After two and a half years of running College Quo, I've realized that there is a serious gap in how Jamaican (and international) students approach the university selection process. Students generally focus on either 'brand name' private universities (Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, NYU and the works) or large public universities (USF, UCLA, Berkeley, UNC Chapel Hill etc). While these can be great options for you, they are definitely not right for everyone. A small, liberal arts college (LAC) could very well be exactly what you are looking for!
When I began looking at universities, I too fell in love with this 'brand name' idea. My focus fell directly on the Ivy League, and other top-tier large schools like Duke and the University of Chicago. After I went to a college talk with Amherst, Wesleyan and Williams (all small LACs) I switched my focus to liberal arts colleges and applied almost exclusively to these schools - Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, Grinnell, Macalester, Pomona etc. I'm SO happy that I made that decision (not only because LACs tend to be extremely generous in giving financial aid to international students - but that was a big factor), and this article will explore why.
UNDERSTANDING LIBERAL ARTS
Firstly, we need to define liberal arts. Many think of it as a political term, but the idea in academia is more akin to 'liberating' the mind and broadening its horizons. As an IvyWise ARTICLE states: "Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller institutions that focus on undergraduates and teaching. The hallmarks of liberal arts colleges, such as Bowdoin, Williams, and Amherst, are [characterized by] small class sizes, close access to professors, undergraduate research opportunities, and a broad-based academic program in in the core subject areas of mathematics, the social sciences, and the hard sciences".
At LACs, it is not WHAT you study that matters, but HOW you approach topics and dissect ideas. There is an emphasis on writing and communicating effectively. It teaches you how to digest information and create solutions, as well as how to think critically and analytically.
An ARTICLE published by Dartmouth College (the only Ivy League LAC), states that: "In today’s landscape of technological and social transformation, graduates must be prepared to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. What curriculum is better suited to develop such abilities than one that offers a broad understanding of the world with mastery of at least one field, the capacity to think critically and creatively, powerful communication skills, an ease at working in teams, scientific literacy, the ability to engage the arts and humanities, and the development of principled leadership skills? In fact, the liberal arts have never been morerelevant. As Dartmouth has shown time and again, the liberal arts education is an incubator for leadership and impact on the world"
THE ACADEMIC EXPERIENCE
I go to Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts college in the quaint little town of Brunswick, Maine. Even though I'm an anthropology major at Bowdoin, I've taken classes in computer science, history, legal studies, neuroscience, German, philosophy, religion, economics, dance, gender studies, Latin American studies, Asian studies and the list literally GOES ON. My classes have had names like "Carnival, Race & Gender in Brazil", "Mystery of the Nation State", "Into the Wild" and my personal favourite "Dance and the Politics of Sexiness". I've written papers on topics like "The ‘Sacred Whore’: The Incarnation of Pomba Gira in Brazil’s Sex Work Industry" (which, much to my parents' dismay, focused on the intersection of prostitution and witchcraft in Brazil) and "Jamaican State Formation: Capitalism, Ethnonationalism and Cultural Identity". The point is, if you are intellectually fearless, curious and adventurous and have a wide variety of passions that you want to explore, liberal arts might just be what you are looking for!
You might be wondering: "How will these classes give me knowledge that will help me in the 'real world'? Will they apply to my job or future career?" The answer is yes and no. Most classes in fact will not directly give you knowledge that you can apply to your future career but what are far more valuable assets (in my opinion, at least) in the 'real world' are the critical thinking capabilities and communication skills that you receive. Yes, a pre-professional major like marketing or public relations might give you some important jargon or technical skills that will serve you well, but if you think long term, it is the 'ability to learn just about anything' that liberal arts teaches you that could be even more powerful.
When I came to Bowdoin, I was determined to major in economics. I needed to have a job, right? Econ seemed practical, and I was already 'decent' at math (not the best, but I didn't loathe it). After I took a trip with Bowdoin to the Bay Area to visit some of the world's top tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Airbnb etc, my mindset completely changed. At Apple we met with Phil Schiller, the Senior Vice President of Apple Marketing Worldwide and a member of Apple's Executive Team, who talked with us about the value of the liberal arts. His son went to Bowdoin (that's why he agreed to meet with us) and long story short, his words put my mind at ease regarding how marketable my degree would be. The tools that you gain from attending a LAC are immensely powerful, and it's up to you to gain the necessary experience and 'hard skills' to differentiate yourself. In essence, it's not what you know but how you learn that sets you apart.
A huge misconception about LACs is that they're meant for the "soft subjects" like history, sociology and english, but are not for STEM majors. This is definitely not true. Many LACs are especially strong in the sciences (in fact, Pomona, Bowdoin and Dartmouth, all of which are small LACs, are all ranked in the top 25 universities in the U.S for Biology according to NICHE). If you want to be an astrophysicist but also want to understand Nietzsche's philosophical theories, or a mathematician who also studies contemporary dance, then look no further than the liberal arts. While engineering options may not be available at most liberal arts colleges, many schools have 3-2 or 4-2 degree programs with other engineering schools. Bowdoin has a 3-2 program with Dartmouth and a 4-2 Program with Columbia, and schools like Colby, Amherst, Bard and Davidson have similar programs! (Note 3-2 or 4-2 engineering programs entail 3 or 4 years at an LAC and 2 years at an engineering school. At the end, you get two degrees: a liberal arts BA and an engineering MS or BS).
