President's Scholars transferring

In January 2017, a Facebook post on the President’s Scholars’ private page garnered a lot of attention. It started, “Has anyone else ever thought about transferring?” And there was a huge outpouring of agreement and sympathy. I had asked Martha Starke about transferring my freshman year, and I was disappointed that my peers felt the same way. I requested anonymous comments from the students who spoke up, because I want the cycle to stop. I want future President’s Scholars (and SMU students in general) not to regret their decision to attend.

It’s not okay that this many President’s Scholars expressed dissatisfaction with SMU. Some pointed out administrative mistakes, and others brought up mental health issues exacerbated at SMU.

Other common refrains were the campus culture, the lack of diversity and themed communities, the RC system, and the impact of money funneled into athletics instead of academics. And this is my editorialization, but I’m the only student who was on the GEC, not the UC, that I asked. If they had known the previous system, I’m sure the UC would have been another grievance. If not for the small fraction of professors and students who really get it, SMU is a stifling place. I’m grateful for where I am because of it, but did the ends justify the means?

Below, I’ve reproduced the students’ remarks. (None are mine.) My only edits were titles, capitalization, redaction of identifying information and profanity, and emphasis. You’re hearing exactly what these students think about SMU and the PS program.

Table of Contents

  1. Wealth-driven and polarizing, SMU PS 2019
  2. Not as inclusive as we were told, SMU PS 2020
  3. The lack of diversity, SMU PS 2018
  4. The dream for my child, SMU PS 2018
  5. Excellent sheep, SMU PS 2019
  6. Not for lack of trying, SMU PS 2020
  7. Caters toward the middle, SMU 2020
  8. It felt like an interrogation, SMU PS 2018
  9. I wish theme communities had been left intact, SMU PS 2018
  10. A random shuffling of students, SMU PS 2017

Wealth-driven and polarizing

  1. SMU prides its athletic reputation more than its academics. More money should be invested in programs similar to Engaged Learning, and they should be open to both underclassmen and upperclassmen.

  2. SMU’s diversity efforts are antagonizing. Example - I was invited to a ‘multicultural award ceremony with RGT’ to celebrate my receiving a 3.85+ GPA. Why should I be recognized with a medal for this achievement when my white friends are not?

  3. SMU’s culture is wealth-driven and can be polarizing at times.

Not as inclusive as we were told

I think that most of the President’s Scholars feel that they were promised something that sometimes doesn’t match reality. This is understandable; many schools, businesses, and other organizations design their pitch as the idealized version of their intent, i.e., these things may happen, so we will include them to get more students on board with the program. I think this is especially apparent with this scholarship program. Again, I am not saying that it is wrong for SMU to idealize their offers, but I think that students should be aware of what they are signing up for with one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

I have mostly enjoyed my time at SMU, but I have definitely had my share of negative experiences, as I would have at any number of other universities. No university is perfect, and I am not claiming they should be. Specifically, I have found a great family with my classmates and peers in the President’s Scholars, but I know that most of us feel that what we received is not the same as what we were expecting.

Based on SMU’s advertising of this program, we expected to meet important and rising people from the United States and abroad, be able to talk with and learn from a diverse group of people on campus, and engage with stellar academic programs both on SMU campus and in study abroad programs.

For the first point, I understand that obviously the people that SMU brings to host Tate Lectures are busy and cannot meet with us all, and the fact that we hear their lectures and have the opportunity to go to dinners is wonderful. However, I feel that we were expecting a personal exchange of ideas and a conversation, more than a handshake at dinner or wave from afar.

For the second point, the diversity of this campus is not as inclusive as we were told. Again, this is an understandable point based on SMU’s location and the demographic of areas the university tends to pull prospective students from, but at the same time, there is a general feeling of disinterest in academics in a majority of students. This is college, and obviously everyone is going to spend some time having fun, but it seems that there is almost a feeling of judgment against the high achieving students by some peers.

