|Rhodes College belongs in the company of Whitman, Macalester, Lawrence, Grinnell, and Sewanee, all superior small liberal arts colleges attracting strong students from outside their region and increasingly numbered among the nation’s most respected colleges of their type. Just as Macalester offers the small college experience in the city of Saint Paul, Rhodes is one of the few eminent small colleges located in the heart of a major city.|
Rhodes looks like an Ivy college in an earlier era, but its facilities are modern and more than adequate. For those of you approaching the South for the first time, Memphis is unique in several aspects. In the first place, Memphis operates the second-busiest commercial airport in the world, second only to Hong Cong. Memphis is the corporate and operational home of FedEx, but numbers of other cargo planes and major airlines fly from Memphis around the world. The city was at the heart of the cotton trade, located as it is on a bluff above the Mississippi River. Memphis is the largest city on the Mississippi, almost as rich in musical tradition as Nashville and certainly a contender when talk of barbeque begins to arise.
I’m not sure a casual observer could tell the difference between a campus photo of Princeton and a similar shot at Rhodes. I believe that with the possible exception of a small quadrant on Duke’s campus, Rhodes has the most “Gothic Collegiate” architecture in the South. Applicants on tour immediately appreciate the elegant setting and beautifully maintained grounds on the one hundred acre wooded campus in the middle of Memphis, within yodeling distance of the city’s excellent zoo and Overton Park. Recent visitors have been delighted to find that the college’s original dining hall, the “Refectory”, bears a stunning resemblance to the imagined Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If you want to see a good representation of life on campus, take a trip to Rhodes via Instagram – fabulous!
Rhodes was included in the first edition of Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives, his groundbreaking book on the character of colleges outside the Ivy League and remains distinctive in its ambitions and its successes. Over the course of the subsequent years, Rhodes has continued to distinguish itself. Newsweek Magazine recently named Rhodes the number one service-oriented college in the nation, and the plethora of clubs, activities, service projects, internships, and opportunities to study abroad make Rhodes a remarkably responsive and active small college.
Every college enrolls good kids with impressive ambitions and dreams; over the years, I have come to believe that Rhodes is unusual in that it has a concentration of truly impressive students. The Rhodes experience is a happy experience; life at Rhodes is active and meaningful. While there is no one type of person who picks Rhodes, I describe the average Lynx (their mascot) as bright, kind, loyal, engaged, eager to try new things, fond of tradition, and generally poised for success wherever they end up. When students and recent graduates talk about the college, the three elements they mention most are strength of the community, extraordinary relationships with professors, and the Honor Code. It may seem odd to put the code in that light, but both community and relationships with professors are based on an abiding sense of trust, an enterprise this college takes seriously. Community doesn’t just happen; kids have to step up to take leadership in a variety of ways to make the Rhodes experience as lively and rewarding as it is. The number of clubs, organizations, and service opportunities is impressive, but so is the engagement in student government, including participation in the Honor Council.
There are some distinctive programs at Rhodes, and I will describe them is greater detail, but be assured that the core of the humanities and science programs is solid and very much appreciated by the graduate schools that more than a third of Rhodes graduates attend upon leaving the college. The college challenges prospective students to become “essential”, by which they mean taking responsibility for the success of each class and activity, but also taking responsibility for living a meaningful life in the years following college. Classes are small; about fourteen students make up an average class, although some advanced classes are even smaller.
English, Biology, Computer Science, History – all areas of study are highly regarded. There are some uncommon academic programs that reflect the college’s commitment to diversity and global awareness. Among the interdisciplinary programs are: Africana Studies, Archeology, Asian Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Latin American Studies, Neuroscience, and Urban Studies.
