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Choosing the campus environment that's best for you

Lists of school rankings abound, yet the feeling that a campus evokes cannot easily be ranked.  Campus climate – the overall feel of a school – remains unique to each institution. For students, it's key to find a match – or, at least, avoid a mismatch.

"Not too small. Not too big."  It's those words that 19-year old sophomore Jessica Gonzales uses to describe the campus environment at Morgan State University.

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But it's not the whole story.  Sometimes intangibles make the difference.

"I feel welcome here. I fit in. Everybody sees some potential in me. I love the support. They push you towards your potential,' says Gonzales, an elementary education major, who moved to Maryland from her home in urban Connecticut.

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As a Latino student, Gonzales knew she wanted an "urban school." Ultimately, she picked a historically black college and university (HBCU).

"I felt at home at Morgan. I felt that all that I wanted to do would be possible," says Gonzales. She does community service, dances on the dance team, remains a member of three honor societies, holds down a work-study job in the admissions office and volunteers as a campus tour guide.

"I came from a lot of poverty and my family moved around my whole life," says Gonzales, who first discovered Morgan during a high school program that exposed 11th graders to HBCUs.  After spending time on campus, she knew "Morgan was my No. 1 choice." Here, she values being with "people and professors who care about you."

One of them is Tiffany Mfume, director of the office of student success and retention. Mfume knows what students say about Morgan's campus environment because she asks them. "It's part of the data we collect on why people enroll at Morgan," she says.

She notices that students decide to apply to Morgan after an on-campus visit. "The impression we make on campus is a real game changer. Being on campus they get 'the vibe' – the flavor. They see that the energy of the student body is open, inviting and friendly."

Mfume describes the school's physical campus environment as "urban, but picturesque. It's physically beautiful with greenery and newly renovated buildings. Students skateboard, hula hoop and lay in the grass on picnic blankets," she says, emphasizing "… places for students to congregate. This campus acts as a catalyst to get students to feel at home, come out of their shell and come into themselves."

She says that the majority of students "are black, but it's a diverse student body. The number of international students has grown exponentially." They hail from Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil, Africa, Nepal and the Caribbean.

"At orientation week, our students report 'people here look like me, but they are diverse.' It's a nice complement to the friendliness," says Mfume. "The energy of our student body and campus environment is open and inviting."

Promotion of social service and justice

In 1895, the School Sisters of Notre Dame established a college rooted in the Catholic traditions. Today, Notre Dame of Maryland University welcomes students of all faiths while continuing to emphasize a founding tradition of social responsibility and service to others.

"Our students are attracted to issues of social service and justice," says Marylou Yam, president. "Our mission makes us unique. We educate leaders to transform the world."

A sense of responsibility to the world impacts the campus environment, which is set on beautiful, 58-wooded acres in a residential neighborhood. "All students in our Women's College and School of Pharmacy, who are not adult undergraduate and graduate students on campus on a part-time basis, are engaged in  service," confirms Yam. Service trips, clubs, class projects and partnerships with local and international charitable organizations comprise a significant part of campus life.

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In Baltimore, students help the homeless and tutor local school children, among other projects.  In fact, this school's commitment to service landed Notre Dame on President Barack Obama's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

Additionally, the United Nations Department of Public Information granted Notre Dame non-governmental organization (NGO) status.  Notre Dame is the first university in Maryland to receive this distinction. As such, its students gain access to U.N. programs and briefings to discuss international issues on world stage. Masters-level students get preference for U.N. internships, says Yam.

Notre Dame touts another accomplishment in the tradition of service. "Our school of education is among the largest providers of new teachers in the state," says Yam.

Although a Catholic institution, only 40 percent of students at the undergraduate level identify as Catholic. "A big part of a Catholic university is the idea of inclusiveness and unity," says Yam. "The development of faith  – no matter what your faith – plays a role on this campus. We encourage students to reflect on their faith and faith practices. We support that faith journey through the college years."

Required core curriculum includes religion study. Plus, this campus environment teams with faith-based celebrations, interfaith prayer space, an active campus ministry program, student-lead prayer services, retreats and discussions. "We focus on development of the whole person – mind, body and soul," says Yam.

Finally, in terms of campus environment, Notre Dame holds a unique distinction. It's the only woman's college in Maryland. "We believe in the value of woman's education.  Advancement for women is still part of our vision for woman ages 18 to 22 years old. We offer a greater extent of leadership opportunities for women," says Yam.

Beyond one

When describing the campus environment at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), be aware that it has five campuses. "It's one of the things that make us different and good," says William Watson, dean of liberal arts. With three main campuses [Essex, Dundalk and Catonsville] and two extensions [Hunt Valley and Owings Mills] every location yields a different campus environment.

For example, Owings Mills is the newest campus. It shares the same building as a Baltimore County Library, located on the first floor. CCBC spreads up vertically on floors four through six.  This campus environment is "compact.  It's all in one building. You never have to walk between buildings when it's raining," says Watson.  Students enjoy the adjacent shops and restaurants at Owings Mills Town Center as well as enclosed, covered student parking.

Each campus environment remains unique, but they share commonalities. "CCBC is completely a commuter college," says Watson. "We are in the community. Right here. It's not hard to get to it."

Plus, CCBC – as well as other community colleges – has make great strides to overcome "the 13th grade" reputation. "It is a college, definitely not a high school," says Watson. "We are not a large regional research university. We are 100 percent a teaching institution."

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As a community college, "students come here to do the first years of their B.A. degree. We like them to transfer to four-year institutions. We offer many transfer patterns," says Patti Crossman, chair of department of arts and humanities, and professor of music, with a specialty in piano.

CCBC is known for its status as a leader in the performing arts.  Art gallery exhibitions, dance performances, the Baltimore Symphonic Band, Cockpit in the Court summer theater and Dundalk Community Theater make a home on campus, primarily at the Essex and Dundalk campuses.

"Something really important about our campus environment is the opportunities given to students right away. They can perform in theater productions, dance concerts, music recitals and more. At many four-year institutions, there's not as much chance to perform in the first years because upper classman get more chances."

Jarrett Rettman, 20, is a music major at CCBC with plans to transfer to Towson University in spring. Rettman picked CCBC, first, because of the cost and location. "It just made sense to spend less money and leave here with a degree," he says.

"CCBC has provided the best campus environment for me as a music major. The feel around the arts building is one of hope and inspiration. The music staff on-site is superb.  The school has provided students with a brand new band room as well as larger practice rooms," he says.

CCBC sponsors a weekly concert series and a daytime music forum, which is open to the public as well as students. "At CCBC, you can study music, then go on to become a sociologist," says Crossman. "Having a vibrant arts scene on campus adds some depth to all the other work going on." •

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