Prestige School: St. Olaf Forever!


If I say the name of the college I attended, you'll laugh. You will laugh and you will ask me this question: "Like in The Golden Girls?" Yes, I graduated from St. Olaf College. It is not Yale. It's not the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was exactly the right place. So much so that it was the only school I applied to. Early decision. And I never looked back.

I had visited other colleges and had a huge pile of viewbooks and catalogs on my desk during that summer between my junior and senior years of high school. But here's why I chose St. Olaf. There's this mission statement that still warms my heart. It says life more than a livelihood and that the school focuses on what is ultimately worthwhile. It says education should develop the whole person in mind, body and spirit.

The mission statement had something to do with it. The location — rural Minnesota — also did. I was raised in Florida and had my fill of heat and humidity. But the idea of the Midwest also intrigued me. I had heard it was a place you could actually trust other people. And that turned out to be mostly true. St. Olaf had a Great Books program and impressive English and religion departments. It also had a public radio station — the late, great WCAL — where I could work evenings and weekends. And that part-time job has turned into something better than a career. It's a vocation.

The school's mission statement has a section at the end that I think works quite nicely with why I work in public radio today. St. Olaf strives to teach critical thinking and heighten moral sensitivity. It encourages students to seekers of truth and lead lives of unselfish service. And it challenges people to be responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the world.

As it turns out I did go to a big, important graduate school. 'Misery' far too gentle a word to describe that experience.

I suspect a lot of us who chose a small, obscure Liberal Arts college couldn't care less about prestige. Because I don't think there needs to be a choice between the best school and the right school. My school was both for me. And I've never minded the Golden Girls jokes. I'm a big fan.



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This is GREAT. I'm an Olaf alum as well, class of 2007, and I also worked at WCAL. It was my first job working for public radio, and now I'm the morning host at KUAC-FM in Fairbanks, Alaska. I'm grateful for my education-- not only did Saint Olaf provide me with a wonderful education, but it also instilled values of service and independent thought. UM YA YA!

Sent by Greta Johnsen | 1:04 PM | 9-25-2008

It depends on the application. If we're talking medicine, science or engineering then I could see where a Harvard or MIT grad would have a distinct advantage. If we're talking business or politics I'll take a city college grad with street smarts and tenacity over a Harvard MBA any day.

Sent by Sam Weiss | 1:43 PM | 9-25-2008

Way to go Ole! both of my sons graduated from a college prep school in Kansas City, well prepared for any college, one a National Merit finalist. They both chose St. Olaf College over "more prestigious" colleges and I applaud their choice. I think that sometimes parents are more concerned with the prestige of their child's college vs. asking the question, "is this the right fit for my child?" The choices of Ms. Hernandez's clients seem to reflect that prestige was more important to them, so they don't care if they spend $40,000 to get there. I think that you will find thay many of these clients started this process in pre-school or maybe while pregnant. they have been programmed that if you don't get your child in the right schools, then they won't have a chance to excel in life or whatever. Very skewed point of view of life. Sounds like you are off to a great start and are following your passions and giving back at the same time.

Sent by Susan | 2:06 PM | 9-25-2008

I got wait-listed at the other less known college across town in Northfield (carelton), so I, too, have heard of St Olaf, have seen/listened to their Christmas concerts on PBS, and met a real live alum- the mother of my grad school apartment mate!

Sent by Paul | 3:40 PM | 9-25-2008

UM YA YA! I just heard this on NPR, and thought "I HAVE heard of this school. In fact, I graduated from there!" St. Olaf has served just as well as, if not better than, an Ivy League in grad school and beyond AND it did the application on my own.

Sent by AmberBeth | 3:55 PM | 9-25-2008

Yes, Olaf is a great school as are a number of private colleges in Minnesota. Interestingly, many are affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) which embraces Martin Luther's admonition to learn as much about the world as possible so that Minnesota ELCA colleges like Concordia College in Moorhead, Gustavus Adolphus, Augsburg College and St. Olaf have been centers of open inquiry, activism, and excellence. Minnesotans know and respect these institutions and understand that a student can achieve every bit as much as they might in a "more prestigious" (or more expensive) college. And they also enjoy healthy rivalries (Concordia's choir is still superior, even if an Ole' can't admit it!)