Recently, Rhodes established the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes. Mike Curb
s career in production and recording is legendary, and his interest in music education led him to establish the excellent program in Nashville at Belmont University. Memphis has its own very rich musical legacy, and the students in the Curb Institute work to preserve that legacy while also bringing new music to the campus. The college works in concert with the Stax Museum, the Rock and Soul Museum, and the Blues Foundation. One unique opportunity at Rhodes allows students to work in the building in which Elvis Presley wrote many of his songs. Students can also join in the house concerts presented frequently, called “An Evening with Elvis”,
Rhodes supports education abroad through a number of affiliations; the Buckman Center for International Education offers advice and counsel as students prepare to enter into study internationally. The center offers assistance on every issue from the completion of necessary studies while away from Rhodes to planning travel and residential opportunities.
Rhodes also sends students to some fascinating programs operated by specific centers. So, for example, a Rhodes’ students can attend the International Business Case Studies, Business in the EU, and Religion in the Low Countries. A center in Wyoming sets students in Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, studying Rocky Mountain Ecology. The Sociology of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Practice, takes students to St. Augustine in a peace-based study of the Civil Rights Movement. There is one more international programs that is distinctive to Rhodes, Field Studies in Namibia, which not only presents students with several ecosystems, including the Naukluft Desert, bit puts them in contact with indigenous people, NGOs, and Namibian officials.
Back on campus, life is pretty fantastic.
I would not ordinarily start with a description of a building, but the recent renovation of the college’s dining facility, The Burrows Refectory was one of the most impressive spaces on any college campus, the sort of dining hall that demanded comparison with the great Gothic halls. The renovation added more space, a new serving center, and, in the process created a new quadrangle. It’s pretty, and efficient, and sparkling, but it also fit perfectly with the classic building and makes this a true heart of the campus experience. Do not be misled; although Rhodes students call the Refectory, “The Rat”, there is nothing rat-like about it.
Dining is simply one aspect of community life, and Rhodes is determined to create and maintain a strong communal character to this college. There are fraternities and sororities, and they are popular with about fifty percent of the student body. That’s a higher percentage than at some colleges, but has far less impact than Greek life at most southern universities. For one thing, the fraternities and sororities are not residential, and each is organized around four “pillars” as well as social events and activities. The pillars are: Philanthropy (and there’s a lot of service commitments), Leadership development, Academic Achievement, and Intramural Athletics. Generally, about eighty percent of students are involved with some form of service, and virtually all are engaged in one of the more than a hundred clubs and activities on campus. All of the usual opportunities (Music, Dance, Theater, Publications, Arts, Service, Sports, Student Government) are available. Three interesting opportunities might be found in Quidditch, Contents Under Pressure (an Improv Troupe), and the Swing Dance Club.
My contention is that colleges with strong traditions allow students of every generation to feel a strong sense of community and campus pride. The seriousness with which students take the Honor Code and the deliberations of the Honor Councildemonstrate the importance of that code to the life of the community. Rhodes has a host of other traditions (Don’t step on the College Seal!), but the activity that most gladdens students may be the pancake study breaks. Pancakes of all sorts are cooked up all evening during the exam weeks, and the cooks may be students, faculty, of even one of the deans!
There are plenty of Wildcats, Bobcats, Cougars and other feline mascots, but Rhodes may be among the few sports team named after the Lynx. Rhodes is an NCAA Division III athletic college, participating in the Southern Athletic Association. You’ll know something about Rhodes in noting the athletic competition they seek. The football team, for example, plays Pomona-Pitzer (CA), Berry College (GA), Sewanee/University of the South(TN), Washington University (MO), University of Chicago (IL), Hendrix (ARK), Centre (KY) and Millsaps (MS). Both Men’s and Women’s sports play similarly ambitious schedules with good success. Athletic facilities are first-rate; the Bryan Campus Life Center impressive offering a gym, a fitness center, an indoor track, racquetball courts, squash courts, a training facility and an extra gym, available for intramural and pick-up sports.. Oh, and there’s also a snack bar and a ballroom.
Rhodes College is an extraordinary college set in an extraordinary city. For the student who wants both campus-based community and access to a city, Rhodes can’t be beat.