This brings me to my third point, which I think is the biggest point of concern for most of my fellow President’s Scholars, and that is the academics of SMU. There are some courses and departments on campus that are amazing and have stellar faculty and engaging relationships and networking with the Dallas area. There are many people who find the classes wonderful and interesting. But there are, in my opinion, too many President’s Scholars that feel that they settled by choosing SMU, and that almost all of us did it for one reason—the money. I am sure that many of my peers received offers from other colleges and universities, but SMU presented us with not only a full ride, but chances to study abroad for free (at least for the tuition portion), meet interesting people in both students and visiting lecturers, and save money for future education or beginning careers. But the academics we were promised, though they do shine through in some departments, are lacking in others. I think that there is a general wish of something more. This is not necessarily harder classes, as a lot of Scholars take difficult courses and overload their weeks with 18+ hours, but something we feel is missing that I can’t articulate very well. Maybe this is just a false idea of what kind of education we would have received from another university, but I think that feeling is prevalent in the Scholars and creates a sense of regret that sticks with us.

I know that several, if not most, of the Scholars have considered transferring because of this feeling in addition to other personal qualms they may have with their specific majors or other things on campus, but the fact that so many have considered transferring is concerning. We are seen as the highest scholars of SMU, the models that the entire campus should look to, but when those scholars are consistently thinking about transferring, there may be something that needs to change.

I don’t want to say all of these negative things about a campus that does provide positive things to the Scholars and not offer solutions, but I know that I don’t have all the answers as I only have my own perspective to draw from and not the University’s. I think, however, that there should be something changed in how the University advertises this program. It should be optimistic, but better grounded in reality until that reality comes closer to the ideals it boasts to prospective Scholars. Additionally, I think that the required curriculum could be better suited to engage everyone, possibly having additional assignments that include outside-the-box thinking, easy access to topics that interest us, and ease of developing those interests fully rather than surface level would greatly help us.

There are many other things that can be done and I think that a conversation should be started between the Provost and the Scholars to make this program the best it can be. I know that I don’t have all the answers, but I am hopeful that by starting this conversation, we can hopefully make a more positive experience for the President’s Scholars that will drive growth in future years and better feelings on the choice of SMU.

The lack of diversity

Thanks for reaching out. I think it’s important to say that the PS scholarship was one of the best things that has ever happened to me, since I wouldn’t have been able to afford college without it and have had a lot of amazing academic, professional and personal opportunities because of it.

That being said, I wasn’t particularly happy at SMU either, and if not for the opportunities I’ve been given and close friends I made I might have had a difficult time here.

It’s hard to pinpoint, but I’m going to go ahead and say it’s the lack of diversity on campus, coupled with Greek life’s overly dominant role in SMU student life. As of now, it seems to me that diversity is still an “effort” or “initiative” at SMU, where diverse students and professors can be found if you are actively looking for them (and usually in the same places like MGC or FEM), but they are not a true, integrated part of SMU’s reality, especially since SMU’s reality continues to be an exclusive Greek life.

To put it a little more crudely, I guess it’s the fact that SMU is still very much Southern Millionaires University that is a hard selling point.

The dream for my child

I was actually most interested in [REDACTED; Facebook poster]’s post because I really DIDN’T want her to transfer, and wanted to see if I could offer any perspective/thoughts/wisdom that would help persuade her to stay. Personally, I’ve never seriously considered transferring—perhaps mostly b/c it would be really hard and maybe nuts to give up the PS—but I have been discontent in major ways with SMU, especially during my first 2 years. Nothing new:

  • fraternity culture/Greek life dominance;
  • anti-intellectualism;
  • RCs that are mediocre at best (though, I want to believe, starting to get better. Too late for me…);
  • increasingly isolated and feeble UHP;
  • little access to party/drinking culture outside of Greek life (who says intellectuals don’t like to turn up on Friday nights too??);
  • [REDACTED; profanity] football team that we nonetheless pump money into while neglecting academics and increasingly relying on adjuncts;
  • Bain’s re-org;
  • etc. etc.

I spent a lot of time as an underclassman thinking, talking, and complaining about all of these things and beyond. Most of us PSes, I think, do the same thing. For me, I guess I sort of realized that I just had to DO something—something tangible, physical, real—even if that something was only going to make the smallest of impacts. I decided that instead of complaining, I had to start doing whatever I could to improve things, in whatever way I felt was best suited to my skills and inclinations.

