  One is an outdoor program (given the proximity to the Adirondacks, many students are outdoorsy; the combined ski club / outdoor club is the largest on campus) and one is service oriented. By the time classes begin, students know a good many of their classmates; it becomes easy to raise your hand in class. 

Housing fosters community as well. All freshmen are assigned a Minerva House, created particularly for those who are not athletes or Greek to feel a sense of home. Assignments are based on precepts and on freshman dorm choices. First year students live in a dorm but can serve on their Minerva House steering committee and are given a mentor from the house. Second year many live in their Minerva Houses.  The Greek system is particularly strong at Union (40% participate) and traditional.  The first three social fraternities in the US were founded at Union in the 1820s and six fraternities opened their first (“alpha”) chapter at Union.  Many include housing, which the college owns (unlike at many colleges where Greek houses are off-campus), and starting junior year students have the option to live in their Greek house; an option that about 50% of Greeks choose.   Those who choose to live “off-campus” are essentially in apartments across the street.

The fact that “there isn’t a whole lot to do in Schenectady” provides impetus for having plenty to do on campus.  I was told that it is rare to get 100 kids at an event — 25 is more typical— but the community feel well outweighs the lack of crowds for most at Union.  Minerva and Greeks combine to hold social events on campus with parties every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.  Drinking is prevalent.  That said, my student felt “unaffected”. Not a partier, she attended three parties over her freshman year and was able to go to a quiet dorm and sleep or study whenever she chose to.  

The focus created by Union’s trimester academic calendar again tightens community — more intense and frequent classes each term, but only three classes at a time. Academically, Union is no slouch.  I picked up their student newspaper and found it impressive - of the 16 pages, the first half were devoted to national / societal issues and the last half devoted to campus issues. US News ranks Union #38 among liberal arts colleges, and its engineering program #22 among schools not offering doctorate degrees.  70% of students do an internship and 65% study abroad. Interdisciplinary opportunities are both formalized and open to design.  Two examples: an EE major that loved music and dance created tap shoes that made music — his Senior Thesis was a dance performance; a student who wanted to practice medicine in an underdeveloped Spanish speaking country combined Spanish and Chemistry. 

Consider Union College if a strong sense of community is important to you, you are comfortable in small environments, you are not bothered by a preponderance of Greek life and you are looking for a level of academic seriousness.  Even engineers can comfortably attend this liberal arts school!