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Colleges That Change Lives

"On my first visit to Knox ... I thought, 'What a wonderful, charming place to spend four such important years of a young person's life.' I was impressed by the faculty, the students, and the cloistered tranquility of a campus of large lawns and great trees." — LOREN POPE

Knox is a place that will take you seriously, no matter where you grew up or what kind of high school you attended. Nobody cares if you want to dye your hair green, wear a cape to class, or dress in a suit every day. Instead, the focus is on cultivating your potential, stretching your limits, and sharpening your values so that when you leave, you are captain of your fate and master of your soul.

Social reformers established Knox in 1837 on the belief that an elite education ought to be available to anyone who could handle it, making the college one of the first in the country to admit women, students of color, and students without financial means. Its founders opposed slavery vehemently, and one of its first trustees was active in the Underground Railroad for more than a decade.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas here. Campus legend maintains that Lincoln had to crawl through a window in the main academic building, Old Main, to get to the debate because the speaker's stand had been built too close to the door. Lincoln then announced that he had been through college.

More than 150 years later, Knox still delivers an elite education to a diverse group of students, about 1,400 of them. They represent forty-eight states and U.S. territories and forty-six countries. The student body is 21 percent students of color, 7 percent international, and 59 percent women (not uncommon in four-year colleges these days).

As is fitting in a place committed to access, Knox accepts 77 percent of its applicants. The middle 50 percent scored between 26 and 29 on the ACT and between 1180 and 1420 on the SAT (critical reading and math), but the college is test optional, so if you don't want to submit your scores, you don't have to. While 75 percent of admitted students were in the top quartile of their high school classes, class rank matters far less than curiosity and motivation. "We're looking for the personal qualities and characteristics that show promise," says dean of admission Paul Steenis. "I'm looking for students who are intellectually curious and eager to learn, happy to think about ideas and issues, active participants in the classroom."

When you arrive, be ready to chart your own course. There's no set path through the Knox curriculum. Instead, the college emphasizes students' responsibility—with faculty input—to fulfill the curricular requirements in ways that satisfy their curiosity.

A student gets a broad foundation in the liberal arts and experiential learning such as off-campus study, independent research, and major creative projects. He must also be able to speak and write clearly and persuasively, understand and use mathematical concepts, have a working knowledge of a second language, and hone his skills in information literacy—the ability to find and discern worthwhile sources of information.

Each freshman must take a First-Year Preceptorial, a small seminar course based on an interdisciplinary topic such as "Love," "War," "The Social Life of Food," or "Learning to See Water." The class teaches the fundamental skills of liberal learning: framing view-points, disagreeing, identifying good sources of information, communicating intelligently, and participating honestly in scholarly conversation. In the spirit of interdisciplinary studies, professors from almost all academic departments teach First-Year Preceptorials.

Then a student is free to explore, as long as she takes at least one course each in humanities, social sciences, arts, and sciences. She must land on a major by the end of her sophomore year, and she must find a second area of emphasis, either a major or a minor.

But these aren't cursory decisions. Knox requires each student to write an Educational Plan by the end of sophomore year. Students reflect on their first two years, what they've learned, what talents they've discovered, which areas still need work, whether they want to study off campus, and where they'd like to focus their energy in class and on campus. Academic advisers must approve all Educational Plans.

This built-in time to reflect ranks high among the things that surprise and delight students about Knox. "For some people, [the Educational Plan is] just a thing to get done, but if you take it seriously, it's a good exercise in knowing yourself," says a junior from Chicago. "I think not many high schools ask students these questions, so you're not used to evaluating your own life. But if you don't practice examining yourself and your goals, you'll just continue down the same boring path forever, maybe a path you didn't even choose for yourself." Other students say they appreciate how invested their advisers are in helping them craft Educational Plans that suit and challenge them. "Nobody here lets you get away with the minimum. You're always pushed to do more, but not in a rough way. Professors just see a lot in us, and they're trying to strengthen us," says a senior majoring in creative writing.

He's right: Knox's sense of mission and its focus on student development are remarkable. "What struck me about Knox [when I was interviewing for this job] was a real sense of the college as a whole," says Dr. Larry Breitborde, the dean of the college. "People had a strong sense of being part of the larger enterprise. It led to them being concerned about how the whole college was working, asking questions about the full experience students are having."

Faculty's comments about their work and their students substantiate this claim. "I tell anyone who applies for a job here, 'The Knox community is a common circulatory system.' You give and take at the rate you need to. We support each other to support the students," says Dr. Judy Thorn, a biologist. "Most of us are addicted to being around students, and we'll do whatever it takes to make sure they're getting what they need, even if they don't know what that is right away."

Professor John Spittell, a retired executive who teaches in the business and management program (a minor), adds, "I was immediately taken aback by the level of engagement that runs between the professors and students. The excitement among professors to go to class and interact with students—I wish every prospective student could see it. This is my third career, but it's my true love."

And in yet another version of the same tune, Dr. James Thrall of the religious studies department says, "Students in high school who haven't fit into the standard achieving mode, whether it's testing well or working within expected parameters, will find that Knox faculty are pretty accommodating in terms of finding different ways of approaching material. I have been struck with the commitment of faculty to make their subjects interesting and engaging."

Knox is a place where "going to class" means far more than listening to lectures or repeating facts. Students praise their professors for leaving plenty of room for questions and discussion, even in the sciences, where the curriculum tends to be more regimented. And for students who discover topics they want to examine in depth, professors frequently sponsor independent studies.

