Pomona College: Learning for the sake of learning

fullsizeoutput_1211Among the five Claremont Colleges (“5C’s”), Pomona sticks steadfastly to its identity as the “thinking” campus.  On our tour, the guide even poked fun at neighboring Claremont McKenna, where students focus on “doing rather than thinking.”  Walking around campus and talking to students, you get the feeling that they derive joy from learning.  One of my former clients, now a freshman there, excitedly told me and my daughter about having applied for a summer grant from the college to research 18th century conjugal relationships in Britain.  Pomona hopes that, through learning, students experience “exploration, self-identity, and innovation.”

fullsizeoutput_1213Founded in 1887 on the model of a small New England college, Pomona has operated since its inception on the fundamental premise that any and all qualified students could attend.  The college’s dedication to equity and access comes through in multiple ways.  High academic expectations can leave students feeling, as our tour guide confessed, like “sophomore year really kicked my butt”; however, she went on to describe all the supports that helped her move to the next level academically and intellectually:  “Professors teach all classes.  Everyone is very accessible.”  Students who need it have access to the Student Disability Resource Center that serves all of the 5C’s and Pomona’s Writing Center.  You even see the college’s commitment to equity and access walking through Physics Department classrooms, where displays of student quotes highlight how Pomona helped them develop self-confidence to pursue their interests, even when they doubted themselves.

Pomona expects a lot from its students, noting in the information session that most applicants to the college “are at the top of their game.”  In fact, “performance in rigorous classes is the first thing we look for” in applicants.  Even strong standardized test scores don’t make you stand out in the Pomona pool, as “almost all” applicants have “strong” testing.  (Pomona superscores both the ACT and SAT.)  The college looks for academic excellence in its applicants in part because “we encourage students to take academic risks once they arrive here.”  Taking those risks in a constructive way requires that you enter college on strong academic footing.

fullsizeoutput_1219That said, Pomona students focus on their lives and presence in the college community as much as they focus on their academics.  Groups of 15-25 freshmen live together in the same dorm with a sophomore “sponsor.”  These sponsor groups form strong bonds, complete with their own traditions:  On your birthday freshman year, for example, your sponsor group places you in one of Pomona’s many fountains around campus.  The entire college enjoys the campus’s equal access to both the mountains and the beach.  On an annual “Ski-Beach” day, many students spend the morning skiing in the mountains and the afternoon lounging at the beach.

The admissions committee looks for applicants who can do high level academic work and function at the same high level with their activities.  That ability to combine both elements identifies that students “still have gas in the tank at the end of the day, that [they] have energy left after [their] academics to do more.”  That quality matters at Pomona, a campus that welcomes “difference makers” and students who will take advantage of all that Pomona and the 5C’s collectively have to offer.  And make no mistake—the 5C’s offer the resources of a major research university, but in a small liberal arts setting.  Some majors span the 5C’s.  Our tour guide had taken at least one class per semester at one of the other Claremont’s.  Pomona students may even live on one of the other 5C campuses, all of which lie next to each other in a one square mile area.
fullsizeoutput_1215On one of our last nights at the 5C’s, my daughter and I took out a group of students for pizza and ice cream (both kids we knew and kids we were meeting for the first time).  We really enjoyed ourselves as we listened to them talk about their experiences (they came from Pomona and Scripps).  All four students agreed that, while Pomona students know how to enjoy themselves, they will not throw raucous parties themselves.  Instead, they enjoy dropping in on the parties on some of the other 5C campuses and then returning to their more quiet home base on the Pomona campus.

Pomona did not strike me as a one-dimensional place where people just grind away at their academics.  Instead, I came away feeling like the campus has a grounded group of kids with esoteric interests who derive joy from learning and who love their campus home (where 98% of them stay for all four years).  If you want a raucous party culture, then you can probably bypass Pomona.  On the other hand, I encourage you to check it out if you can see yourself ensconced in a rigorous yet nurturing community of passionate learners motivated to make a difference in the world.