Class Portrait

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Traveling from around the country and across the globe, the 179 first-year students recently welcomed to Bard College at Simon’s Rock have at least one thing in common: astonishing diversity.

“You speak numerous languages, including American Sign Language, Bangla, Darsi, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Japanese, Latin, Pashto, Portuguese, Spanish, and Urdu,” noted Provost and Vice President Mary B. Mary in her August 16th greeting to the newest members of the Simon’s Rock community. “Your class includes published poets and playwrights, actors and activists, knitters and novelists. You have won regional spelling bees and national debate championships. One of you is a Jeopardy! winner.”

Make that at least two things in common: diversity and accomplishment.

“One of you started an NGO to support children in Burkina Faso. One of you is a monoskier who has taught disabled Iraqi war veterans to ski. You have volunteered for the Red Cross and the Special Olympics, for Food not Bombs and Best Buddies. Some of you take apart your computers. Some of you build your own computers. Some of you help your family through paid employment,” Marcy continued.

Student body diversity is a key priority in higher education. Sometimes lost in colleges’ fixation on figures, though, is the sense of why it matters. In a liberal arts environment, diversity is absolutely essential to the core pursuit of exploring multiple ideas and viewpoints. “You learn more from people who are different from you in all sorts of ways,” says Dean of Admission Leslie Davidson. “In a small, close-knit community like ours, it’s that much more important.”

The class of 2008 (Simon’s Rock identifies classes by entrance year) brings the College closer its goal of not just recruiting, but actively shaping a class. “This entails looking at what composition of students makes for the best educational experience, and choosing among equally qualified applicants based on interests, backgrounds, skills, and other factors,” explains Davidson.

Director of Admission Steve Coleman adds, “I regularly ask prospective students, ‘How will you enrich the experience of other students here?’ This is something we’re thinking about in admission, too.”

The 2007-2008 admission cycle saw strong numbers of applicants, and, crucially, a rise in the yield—the number of students accepting an offer of admission. The College’s investments in facilities and physical plant have made a difference, Davidson believes, and its signature programs such as the Simon’s Rock/Columbia University Engineering Program and Simon’s Rock Scholars at Oxford have been a big draw. The Acceleration to Excellence Program (AEP), which provides merit scholarships to qualifying students, continues to attract a highly competitive pool of applicants. Consistent with past years, half of the class of 2008 was enrolled through this channel. The proportions of rising sophomores and juniors have shifted, though, and consequently, the class of 2008 is nearly evenly divided between students entering after their sophomore and junior years.

As a result of all these factors, the College was able to be more selective in admitting students who are not only prepared to do college-level work after the 10th or 11th grade, but bring myriad perspectives and life experiences that contribute to the mission and spirit of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Students like the young woman born in Ethiopia, where she lived in a refugee camp until being adopted by a family in Vermont. A child of war, she’s determined to devote her life to raising awareness of peace. Or the young man from Rhode Island who’s been commissioned to do a documentary on his people, the Narragansett tribal group, and is skilled in traditional dance and flute-playing. Or the home schooled student from North Carolina who started and ran a theater company with his brothers for several years, handling casting, staging, fundraising, and more.

Students of color make up 30 percent of the class of 2008. It’s the fourth consecutive year that the College has enrolled a class in which students of color represent 26 to 30 percent of the total student body. Eighteen percent of the new class are first-generation college students. Just over quarter of students are receiving financial aid through Pell Grants (federal grants offered to the most financially in-need students) or are Pell Grant-eligible. In these and other measures of diversity, the College does very well vis-à-vis its peers, says Davidson.

In line with national trends in higher education, the new class is skewed toward female students. “The national trend has landed here,” says Davidson. “We recognize it, and we’re we're working to identify the points in the admission process at which this is happening.” The class of 2008 is split 70/30 between female and male students.

During her address to this year’s incoming students and their families, Provost Marcy noted that “admission is as much art as science.” The class of 2008 reflects both. The art—the alchemy—of bringing together 15, 16, and 17 year olds who embrace the challenge and opportunity of early college was already apparent in the first week, during which all first-year students took part in the Writing and Thinking Workshop that lays the groundwork for a Simon’s Rock education.

Now, the class of 2008 has been absorbed into a full, bustling campus: 166 returning sophomores, 53 juniors (with an additional 16 on leave to study abroad), and 66 seniors. Diverse and multi-faceted, the students themselves—no less than the ideas they’ll discover and debate—supply the virtues and values of the liberal arts.