A Visit to Hampshire College

Hampshire’s campus buildings reveal their 1970s era origins.

In my frequent travels to western New England, I’ve seized upon the opportunity to work my way through campus visits at each member of the Five Colleges Consortium.  On this particular swing through, despite the chilly, gray day and the impending nor’easter, I headed over to Hampshire College, making sure to bundle up against the biting wind.  The youngest of its brethren (and the only one that was founded by the member schools of the consortium itself), Hampshire is also the most unique in its approach to a liberal arts education – a difference that is made no more apparent than when one drives past a flock of college-owned sheep on the way up to the admission and visitor center, which is housed in a converted farmhouse just off the main road that leads to campus!

And indeed, that was my takeaway message from my time at Hampshire – they do many things differently from other schools of their size and of a liberal arts focus, yet that’s the whole idea.  What’s more, at Hampshire, it works!

Founded in 1970, Hampshire’s tucked away campus buildings aren’t the same collegiate Gothic look that one typically finds in New England, but are more indicative of that 1970s architectural feel.  The campus also feels very insular when you walk over the hill from the visitors’ center and approach the main academic and residential buildings, a feel that is hard to manufacture when you’re in Amherst, Massachusetts, a city that is nationally recognized as one of the top college towns in the United States and that is home to no less than three major colleges and universities.  Factor in the Pioneer Valley bus system that links all five campuses for students traveling in between, and you’d expect to find more of a bustling, metropolis-like atmosphere as opposed to the quiet, rural setting that makes up Hampshire.

This bike storage area for Hampshire students was unique – but practical!

The most unique feature of a Hampshire education – and the one that stops many people in their tracks when they first learn of it (especially parents!) – is that professors at Hampshire College do not give letter or number grades to their students.  Instead, each student is evaluated at length at the end of his or her course (and later, at the end of his or her division – the Hampshire equivalent of an academic year), with faculty giving extensive narrative feedback to students to help them understand the learning milestones they have achieved and what areas they still need to improve in.  Hampshire students also do not ascribe to particular, pre-designed majors (e.g. English, physics, anthropology, etc.); instead, every individual student self-designs his or her own course of study, working in tandem with faculty members to select the courses (both at Hampshire and at other Five Colleges member schools) and internship experiences that will assist the student in either moving on into a graduate program of study or securing a career in a particular field.

Now, this type of learning environment might seem to lack the fundamental academic structure that so many parents seek when they go through the college search process with their students, but the Hampshire academic program is so well-thought-out that the machinery takes students through their four years of experiential learning (and experiential learning is a real practice at Hampshire, unlike some other schools!) without jeopardizing their chances of further education or of employment in the least.  (In fact, Hampshire is currently the number one producer of graduates who go on to earn their phD in history in the country and the school also counts famed documentarian Ken Burns among its noted alumni.)

This popular cafe is housed in the campus athletic complex – tremendously inviting and with great lighting, especially on a gray New England day!

In fact, for students with a decided artistic bent, whether it be in the performing arts, in filmmaking, sculpture, or any of the other visual arts forms, Hampshire offers a tremendous amount of creative flexibility and can be a tremendous fit for those who seek to discover their artistic voice.  My guide shared that many students with an interest in the hard sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) find unique ways to tie what they learn in the labs in with artistic projects, such as the work of one alumna, who created a large-scale sculpture of the brain that is on display near one of the campus art buildings and is meant not only to be seen, but to be touched so that people can learn about the brain in more than just a visual or intellectual way.  And it’s that type of thinking that typifies a Hampshire student – crossing all of the traditional borders of a liberal arts education and creating something new and useful along the way.

For equestrians, Hampshire fields a team that competes in a very challenging region, with neighbors Mount Holyoke, Smith, and U Mass Amherst all performing as long-time powerhouses.  But the Hampshire equestrian team is certainly no slouch and western Massachusetts offers a great deal of riding opportunities whether a student wants to participate in the IHSA or not.  Hampshire students can also keep their riding costs down by working off lesson fees at the home stable, which the majority of the Hampshire riders take advantage of.

Could you be the type of student who thrives at Hampshire?  Contact me and we’ll find out!

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