Ode to Colby
What lured me to Waterville, Maine on a Friday afternoon in April wasn’t a fool’s errand, nor a professional endeavor; it was to satiate a personal curiosity. I wanted to walk upon the same path as one of the most compassionate and altruistic friends I have known, Abe. As a competitive masters swimmer, I met Abe at a Charles Rivers Aquatics Masters swimming practice at Harvard University. For several years, he offered his coaching skills for masters swimmers and triathletes alike. He coached us with a militant attitude, devoted spirit, and eyes full of loss and pain. Abe, a war veteran with multiple deployments to the Middle East, a professional triathlete, an ongoing member of the National Guard, is a 1995 graduate of Colby College.
Three hours north of Boston in Central Maine, on the west bank of the Kennebec River and on top of Mayflower Hill, Colby College overlooks the city of Waterville. Its 714 acres include Perkins Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary which is used for both research and recreation. The campus is adorned with six miles of cross-country ski trails which, at one time, were used by the US Olympic cross-country ski team. The Johnson Pond sits like an ornament on the beautifully manicured campus where students gather to study, relax, and even ski on winter days. While the Miller Library takes center stage, the Mudd, Keyes, Arey, and Olin science buildings line up one side of the Miller Lawn. Their names in order are memorized by many students using the mnemonic device of Full House stars, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson.
Recently, Colby has certainly been flexing its research, artistic, and athletic muscles. In 2014, Colby erected the Davis Science Center, hosting its own AI institute where students conduct cutting-edge work, including delving into AI ethics. In this building, study cubicles are built besides professors’ offices, encouraging student engagement and learning. Despite the science focus, Colby remains true to its liberal arts curriculum by making science interdisciplinary with humanities.
Colby’s recent purchase of two historic islands off the Maine Coast (Allen and Benner) demonstrate Colby’s drive toward research and the arts. The Environmental Science Program will be leading research on climate change, atmospheric pollution, and decreasing biodiversity on the islands. Aside from research, students will be able to engage in outdoor orientation, leadership training, retreats, and get inspired by renowned painter Andrew Wyeth, whose many Allen Island-born masterpieces now decorate Colby’s Museum of Art, along with other American greats, like Winslow Homer and Georgia O’Keeffe. (If students are not artistically inspired just yet, Colby’s new Performing Art Center to be completed by 2023 may seal the deal).
According to Colby President, David A. Greene, “These islands, which have been stewarded with deep respect for the land and the lives of those who have inhabited them over time, will now become laboratories for important research and places of quiet reflection and artistic creation.”
If research and arts do not tickle your fancy, Colby’s new Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center just may. All the hustle and bustle is contained in one building, including (but not limited to) an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a 200-meter indoor track, a rock-climbing wall, and a hockey rink. These facilities are not exclusive to Colby’s Division III varsity athletes; they are open to all students, even offering free skate rentals. With cross-country trails in its backyard and only 1.5 hours away from Sugarloaf, it is not surprising that Colby has Division I athletic teams in both Nordic and Alpine skiing.
Colby runs on a 4-1-4 calendar with an intensive January “Jan” Plan that can be used for study abroad or internship programs. There is a core, otherwise known as distribution requirements that students must fulfill in order to graduate. These include literature, first-year writing, science (both lab and non-lab), math, social science, diversity (US and international), history, arts, and three semesters of foreign language (five for global studies majors). However, the selection of topics within each requirement is abundant. With a strong, revamped Career Center, DavisConnects, students are matched with a career advisor in addition to an academic advisor from freshman year and encouraged to participate in internships, research, and/or global opportunities during their time at Colby.
With roughly 2100 students, Colby works hard so that no student is left behind. The class dean coordinates academic support for struggling students, offering services, such as learning consultants, executive functioning workshops, tutors, and more. There is a specifically assigned tutor for each first-year writing course. And, if you are a student who is seeking accommodations based on a disability, the Disability Services Office in Miller Library is there to help. Colby’s retention rate (the percent of students who return for sophomore year) is 94%.
There are three main libraries on campus; Miller is open 24/7 and is often used as a shortcut on wintry days. It is always buzzing with life, but you can find peaceful quiet on its 3rd floor. Students can have cars on campus or use shuttles to downtown where some (highly sought-after) upper-class dorms reside. Colby proudly vows that their unlimited dining hall swipes reduce food waste by preventing food hoarding that can occur with limited access. They offer an allergy kitchen for students with food allergies and/or medically restricted diets. And, their Faust dining hall is all vegan and vegetarian; students don’t even need to exchange their souls in the bargain, unlike Goethe’s Faust.
Colby eliminated fraternity housing in the 1980s although four underground fraternities were uncovered in 2019 after the administration hired a private investigator. Four organizations were discovered with a relatively small number of students who were sanctioned by the college. There are more than 100 student-run organizations at Colby to entice students’ passion and interests. Nearly all students live on campus in coed, mixed-gender, or specialty housing (i.e. healthy living, substance-free, Co-Op, etc.). Community advisors host dorm events four times a year, boosting morale and solidarity. Seniors can choose to live in a community environment or downtown in apartment-style dorms. Furthermore, Colby is in the process of building new dorms.
Colby is committed to environmental sustainability and was one of the first campuses in the country to achieve carbon neutrality in 2013. Solar panels installed adjacent to Mayflower Hill in 2017 now produce 15 percent of Colby’s electricity. To further inspire commitment to a green campus, Colby provides a “Green Living Guide” to their students.
Being test optional and offering a free application without any supplemental essays has contributed to its rise in applications and decreasing admission rate: Colby offered admission to 1,279 out of 15,857 students for the Class of 2025. Students can also be offered admission for spring entry and they are not included in the admission statistics, so the actual admit rate is somewhat higher than 8 percent.
Part of Colby’s $101-million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation was dedicated to the economic revitalization of Waterville as a “repayment” for the town’s support during the Depression-era when the college was facing financial woes. As I was leaving campus, I thought of Abe once again; he must be pleased to see how his alma mater has continued to serve the needs of its students and the community through investment in facilities, sustainable living, and a partnership with the city of Waterville.