Warren Wilson College: a Holistic Higher Education Experience
“We’re not for everyone… but then, maybe you’re not everyone.”
I will never forget the feeling of welcome I had when I arrived at Warren Wilson College for the first time as a Freshman squeaker. My mom and I were directed into the small parking lot next to the Freshman dorm, Sunderland, and as soon as we were parked a friendly detail of older students began transporting my belongings into the building, aided by no less than the President of the College himself (Sandy Pfeiffer, at that time). I believe Sandy Pfeiffer showed his community spirit again that Winter when he helped my dad’s car out of a ditch after the amazing snowfall of 2009.
Warren Wilson drew me as a young person partly because of this unusually strong emphasis on community. I was also impressed by its unique approach to education. A small college of just over 1,000 students, Warren Wilson College boasts a Triad program of academics for the mind, work for the hands, and service for the heart.
In addition to my consistently ambitious 18 credit hour academic work load, I was employed by the college, 15 hours per week, in one of over 100 different work crews. Warren Wilson is a working farm producing high-quality, grass-fed beef, and possesses acres of carefully managed forest. I was assigned in the beginning to Campus Support, the construction crew, before choosing in my second year to help found the Fine Woodworking Crew with a personal focus on musical instruments. Other crews on campus include Library Crew, Blacksmith, Heavy Duty (the janitorial squad), Electric, Paint, Garden, Gladfelter (the cafeteria), Writing Center, Forestry, The Peal (the school magazine), and all the various crews specific to helping academic departments. In essence, Warren Wilson College is kept operational through the daily hard work of its students.
We were taught that all types of work have value in keeping a community of people functional. We also learned to respect one another in our different roles, rather than to assume academic superiority over people like janitors. I personally knew students who joyed in being on Plumbing Crew, for example, relishing the obvious value of being able to clear a pipe.
Warren Wilson also believes strongly in the community building value of service, or volunteer work outside of the college. When I was a student, I was required to complete and track a minimum of 100 hours of service, and regularly encouraged to engage in even more. I fondly remember the yearly Service Day, an afternoon off from classes in which Freshman were required to participate, when the Service Learning Crew arranged a number of projects with organizations in the surrounding community. In my Freshman year, I joined members of my class in landscaping the very old, local Swannanoa Public Library.
I also chose to attend Warren Wilson College for its strength in the Environmental Sciences. I majored in Conservation Biology, taking classes alongside future chemists, veterinarians, microbiologists, and fellow field biologists. The school is particularly well-suited for Forestry or Sustainable Agriculture, providing hands-on instruction through the Forestry and Farm crews on the business as well as the scientific aspects of those fields. I had the valuable opportunity to apply for and achieve a paid internship with Project Puffin, a conservation organization through National Audubon Society focused on studying and restoring Atlantic Puffins to the Gulf of Maine. My internship was just one of many made available for students by Warren Wilson’s outreach efforts.
My second major was Philosophy, and I was treated to a small but well-rounded Philosophy program with intimate, intense discussion classes. Warren Wilson has thriving humanities programs, including an MFA writing program available over the summer (notorious among the students for having attracted James Franco as a student of poetry). Professors in all departments were able to offer plenty of hands-on, one-on-one help to students due to small class sizes. I believe the largest class I remember taking held about 40 people, and it was considered to be pushing its limits. Most of my classes averaged around 15 to 20 people, and some of the Philosophy classes I took had as few as 6 or 8.
The community has a campus-wide dedication to sustainability. Warren Wilson boasts the Ecodorm, with a gray water system, an edible landscape, solar power, and on-site composting. I remember that the Admissions building is heated and cooled by geothermal energy. For more information about the school’s sustainability commitment, please see the college website. Warren Wilson provides bus fare for all students, allowing even those without cars to visit Asheville within a 30 minute drive using their student IDs. Asheville, North Carolina, is known for its highly artistic and original inhabitants, for its hippie culture, and for its Summertime Friday night drum circle.
The college’s sports options are few, but varied. We are the Fighting Owls, with skilled men and women’s basketball, soccer, cross-country, cycling, and swimming teams. Warren Wilson also has a number of interesting, student-run intramural activities, including several types of yoga, belly dancing, fire spinning, and the yearly Warren Wilson Circus, organized by the Theater Crew.
The Warren Wilson campus itself is a paradise. The vistas available from different parts of Warren Wilson’s campus are equaled, in my memory, only by those I’ve seen in National Parks. Our Landscaping Crew keeps the central campus looking at once carefully planned and wild, integrated with the surrounding countryside. I’ll never forget the elegant, low stone walls and the trails lacing across campus, connecting everything on central campus within no more than a 5-10 minute walk. Freshmen live on central campus, and upon advancing to Sophomore year they move down the road to one of a series of dorms, each with different perks and quirks. This residential side of campus is connected to central campus by a beautiful pedestrian bridge suspended about 30 feet over Warren Wilson Rd. From any part of campus one can quickly access the extensive network of hiking trails, threading through the farm pastures and forests maintained by work crews. A favorite trail of the students and surrounding Swannanoa community is the River Trail, winding sedately along next to the beautiful Swannanoa River, which has some truly wonderful swimming holes.
But perhaps the most beautiful and valuable thing about Warren Wilson College is that the community it creates, though it disperses spatially upon graduation, never really dies. I know that if I see a Warren Wilson bumper sticker, I am about to meet or reunite with a friend.