LACs are characterized by their smallness in size and the focus on undergraduate students. Most LACs don't have graduate schools (Dartmouth is the only exception that comes to mind), so professors are fully focused on the undergrad experience and you will not be taught by a grad student, as you likely will be at most large universities. Classes are also small, and there is an emphasis on collaboration and discussion-based learning. The biggest class I've had at Bowdoin had around 45 students (that's what 'large intro classes' are like here) and the smallest had 4 students. Most of my classes have between 12 and 20 students, and so you really get to know your professors and peers. The campus community is tight-knit, with only around 2000 students total. You see familiar faces constantly - in classes, in the dining halls, or at parties. I have coffee or lunch with my professors often, and my roommate actually had a professor who called her every Monday and Wednesday morning to wake her up for class (not kidding). Some professors even invite their entire class to their house for dinner at some point during the semester. All of my professors and deans know me by name, and they actually care about their students' well-being. The sense of community is strong, and if you're thinking about grad school then the close student-faculty relationship can be extremely valuable (professors will use their connections, write strong letters of recommendations etc).
Another selling point of LACs is that they tend to be some of the most generous universities for financial aid (to both domestic AND international students). While they are all need-aware for international students, with the exception of Amherst College, if you get in they will meet 100% of demonstrated need. In the U.S there are 18 universities that are need-blind (for domestic students) no-loan and meet 100% of demonstrated need. 6 LACs are on this list: Pomona, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Colby, Amherst and Davidson. The rest are Ivy League universities and other top-tier schools. Other schools like Grinnell, Macalester, Bates, Bard, Williams, Middlebury and Vassar are extremely generous to international students (though their financial aid packages may include a few small loans). Still, it's far from easy to get in to these schools. They are highly competitive and most have acceptance rates below 10% (and even lower for international students who need financial aid). But that's what COLLEGE QUO is here for.
ON THE FLIPSIDE
While this article focused on the pros of going to an LAC (and I know I'm biased), it wouldn't be fair to fail to mention the downsides; because they do exist! For one, although LACs (particularly the top-tier ones like the NESCAC schools and other peer institutions) are highly regarded in academic circles and with most employers in the US, there is definitely a lack of awareness amongst the general public/ employers internationally. I can't explain how many times I've been asked in Jamaica "What's Bowdoin? Is that a community college?" or "You're an anthropology major? How will you get a job with that?". It's frustrating, but I honestly didn't know what Bowdoin was either before I applied (or most other LACs for that matter)!
Another downside of a liberal arts degree is the potential lack of technical or career-specific skills. Unless you do something like computer science, chances are that your major and job after graduating from an LAC don't really align. Think about the scenario where you're applying to publicity jobs with your English major, and competing against people with actual degrees in publicity. This is where you have to gain experience to set you apart (summer jobs and internships, research etc) which at LACs aren't hard to do because of the bounty of resources that they pump into ensuring that students are job-ready and that their liberal arts degree won't hold them back. Bowdoin gives $5000 grants to approximately 100 students per year to allow them to get paid to do an unpaid internship (yes, you read that correctly). There are also countless research grants and opportunities to gain funding to pursue an interest or passion. A lot of other LACs have similar initiatives. It's up to you to take advantage of these opportunities and gain some hard-skills while on the job. From what I've heard from employers who often come to Bowdoin to recruit, while liberal arts grads may lack some hard, technical skills, their ability to communicate effectively, think critically and learn quickly make them highly employable.
A liberal arts degree is a really great tool to have under your belt. That said, it's not for everyone! Know yourself, know what you want from your college experience and go after it - whatever it may be.
As a student-entrepreneur, the first question that people always ask when they find out about my business is: What made you decide to start this? Well, it's hard to explain - because my decision to start College Quo was a culmination of several things. I didn't wake up one day with a sudden epiphany that I needed to do this. For about a year before I actually made the 'jump', it was always in the back of my mind. I knew that I could do it, but I feared my lack of legitimacy. Why would anyone simply 'take my word for it' that I had enough knowledge to provide these services and get paid for it?
Well, here is my story (and I'm starting from the very beginning, so bear with me):
When I was a student at Campion College, it never dawned on me that I could (and would) go to university overseas. I wasn't a citizen of anywhere else but Jamaica. My parents could never afford it. I had a clear path in mind - finish my time at Campion, and then go to Law School at UWI. I wasn't sure that I wanted to do Law, but it seemed like a decent enough option. Then, I met someone who would later become my best friend. Let's call her Sally. Sally transferred to Campion in 3rd form and quickly, we were inseparable. When you saw one, you saw the other. Naturally, we talked about our futures - what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go. Long story short, Sally made me realize that I didn't HAVE TO limit myself to Jamaica and that there are a multitude of possibilities out there. Even though we're no longer friends, I will always value the friendship that I had with her - because maybe, if it wasn't for her, my life would be very different.
