Pitzer College: Academics infused with social activism

D91B41EE-6D09-4633-B20C-9BACD13CA121_1_201_aI have had a soft spot for Pitzer College ever since I interviewed former Vice President of Admission and Financial Aid Arnaldo Rodriguez for my book, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions. My visit with my youngest daughter in 2020 felt long overdue! Part of a consortium of seven colleges known collectively as The Claremont Colleges, Pitzer stands out as perhaps the one that marches most of all to its own drummer. Walk the Pitzer campus and you see evidence of the social activism and culture of communal living that have come to represent the school’s ethos.

2FDEC5F9-AE9C-41B3-B8B9-5DD82DCE2FBC_1_201_aThe physical surroundings at Pitzer struck me right away as different from anything I have ever seen on a college campus. Drought-resistant plantings (lots of cacti!) speckle the grounds. Walking through first-year housing – concentrated in a particular area of campus and complete with a swimming pool – I noticed Dutch doors, clotheslines with laundry drying in the sun, and an architectural style that seemed to blend both southwestern and industrial influences. As evidence of the close relationships that Pitzer fosters, our tour guide mentioned that the college has integrated faculty apartments into student housing, the proximity promoting strong faculty-student connections.

Students at Pitzer enjoy the benefits of a strong liberal arts education, where they can explore many different areas before settling on a major. Rather than mandating specific core courses, the college has delineated “Breadth of Knowledge” requirements to support students on their intellectual journey:

  • Two courses in the humanities and fine arts,
  • Two courses in the social and behavioral sciences,
  • One course in the natural sciences,
  • One course in quantitative reasoning.

Classes can take an eclectic turn, such as the “Mathematics of Boat Building” course that our tour guide mentioned, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. Thirty percent of Pitzer students pursue STEM majors, according to our tour guide. STEM majors can take classes at the Keck Science Department, a resource that Pitzer shares with Claremont McKenna and Scripps Colleges, two other members of The Claremont Colleges consortium. The consortium offers additional benefits: Pitzer students may pursue a major at any of the other schools, as long as they complete at least 50% of their classes at Pitzer.

I asked my daughter as we walked the campus for one word that she would use to describe the vibe at Pitzer. “Chill,” she responded immediately. I could see what she meant. Along our tour, we passed a chicken coop, a Green Bike Program, and lots of student murals.

7520CA4C-345B-4194-AF63-81DC5F133864_1_201_aMuch of the artwork that we saw focused on social or political messaging, especially at the Student Free Space, where students may post anything they want and the posts remain sacrosanct – the administration will not cover up anything that appears there, no matter how offensive some may find it. I asked what would happen if someone posted a hateful message there. Would the administration paint over something like that? No, our tour guide responded. Another student group might respond to the message on the same wall. The administration might send out an email to students making supportive resources available. The college might even convene an Open Forum to discuss something that students posted on the Student Free Space, but the message would remain.

A theme of social responsibility runs through Pitzer’s culture: “What do Pitzer students do when they get bored? They plan protests!” Students must take a social justice theory class and a social justice praxis as graduation requirements. With its unique blend of free expression, social activism, and an emphasis on social justice and protest, Pitzer has managed to build what our tour guide described as “a very tight community.” Students interested in exploring their academic interests through interdisciplinary learning in the midst of a community deeply committed to social justice will find Pitzer a special place.