So, for me that was [REDACTED; student organization], first and foremost. Now, it’s working as [REDACTED; journalism role]. I’m not going to pretend like [REDACTED; organization] revolutionized the campus spirit/culture, or even that of the UHP…but it did do something (I think). And even if it didn’t, at least I was trying, and in the process I got to know people esp. in the UHP and I think we did help, in part, to create a more vibrant UHP spirit. Doing things like Honors mentor, PAL, Honors advisory council, etc., also helped. Small, often annoying, perhaps partially insignificant things alone…but they add up. For those of us who don’t make it all the way to Student Trustee, we have to be content with putting our boots more “on the ground.” There’s a great value in just burying one’s head in one’s work, and making damn well sure that it’s good. That scholarly dignity, for me, went a long way toward forming some sort of idea of “resistance” or “progress.”

Getting increasingly involved in Meadows also helped me tremendously. I.e. accompanying vocalists, playing the pit orchestra for student musicals. Writing little reviews of concerts; insulating myself in a community that was supportive, accepting, vibrant, stimulating in all the best ways…Meadows in general was the thing that saved me. That was my advice to [REDACTED; Facebook poster]…I believe she dropped [REDACTED; major], or didn’t actually end up doing it like she had planned, which I thought was a shame. Because certainly, if I hadn’t had Meadows, I would’ve been [REDACTED; profanity] in more ways than one.

I also do think it’s a shame whenever a PS (or, even a Hunt…) leaves. To me, part of coming here is knowing that SMU isn’t Harvard. That’s why we got the full ride, so to me there’s something approaching a duty (though I want to be careful using that word) to see it through and do what we can to make this place better. Because we’re the ones who are gonna do it—it sure as hell won’t be the frat boys or whoever. This position of ours—as the “best and brightest”—can be isolating, and frustrating, and depressing…but it’s what we chose and what we have and to me, it bears riding out and doing all we can. Because things ARE getting better, just slowly. My dream is that my child might be able to come to SMU and actually say, with no irony, that it’s something like the “Ivy of the South.” After all, SMU’s only a little over 100 years old, and I really do believe in the uni. and in its potential. There’s no Ivy league with our combination of excellence in the arts, business, law, theology, humanities & sciences. If we could just up the ante a bit in admissions, I think we’d have a hell of a place—and, in a lot of ways, I really think we already do. Look at how quickly UChicago turned itself around…perhaps in another 30-40 years we could too.

That all being said, perhaps time to move to suggestions:

  • Foster a sense of community in Dedman college, which suffers because it is so large and diverse and diffuse. At the least, the departments must do a better job of fostering community (the ENGL department is trying to do so as we speak, with some success).
  • Curb Greek life. Find and create ways for GDIs to meet each other and party with each other. Stop pretending like underage drinking isn’t happening all over the fucking place. Remember that Greeks are NOT the majority; we are. We students simply deserve better than what we’re getting. The Boulevard should be more inclusive. It’s perhaps THE THING that defines us nationally and it’s a big “yay greek” and “fuck GDIs” (not to mention academics) display. If this means that some old codgers stop donating as much, or we start getting applications from OUTSIDE of Orange County and Highland Park (heaven forbid!), then all the more power to us.
  • Get serious about improving the profile of the student body. 100 points on the SAT in 10 years or whatever isn’t good enough. We aren’t going to have an intellectual-friendly campus environment if we don’t have a critical mass of actual intellectuals. Along with this, get serious about increasing diversity. The numbers are pretty discouraging when you factor in race and socio-economic profile and other factors.

What else, what else? A small point: I’m concerned that the PS is weakening in comparison with other national scholarships. We should be consistently pulling people away from the Ivy league and from the other top scholarships: 40 Acres at UT, Morehead-Cain, Robertson, etc. My concern is that we’ve been accepting an increasing number of finalists (to the point that last year, or maybe two years ago, I think we had to accept almost everyone in order to fill a class); further, I’ve noticed several finalists saying things like, “I only applied to LSU/Baylor/insert other good but mid-tier school here and SMU.” That, to me, isn’t the sort of candidate we should be targeting.