Fast forward to 5th form. Everyone was now in the 'what are you doing after graduation' craze. Sally, and others, were going to boarding school overseas. Many were going to continue 6th form at Campion. Some were going straight into university. I felt like everyone had a clear trajectory - a linear path from A to B. I didn't. While I loved Campion and wanted to stay, I knew that I wanted to be challenged in a different way. I'm not sure how Hillel came up as an option, but I remember bringing home a pamphlet for the IB Program and handing it to my parents saying "this is what I want to do". I knew that I wanted to go overseas and I knew that Hillel would make it a bit easier to reach my end goal. My dad was all for it but my mom was a bit more hesitant. Up until this point, she thought that my idea of going to University overseas was "just a phase" (I still tease her about it...little did she know I would end up in Maine lol). There happened to be an Info Session for the IB Program that night, and my parents went. They were sold! So, after a long process, I got a scholarship and went to Hillel.
Now came the real confusion: How do I even go about actualizing my dream of going to university overseas? Where should I apply? How do I apply? How do I get scholarships? It was overwhelming.
I'm a little bit obsessed with research. I got REALLY REALLY INTO the college application process. I lived on websites like College Confidential, I made charts and spreadsheets, I read countless essays of students admitted to my dream schools. Still, it was too much for me to handle on my own and I knew that I needed to get outside help. So I went to a popular College Help program for Jamaican students. They helped me a lot and maybe if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have gotten into the universities that I did. Still, it came with a hefty price tag. My decision to start College Quo was not to compete with said company, but to offer an alternative to students. But we'll get to that in a minute.
I took the SATs three times. I got playfully teased for how seriously I took it. I was the girl who ALWAYS had an SAT book in her hand while walking around school. I even bought an online SAT strategy book and read it from cover to cover (the SAT Blackbook - highly recommend!). In the Hillel yearbook, my "most likely" was 'most likely to pass the SATs'. Technically, you can't pass or fail the SATs but it shows just how seriously I took it. I knew that being an international student who needed significant financial aid was the hardest category to be in. I knew that the universities that give the most financial aid to international students are the most competitive (we're talking Ivies, NESCACs and their peer schools). I knew how badly I wanted this. So I put in the work.
Unpopular opinion: I actually enjoyed the SATs. To me, it was a game. You study the strategies of the test and learn the rules and you're golden. I also really enjoyed the process of college admissions. It was motivating, exciting and even felt a little bit magical. I ended up somewhat 'counseling' (unofficially) many of my friends: 'Don't apply here, they don't give good aid to internationals'... 'You should look into this school, I think you'd be a great fit'. I even ended up editing some of their essays and I realized how much I enjoyed doing it. Still, it never really dawned on me to start a business from it.
I remember looking first at the Ivy League (and schools like Stanford and University of Chicago). But after going to an info session for Wesleyan, Amherst and Williams - I decided that liberal arts was PERFECT for me! (I'll make a separate blog post about this...because I could write a book about it). In the end, I didn't apply to a single Ivy League, or Stanford. I applied to almost exclusively liberal arts colleges - Pomona, Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, Macalester, Grinnell, Bard etc etc (as well as a couple safety schools). Actually, I didn't even apply to UWI (which, looking back, might not have been the smartest decision because going overseas was not guaranteed). I got a few acceptances, many waitlists and a couple rejections. I remember the day the Bowdoin decision was coming out. I was ANXIOUS. I already got waitlisted at many schools that statistically were 'easier' to get into, so I knew that my chances were slim. The acceptance rate was less than 12%. There's no way..... but I opened the portal and saw balloons and confetti on the screen and the word "congratulations" . They also offered me an all-expense paid trip to Maine for admitted students weekend. I was overjoyed. A few weeks later, I visited Bowdoin and fell in love. It was perfect for me. Even though I got off the waitlist at other schools, and got better financial aid offers, I ended up going to Bowdoin.
Fast forward again - this time to freshman year at Bowdoin. I remember one day scrolling through snapchat and seeing a student complain about the stresses of college admissions. Without hesitating, I messaged him: "I can help you with your applications for a small fee!". After some communication, it was settled. College Quo was not yet born, but this was the event that kickstarted it all. That student now goes to university in Wales, UK. I realized that I had a passion for this, and I was really good at it too! Everything, at that moment, came together - it suddenly all made sense. I was meant to do this. I knew that a gap existed in Jamaica and I wanted to make College Help more affordable and accessible.
A few months later, College Quo was born. It took weeks to build the website and create a business plan but when it finally came together, it was so worth it. My college roommates can attest to this - for 2 weeks straight it was me, on the couch in sweats, working on my website until the wee hours of the morning. And...well, the rest is history.