A couple of interesting immersion programs give further proof of the college's intellectual metabolism—and its willingness to break the mold of typical college classes. Knox has developed an off-campus residential study term at its Green Oaks Biological Field Station, seven hundred acres of Illinois prairie a half hour's drive from campus. Professors from several disciplines study the ecological, historical, and aesthetic qualities of the landscape with students.

For aspiring thespians, the theater department produces a Repertory Theatre Term, when a small group of students transforms into a repertory company and puts on two shows. Students learn the business of a repertory company, study the historical and literary history of the plays, and perform in and produce the shows. "There is something very Knox about it," says Dr. Neil Blackadder, a theater professor. "It's this intensive experience devoted to producing the end product, but a lot of what we do is more about the process. It's the thrill of working in this small group of people. I believe the value of that learning is tremendous."

Such programs are made possible by the college's calendar: One academic year comprises three ten-week terms. The trimester system encourages—and sometimes forces—professors to be innovative. "At first, it didn't seem like enough time to teach them everything I wanted them to know," says Dr. Katie Adelsberger, a geologist. "But it got me away from content-based teaching, just trying to squeeze facts into lectures. I had to ask, 'What's a better way to teach this? How can I get them involved?' Classes with fieldwork tend to be most successful because students learn to analyze and apply information, not just swallow it."

Learning by doing is important at Knox. Students who want to conduct their own research or take on creative projects can apply for a share of $250,000 to fund their work. Art majors spend a full term in the studio, creating art for their senior shows and experiencing life as full-time artists. Biology students can't leave without doing research.

"Here, everybody gets a shot, not just the top kids," says Dr. Thorn of the biology department. Such opportunities aren't available everywhere—especially not at large universities, where graduate students take up most of the available spots in professors' research programs. Knox students don't just get the experience; they also get a lot of quality time with their professors. "'We chat. I get to know what they're interested in, what they're good at," Dr. Thorn says. "Then I try to get everyone who works with me experience at larger universities. They see what it's like to be a graduate student or a post doc. I can do that in part because I know what they're capable of and where they'll fit in best."

Like the other colleges in this book, Knox emphasizes the connection between teaching and research. Professors' first commitment is to teaching, but they must find ways to knit student learning into their research programs. "They're not trying to clone students to be academics, but it's important for students to be involved in research because creating new knowledge and mastering problems is going to help them in whatever they do," Dr. Breitborde says.

Students rave about the learning opportunities on campus and about their classes, but they are most enthusiastic about the community. An American student who grew up in Germany chose Knox over Northwestern University. "What persuaded me was the close-knit atmosphere on campus; I got the feeling that people would really care about me here," he says. A Romanian student traveled to Knox all by himself his freshman year. "I got to my dorm, and four people randomly showed up and asked if I wanted to hang out. From that second, I've been interacting with people. They're very keen on helping you regardless of whether you're a close friend or a random person." A junior who attended a competitive science-and-math high school outside of Chicago says her old friends are at places like Stanford and Princeton. "When I compare experiences with them, I think I'm getting just as good an education, but in a place where I'm building relationships."

In the context of this community, students say, they appreciate the college's diversity. "There's no one Knox student. We don't look alike. We don't necessarily act alike, unless you count 'quirky,' which we act out in about 1,400 different ways," says a junior from Chicago. A few students used the phrase "culture shock" to describe their transition to campus. "The things you took for granted, you realize they're not universal experiences," says a senior from Carthage, Illinois. ''It causes you to question things, or it makes you believe in things more strongly. You definitely get a more balanced view of what's out there." And Knox's culture makes the college a safe place to talk about differences, students say. "I think you come to appreciate the richness in people that lies beyond or beneath the person you see, the nationality or ethnicity or whatever," says the American student from Germany. "There's always something you can't define or grasp that lies beneath people, and Knox gives you a chance to get to know people deeply. It's part of what we do."

The fact that Knox operates under an honor code that demands integrity in all academic work seems to these students a most natural thing. How could it be otherwise? It's based on the same principle as the curriculum: "We take our students seriously," Dr. Breitborde says "We assume they're honorable people and want to do things honestly. They have individual responsibility for their learning—both the path and the truth of it."

The proof of Knox's power isn't just in student and professor testimonies; it's evident in the statistics too: 90 percent of freshmen return for sophomore year, compared to about 67 percent at all American colleges and universities and 69 percent at private, four-year baccalaureate schools. The college ranks in the top 3 percent of all U.S. institutions in the production of men and women who go on to earn PhDs, and 65 percent of Knox graduates do postgraduate study within five years of finishing their bachelor's degrees. Why such success? The college is explicit about its aspirations for students. Everyone gets opportunities to grow and learn. The spotlight doesn't shine on a chosen few -- the ones with the best SAT scores or the students who speak up most in class. Instead, the shoe gazers, the ones who haven't yet dared to dream big, raise their eyes to find professors and staff members eager to help them hone their talents and develop their goals.

"There is an esprit here," says President Teresa Amott, PhD, a veteran of liberal arts colleges. "I think its origins lie in Knox's size, the diversity comprehended within that scale, and the intensity of the interactions that are driven by discovery in the classroom. Not intensity like you find at Wesleyan or MIT; you're not going to be chewed up and spit out. I mean an intensity that's an asset, a warmth that I haven't found anywhere else."

"Knox College," from Colleges that Change Lives — Revised Edition by Hilary Masell Oswald, copyright © 1996, 2000, 2006, 2012 by Loren Pope. Used by permission of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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Times President Obama visited

Once after winning the Democratic nomination to the US Senate, next as a commencement speaker in 2005 and lastly, in July 2013 to address the economy.

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Printed on Friday, February 3, 2023