Nestled in the purple mountains of the Berkshires, Williams College is a small, private, liberal arts institution with an undergraduate population of 2,000 students, brimming with an almost tangible excitement for learning and life. These are students who work hard and play hard, devoting serious attention to courses and extracurriculars alike; the result is a campus that hums with activity and academic fervor. After four years, Williams graduates leave the Purple Valley armed with the knowledge and wherewithal to make a difference; their contributions are visible across the spectrum.
Founded in 1793, Williams exemplifies the liberal arts modus operandi of experimentation and exploration. Students are encouraged to build strong, broad foundations and then to construct spires soaring into the unknown. In this fashion, students can both pursue familiar interests and discover new ones; it is not uncommon to find a physics major taking music theory, for example, or a political science student spending time in the geology lab. Most students, as well, are vigorously involved in campus life and extracurriculars and don’t hesitate to take on several activities in addition to their coursework. With more than 175 student groups on campus, ranging from WUFO, the Williams Ultimate Frisbee Organization, to WCFM, the college radio station, there is always something to pique interest, and students are quick to spearhead new groups as campus interests evolve.
The enthusiasm for learning that pervades the Williams student body is matched by the college’s boundless resources, state-of-the-art facilities, and some of the world’s premier collections. English majors may fawn over Charles Dickens’ original Pickwick Papers in the Chapin Rare Books Library, theatre lovers direct plays in the new ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance complex, and art history buffs delight over original works at the college art museum and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute just down the road. The college frequently brings in guest lecturers and artists to enrich campus life, and recent years have seen noteworthies like Philip Glass, Werner Herzog, and Salman Rushdie alighting at the lectern.
Williams prides itself on its commitment to excellence and being well rounded, and this promise is most evident in the breadth and depth of the student body itself. Williams students hail from nearly all fifty states and more than forty-five different countries. About a third are American students of color, more than forty percent receive some type of financial aid, and the division between public and private school students is about 60:40. The spectrum of interests and experiences represented on campus creates a richly diverse environment, where students have great potential to learn from one another and strengthen themselves. Though social groups—as at most colleges—do tend to form based on participation in activities, most Williams students move easily beyond rigid associations, resulting in a friendly, open social atmosphere. U.S. President James Garfield (class of 1856), speaking of his former professor and early college president Mark Hopkins, once remarked, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” To this day, the metaphor lives on; with one of the lowest faculty-student ratios in the country; Williams brings students and professors closer, both in and out of the classroom. Williams professors are not only distinguished scholars but also passionate teachers, and students are top priority. Discussions in class often spill over into debates in the local coffee shop, or a class dinner at a professor’s home, and office hours—at all hours—are the norm.
Just as students are central in the college’s academic life, so are they in determining the future of the college. When Williams abolished fraternities in the 1960s and then went coed in the 1970s, students participated in the decision-making process. Today, students are a vital part of nearly every administrative committee on campus, helping shape campus social life, enforce the honor code, and even oversee the dining halls. Students hold real responsibilities at Williams, and it is this trust and partnership, this collaborative climate, that defines the college.
Williams is built upon and around its students, and they are all the happier for it. The resources available are first-rate, the faculty are among the most distinguished in the nation, and the staff is world-class. But in making lively classroom discussion to organizing nearly all campus events and activities to voicing issues and directing the future of the college, Williams students make the campus the passionate, vibrant place that it is.
Just as there is no “typical” Williams student, the Williams experience is different for everyone who attends; the college is a place where students are expected to create their own paths, both inside the classroom and out. Williams is a place where students seek out and overcome their toughest obstacles, growing and learning with every challenge; they know how to accept help and are generous in offering it to others.
Students work hard and set ambitious goals, but they also know how to put things in perspective, making room for friends and recreation. Even in the face of an all-night study session or hefty research assignment, there is always time for a midnight trip to the snack bar or an hour’s respite in the common room. It is these shared moments that are often at the heart of the Williams experience.
In the end, what you get out of Williams is what you put into it: yourself. And even though your time spent in the Purple Valley is, sadly, finite, it is an experience that makes the impression of a lifetime.