So: there are some small things that might make the PS more attractive. Like, it doesn’t make sense to let us take unlimited hours during the semester but then require us to pay (albeit a reduced rate) for Jan. and summer terms. What about a computer stipend? What about covering both airline trips for study abroad? Book stipend? What about letting us drink at Tate dinners? Etc. I know this may seem niggling (and maybe that last one is purely niggling) and I know it would cost money but it also seems, to me, to make a lot of sense. The PS is by no means “paying peanuts” and we are by no means monkeys, but there’s just no reason not to make the program as attractive as possible.

I think that’s all I’ve got at the moment. Will send anything else along that I think of; of course, let me know if I can clarify or elaborate on anything. Please also do let me know how the meeting goes, and thanks again for reaching out. And, of course, keep in touch, always.

Excellent sheep

Some of [the reasons for wanting to transfer] were personal, and some SMU has no control over.

  1. I have a really hard time with how apathetic people are. There has been a lot more activism surrounding the elections/aftermath, but those are the same loud spoken groups on campus. In general people in classes aren’t aware of or willing to discuss issues, even non political ones. For example I remember in a [REDACTED; name of world language] class learning a grammatical structure of “in general” or something like that. the task was to say a problem with America…no one said anything. Even obesity, which seems like not a horribly threatening topic, no one was willing to mention. I can list 101 challenges America is facing right now, and no one seemed to be aware of or willing to say any of them.
  2. As a PS you often feel like a show pony for the school. Many of the PS events feel like press conferences. I think more informal, fun, and smaller PS events would make people feel more involved with PS. This may be something for upperclassman to organize. But things like OWLs dinner, or even events for each grade.
  3. Dallas is not a city you can just “explore,” and it’s even harder to access without a car. Coming from a city like [REDACTED; name of US city] where there are walkable neighborhoods, cheap eats, and random stores, all accessible by public transport, I’ve had a hard time with Dallas. There isn’t a lot to do right around campus either. Again, maybe not something within SMU’s control, but I think a lot of high achieving students are looking for quirky fun things to do, and all SMU really offers socially is large scale partying, tailgating, and games.
  4. I’m not sure how big this is, and again not sure if SMU can do anything, but the way the dorms are designed all of the communal spaces are for the entire building and commons events are like a come get free food and peace out. I’m wondering if we had more suite style housing like many colleges (especially a lot of colleges for their honors students) with 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room if that would encourage smaller groups of people to hang out.

A huge reason why I stayed at SMU freshman and then sophomore year was the [REDACTED; student organization] team. It wasn’t just a club that had meetings and looked good on your resume, it’s a group of people that practice toward a common goal, party, and travel out of town for tournaments together. I don’t now how relevant that experience is to what you’re interested in, but it was an important piece that I think is missing from many high achieving students’ lives. Like you’re killing it in classes, and you’ve tried out some prestigious or nerdy clubs, but you don’t feel part of something, and you’re meeting people but not getting close to anyone. That said, we’ve had a couple of super invested kids transfer from the team, one for money/personal issues, and [REDACTED; student name] for whatever reasons he decides to tell you. For some kids, I know the money is an issue. Like it’s too much money to not be having the time of your life.

Finally, in retrospect, I realize that a big reason I wanted to transfer last year was my own mental health issues. I’m just now deciding to get help with that, but I think mental health is really important for high achieving students. Likely, these kids have been putting pressure on themselves to achieve, achieve, achieve, “excellent sheep” or they’ve found school a breeze and don’t know how to handle college.

That’s just the random thoughts that came to mind. If I think of other things, I’ll email you.

