College Spotlight – St. Olaf and Evergreen

College Spotlight:
St. Olaf College
The Evergreen State College

"Colleges That Change Lives" Written Reflection

By Ryan Luse

St. Olaf College

The Evergreen State College


Although I haven’t yet visited St Olaf from an admissions perspective, experiences during my younger years at this campus still hold memories very dear to my heart. It is located in Northfield, Minnesota only about forty minutes away from where I currently live in St. Paul. Despite it being just outside the Twin Cities, it feels like a tucked away, hidden gem every time I visit with a magical feeling that seems to linger from each visit. In Colleges That Change Lives, Loren Pope says "Aesthetically and academically, it is Camelot. If it were on the East Coast it would be as selective as any Ivy. But it will just have to be satisfied with being better." I too share Pope’s passion for this school.

My first St. Olaf experience was back in my early days of high school when I attended a summer music camp that was life changing in many ways. The counselors, being mostly St. Olaf students and alumni, were absolutely fantastic and supremely talented. I remember thinking these are the kind of people I wanted to hang out and aspired towards them.

I came back to St. Olaf my Senior year when our concert choir got to tour the music department and see the choir perform. To this day I do not remember seeing a more impressive music department in the Midwest. Loren Pope says the music department "is one of the finest in the country and one-third of the student body participates in its performances."

What I may remember the most however is the beautiful campus. It has this quaint "Minnesota nice" Scandinavian feel to it and the campus straight out of a fairy tale. After falling in love with the schools music program and campus I had it on my list for schools in my own college search along with: Drake University, Gustavus Adolphus, Beloit and Emerson. I think I would have been happy at St. Olaf if my life took another path and ended up choosing a different school or been a little less wild.

Here are some more tidbits I learned reading Pope’s little love letter to St. Olaf:

  • The Choir sang at the 1988 Summer Olympics and is the only college choir ever to sing in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
  • I am someone who is big believer in the power of studying abroad and had no idea the number of programs and the global power St. Olaf has. According to Pope, "There are 120 programs, and some include study at several different locations. I don’t know of another college that has such a wealth of foreign programs, and nearly 80 percent take advantage of them."
  • St. Olaf bans cars for students who live in a 250 mile radius, which only produces very few gripes from students.
  • Although religion has been a part of its history and tradition, I do not see this school as one full of unnecessary rules and being rigid. Pope agrees by saying "It is enlightened, forward-looking and innovative; the teachers are caring human beings. You will be respected, and people will be interested in your views and beliefs"


I remember the first time I heard about this one of a kind school and was immediately intrigued. I was living in California and friend of mine named Amy had graduated from Evergreen State College. Amy often talked about her eclectic Evergreen experience, her brilliant Professors and non-traditional environment that made my school Emerson seem a tad traditional in many ways. So I was excited when I noticed Loren Pope include this unusual and offbeat school in Colleges That Change Lives and now I know without a doubt I want to visit this school- because it continues to blow my mind.

Pope says, "Evergreen State College offers the most unusual undergraduate experience in the Northwest, or in any public institution anywhere." I certainly believe him. Evergreen opened its doors in 1971, and is a youngster compared to all the other historic colleges with years of tradition. From the beginning the school wanted to be experimental and alternative and it turned what we know as traditional higher education on its head. Evergreen does not use letter or number grades but instead uses "narrative evaluations" that even the students do for the teachers. It makes education more of a discussion and a journey rather than a competition.

There are colleges that are similar in independent spirit like Hampshire and Marlboro but Evergreen’s campus alone seems worth the visit. Evergreen sits right smack in the midst of the Evergreen Forest in Olympia, Washington but is also close to urban cities in the Northwest.

If St. Olaf and Evergreen were paint brushes, I envision these schools producing completely different canvases. St. Olaf would paint with a wide brush appealing to many and probably be pleasing to the eye. Evergreen would maybe put down the paint brush and use its fingers with whatever color seemed prominent at the moment. The canvass of Evergreen would appeal to a much narrower group, but indeed a passionate one.

I see this being a school for a certain kind of kid- someone independent and not one to conform and definitely a progressive person. Jeff Jocoby, a media producer who is quoted in the book, puts the experience of Evergreen quite eloquently "Evergreen provides an opportunity to experiment and discover; to wonder 'what if' and to push the envelope of what’s possible. Don’t do what you think you should do or what seems safe. Do what seems fun and pursue what challenges you."

I wish I knew about Evergreen when I was on my college search. The off-kilter, almost rebellious vibes it reverberates would have appealed to my soul searching high school angst. My sister Chelsea who went to Duke would have hated it on the other hand. The more I learn about the school the more excited I am to visit, and I can’t wait till I meet the non-traditional kid looking for a one of kind school like Evergreen.

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