When thinking of "the college experience," one might conjure up images of ivy-lined walls, football games and fraternity houses. Chances are, "chess team," "AIDS research" and "commuter" aren't the first words to come to mind. But University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) has created its own niche, somewhere between an exclusive private college and a big party school.

It is large enough that students don't know all of the people they pass on the way to classes, but small enough that its dynamic president, Freeman Hrabowski, knows many of the students by name. Founded in 1966, UMBC is a spacious mid-sized university located in Catonsville. The campus is situated on 500 acres of land located less than 20 minutes from Baltimore and 45 minutes from Washington, D.C. Unlike Towson University or College Park, however, its location is not exactly considered a college town. This makes having an on-campus social life challenging at times.

In recent years, the UMBC administration has attempted to inject some life into the daily grind. Between construction of residence halls and activity centers, there are increased reasons to stay on campus at the end of the day.

Opened in 2001, the 148,000-square-foot "campus center" -- the Commons -- houses the bookstore, convenience store, eateries and meeting rooms for clubs and organizations. Unfortunately WMBC, the college's free-form radio run by dozens of student DJs, is not piped into the Commons.

The Retriever Activities Center, opened in 1999, is a mammoth recreational facility featuring two indoor gyms, a fitness center and weight room, a track and a natatorium (two swimming pools). Also included is a 4,000-seat arena for concerts and sporting events. Alanis Morrisette, Margaret Cho and John Waters have all appeared there.

In the past, UMBC has been considered largely a commuter school. Plans for two new residence halls -- to be constructed by 2004 -- will help to change this perception by bringing the number of undergraduates living on campus to a projected 50 percent. But for now, the high percentage of commuters and their cars are creating a lack of available parking spaces. To alleviate the problem, a south campus satellite lot with 391 spaces was added in 2002.

Billed as an "Honors University in Maryland," UMBC offers an Honors College, where students can immerse themselves in a course of study. Interested students must apply specifically for the Honors College and must take one honors course per semester.

Majors at UMBC are varied and split among different colleges: The college of arts and sciences offers 33 majors in traditional subjects. The college of engineering -- comprising three different departments: Chemical and biochemical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering -- blends customary instruction with an emphasis on information technology and research.

UMBC, which was named one of Newsweek's 12 "hottest schools" in 2003, is now considered an "independent public research university," a distinction held by a mere 10 percent of the more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the country. This means research partnerships with some prominent organizations, including NASA, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Johns Hopkins University. Students research everything from various types of cancer to investigating the structure of HIV.

The research opportunities at UMBC are as varied as its students. The Bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park opened its doors in 2002 with the notion that an on-campus technology center that hosts local companies would provide students with the opportunity to gain real-world experience.

In addition to the science-based research opportunities at UMBC, The Shriver Center offers social action-based research and internship opportunities, the Imaging Research Center focuses on computer animation and visualization and the Center for Women and Information Technology strives to give women a larger role in information technology development.

UMBC also has an award-winning theater and dance department, as well as professional dance and theater companies that offer students opportunities to learn from working performers. Maryland Stage Company, the professional theater company in residence at UMBC, performs each summer at Center Stage in downtown Baltimore.

Doug Hamby Dance and Phoenix Dance Company are both professional dance companies in residence at the school. Doug Hamby Dance has been touted for its melding of artistry and technology, and even has a robotic member of the troupe. Built by faculty and engineering students at UMBC, Maurice Tombe is an arachnid-like robot who performs programmed choreography. His creation was partly funded by a grant to dance department chair Doug Hamby and Dr. Tony Farquhar of the engineering department, from the UMBC Designated Research Initiative Fund. He was used in dance pieces to determine his scope of movement and ability to be programmed and choreographed. Eventually, he will revert to his given name, Prototype Demining Robot 1A, to help discover new ways to deactivate landmines.

UMBC boasts strong relationships between students and faculty. While required classes are often held in vast lecture halls, core classes regarding a chosen major tend to be more personal. In addition to going out of their way to help students succeed in their programs (such as working with them to create their own disciplines), faculty members help find students jobs and internships in their chosen fields.

A high percentage of students go on to graduate school, aided by the programs UMBC offers, including the Honors College, the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program -- created for students who want to pursue their doctorate degrees in science or engineering -- and various internships through the Shriver Center on campus.

Despite Hrabowski's zeal for academia, he also realizes that rigorous studying makes for stressed students, and there are plenty of opportunities to unwind at UMBC. There are many clubs and organizations to join, but if there isn't one that appeals to you, there is always an opportunity to start one. In addition, WMBC allows students to create their own radio shows, and The Retriever Weekly (the campus newspaper) and Bartleby (the campus literary magazine) provide students with the honor of seeing their names in print.

Furthermore, UMBC athletics do exist, despite the school's lack of a football team. The Retrievers are represented in lacrosse (men's lacrosse is ranked in the top 20 nationwide) and basketball teams, as well as tennis, swimming, baseball and volleyball teams.

Perhaps the most unusual team at UMBC, however, never breaks a sweat in competition. The UMBC chess team is world-renowned. It has been featured on national television, battled chess champion Gary Kasparov, and UMBC was named 2000 "Chess College of the Year" by Chess Life Magazine, all of which adds to the intellectual nature of the school. As Hrabowski says, "At UMBC, we celebrate brainpower and the life of the mind. Our campus is home to the five-time national chess champions. ... We excel in debate, quiz bowl and Model United Nations competitions. This is a place where students not only feel good about being smart, but know that it is cool to be smart."

Hrabowski is obviously passionate about UMBC and its mission, and seems confident that prospective students will want to enroll as soon as they begin to investigate the possibilities. "All we have to do is get them here," he says. But what about competing with those other two dozen or so state schools? "High achievers tend to do their research," Hrabowski says.