Not for lack of trying

So the thing is I think that many of our campus’s brightest students, PSs in particular, will feel out of place compared to the general population of students. We don’t fit in with the “classic” SMU student. At least for me, I tend to make friends like myself, and I wouldn’t say that the majority of students here are extremely concerned with their academic welfare, or of that of their peers. If I miss a day of class, I find it hard to find someone I trust to get the notes from. I didn’t make a single friend in my residential commons and it was not for lack of trying. Everyone used our common room as a sexcapade (I lived in McElvaney on the “dirty third”) when I wanted to use it to actually study while my roommate was sleeping. Our RA did nothing to quiet the loud music and ongoing parties during finals week. I just didn’t feel like people cared about their work as much as I did, and that of course is okay since each person can care about their own things, but there wasn’t an understanding that this was a university setting and some people really did care. I thought about transferring because I couldn’t find a community that was like-minded. I realize the PS community should fulfill that, but we obviously don’t hang out together every day.

Caters toward the middle

First and foremost, I do not feel a scholarly culture at SMU. I was promised a campus teeming with intellect and research opportunities, and while the opportunities are there, this was overwhelmingly not the case. To be blunt, it seems as if the administration does a poor job at advocating and publicizing research opportunities to motivated students. The campus also lacks a general feeling of intellect and innovation. We push internships down ever student’s throats, but there is so much more to college than “real-world experience”. How about opportunities to grow as a scholar? Or to advance and challenge opinions? What sets SMU apart from the Rices and Vanderbilts of the world, is that we do not have this culture in place. Instead of offering students avenues to express themselves and explore ideas, we would rather quickly shove them into the corporate world. Scholarly discussions are hard to come by and there is a perpetual sense of conceitedness across campus. Are people friendly? Of course. Are there bright and motivated students? Absolutely. Does the University do a good job of bringing these people together for discussions and exchanges of knowledge that occur at almost every “top-tier” campuses? Not at all.

Classes also leave something to be desired. Curriculum needs to be improved to challenge students. One of my major gripes about education in general is that it caters toward the middle — the 68% within one standard deviation from the mean. I hoped that SMU would be different, but it isn’t. I go to college to be intellectually stimulated and only a few of my classes have been so. I expected to be enriched in subject material spanning a great breadth and depth of disciplines. I am cognizant that the UC system was designed to provide this, but the classes are either poorly structured or not engaging at all, leading to disinterested students.  I wish something could be done so that course work becomes not only more demanding, but also stimulating and enjoyable to pursue. I have sat in lectures and lost interest too many times, something I know others face as well.

In short, I am frustrated mainly with the classroom and campus experiences. While I truly am truly thankful for all the research and community opportunities offered for me, those do not negate my frustration found in the classroom and campus body. With a cost of attendance quickly surpassing $70,000, I would like a campus that gives me a little bit more rigor, structure and guidance.

It felt like an interrogation

My first two years were really difficult. I felt like I didn’t have a place and so I felt lonely a lot of the time. I also have struggled with an anxiety disorder for a long time and that certainly made things harder. That being said, I think all of those things were part of my experience and probably would have occurred regardless of if SMU had changed anything.

In regards specifically to PS, I did feel pressure to do EVERYTHING, be great at everything, not miss out on any opportunities, be a leader, etc. (As I think many – if not all – PSs feel to a certain extent.) I remember Dr. Stanley calling each of us in our first year to discuss how we were going to fulfill the campus part of our scholarship – it felt like an interrogation in which if I answered incorrectly, my scholarship would be revoked. So, if you want to suggest any changes, I would recommend not interrogating first year students as soon as they get to campus about how they’re going to change the world. It reinforces that thinking that PSs have to do and be everything – and do it with excellence. I’m not suggesting that PSs shouldn’t be held to a standard. I do believe that we’ve been given an amazing gift and should have requirements to fulfill in order to keep it; however, I think that this pressure to excel at all things all the time is what has caused many PSs to be unhappy. It’s unofficial title has become “PS Syndrome”.

This past year (last semester in particular) has been the first time that I’ve really felt happy at SMU.  I think the reason is that I allowed myself to do less and be okay with just doing what I really felt I could manage. In all honesty, I have worked at undoing the way of thinking that I think got me the PS scholarship (the mentality to do everything and achieve at al endeavors). It sounds simple but it really was a sea-change in my thinking that allowed me to prioritize my own mental health and wellbeing over expectations and the pressure to succeed. I think PSs almost aren’t allowed to fail and I think failure is an invaluable thing to experience.