Sent by Mark | 4:06 PM | 9-25-2008

I was also taken aback by Madeleine Brand's comment about St. Olaf. A school she has never heard of, perhaps, but a school that has a high standing with regard to liberal arts colleges in the United States - and this is being said by a Carleton alum! While St. Olaf may draw students from more of a local clientele, the quality of this institution is first rate and Maleneine's comment just perpetuates the stereotype that name is everything!

As to those students pursuing Ms. Hernandez's assistance, perhaps this is the type of unethical activity that originally got them into the prep schools they attended in anticipation of the day they would matirculate at Harvard! This "silver spoon" mentality is what is driving down our economy today and it's not just reform on Wall Street that will help reestablish our democratic values!

Sent by Liz Klages | 4:07 PM | 9-25-2008

Fram! Fram! Reading this post warmed my heart. I have fond memories of St. Olaf, which has shaped my professional, personal, and spiritual life to this day.

Regarding the post from Mark claiming that Concordia's Choir is superior, I feel sad for you that you go around thinking a choir is 'better' than another choir. When I was a student at St. Olaf (class of 2003), neither myself nor any of my friends went around saying that our choral program was better than anyone else's. I always felt that the choral programs of St. Olaf, Concordia, Luther, etc. were part of one big family. Since I don't live in the upper midwest now, I have much more of an appreciation for the Lutheran college choral tradition. Although I take great pride in the choral tradition at St. Olaf (all of the choirs), I think there are always things that I can learn from other choral directors and choral traditions. Anytime one of the touring choirs from a Lutheran college comes through Colorado (I attend grad school in Fort Collins), I try and attend that concert. I know that other Oles in this state are of the same mindset. It is with great humility and gratitude (not pride) that I can say that I was part of the choral tradition at St. Olaf.

Sent by Austen Wilson | 6:49 PM | 9-25-2008

Ah, yes, In 1954 I received a letter from the Dean of Admissions at St. Olaf, Cully Swanson, that said "Congratulations on your acceptance to St. Olaf. Your dad was the clean-up hitter on my team at St. Olaf and I look forward to seeing you next fall."

Oles recruit students every day for free!

Sent by Paul Obrestad '60 | 8:40 PM | 9-25-2008

Hey jason, way to go. I remember working with you at WCAL during my time at St. Olaf and couldn't believe you were so sure that you wanted to work for NPR. Here you are, and it proves sometimes we know our calling early on. Your commitment has always left a hope in my heart that I would know my calling so well when it came. Instead there have been many callings, and they have all been great. I could say that St. Olaf had a hand in preparing me for that as well. (I can't say Um Ya Ya, though, it sort of makes me feel weird).

Sent by tim Foss | 11:51 AM | 9-26-2008

I couldn't believe my ears when I heard Madeline Brand, product of two bi-coastal "prestige" schools, proclaim on national radio that she'd never heard of St. Olaf College. I ask you--who is the parochial one?!

Sent by Kathy | 9:58 AM | 9-27-2008

Oh, Austen, Austen, Austen. Didn't they teach you a sense of humor down there? Ooof-dah! As Marge Gunderson would say "I tink you might be missing my point, Mr. Wilson."

Sent by Mark | 12:44 PM | 9-27-2008

I'm a counselor who just visited St. Olaf, Carleton, and Macalester last weekend. These are all amazing schools where students truly connect with professors, staff, peers, and the community. These kids are not 'lost in the crowd'...they attain an outstanding education along with the self-confidence and caring for others to go forth and do amazing things afterwards. I can't wait for my bright, Hispanic kids from the southwest to apply there this year and, hopefull, get in! Even their presidents and admissions staffs are are open-minded and nurturing...who cares about the cold!! (and I don't make NEAR $40,000 for helping each kid with their applications!)

Sent by Geri Jackson | 4:39 PM | 9-27-2008