A big part of my happiness as well was feeling that I finally had a place among friends — a small group but an important one.

I wish [theme] communities had been left intact

Let me begin by emphasizing that I will always be grateful for the opportunity and generosity that SMU has shown to me and my cohort for our undergraduate careers. I have been able to travel and experience things that I would have never thought of before coming to college thanks to the different programs and organizations here. However, I would be remiss to say that I’ve never considered transferring.

  1. I came in 2014, the year the commons system was initiated, so I don’t have any experience as to what housing was actually like beforehand, but I do wish that some communities had been left intact. The Honors program for one has lost nearly all social cohesion. Two Disc courses are not enough to unite a group of 100+ students who have little reason to interact with each other outside of these courses. Having themed community housing allowed students who did not feel as though they fit in with the “dominant/mainstream/stereotypical”  to meet others like them. The new commons system tends to isolate those students, and many of the students who feel most comfortable in the commons system end up leaving their investment with each building once IFC, and Panhellenic recruitment starts in the fall. To be fair, I just have my personal experiences to base this off of.

  2. The President’s Scholar program in particular could do a better job of introducing students to the larger scholarship opportunities. Comparable programs at institutions like UGA and UT have multiples more students in these programs that receive national honors/awards because they actively push and mentor and introduce their students to these opportunities and people who have won them in the past. Not everyone who joins these programs has such lofty aspirations on their mind, but it could be the difference between a brilliant mind going unnoticed and another flashy alumni for SMU to brag about.

Those are my main gripes with the school. I think the master plan for SMU residence life is moving towards the elimination of all themed housing which I think is a shame. On another note I do think it is quite atrocious that this incoming freshman class of 1300+ (not sure on specifics for the total) only has 37 African-American students, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

A random shuffling of students

This isn’t very coherent, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to edit. I lack much faith that SMU even cares what I have to say anyway.

PS Program

The type of candidate we award scholarships to is intentionally not the SMU average. But the campus culture is so toxic that they’re not given enough support to find a place to fit in.

When nearly half of a PS class is depressed, suicidal, or actually took their own life, you’re doing something wrong. Most of us didn’t come to SMU so badly depressed, so something about the environment on campus causes this. Everyone feels like they are without support.

PSes are a drop in the ocean and incapable of changing the culture of the wider campus. The same goes for many other groups on campus. You have to let them form their own communities instead of forcing them to spend time with other groups.

The wrong approach to diversity

Your friends are your friends because you share something in common: a class, a pastime, a field of interest. Throwing students in a bag and shaking it isn’t going to produce lasting relationships.

I can’t remember the name of a single person in my Corral group, and I bet they can’t remember me either. We had nothing in common, and therefore forged no lasting bonds. The room where I stayed during AARO included two other Cox majors. We talked all through that first night and later shared classes, worked on projects, and were on similar career trajectories. We’re still in touch. And by sharing one common interest, I was exposed to plenty of diversity. We are of different ethnicities, from different regions of the country, vote for different candidates, and have radically different philosophies of life. Forced diversity looks great in a brochure on parent’s weekend, but doesn’t encourage any meaningful understanding for the students themselves. Does SMU really serve its students? Or does it serve its donors and parents?

As I look back at my time at SMU, I can’t think of a time when a random shuffling of students allowed me to have a meaningful conversation with someone who had a different perspective. Each time I did have such an experience, it was with friends already united by a common interest.

It’s an admirable goal for SMU to strive to admit students of as many backgrounds as possible, but separating those who share a common interest (like taking away Arts and Honors communities) only serves to isolate them and make them feel like they don’t fit in anywhere. SMU hasn’t struck a good balance between encouraging exposure to different viewpoints and fostering a supportive community of friends where each student feels welcome.

Greek life dominates the social scene and others are left with nowhere to fit in. By shuffling students in their living communities and campus activities, they are never able to create a place of their own and spend their time on campus feeling isolated, alone, and depressed.