Editor’s note: This essay, by Pope Center staff member Jenna Ashley Robinson, is the fourth installment of a Clarion Call special series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” which offers different perspectives of the college experience.
Many North Carolina high school students ponder an age-old question: Tar Heel or Wolfpack? I personally struggled with that decision as a senior in high school. I was accepted by several universities and had narrowed my choices to North Carolina’s two flagships: UNC-Chapel Hill and N. C. State. I wanted to pursue a degree in political science and most likely a graduate or law degree at some point in the future. Other than that, I had little to guide me.
To many, UNC-Chapel Hill might have seemed the obvious choice. At the time, UNC was ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report as a national university; N.C. State had not yet broken into the top 100. UNC had a national reputation for excellence—both off and on the court. And the conventional wisdom at the time cautioned prospective students to choose N.C. State for engineering, science or math only—never for the humanities or social sciences. In spite of the warnings, I chose to pursue my degree in political science (later adding French) at N.C. State.
Why? After visiting both schools, I had simply felt more at home at State. In addition, State’s down-to-earth undergraduate culture and the proximity to my parents and potential part-time jobs sold me on the school.
Looking back, I know I made the right decision for me as a would-be political scientist, too.
The political science department at State is relatively small. In fact, it’s coupled with public administration to form a single department. Because of the department’s size, and the professors’ teaching loads, I was able to take multiple courses from several of the professors I encountered early on and whose classes I enjoyed. Thus, when it came time for graduate school recommendations, many of my professors knew me as a student, not just a name on the roster or a face in the crowd.
Throughout the years, I took many classes with the same students I met as a freshman in the department; those fellow students became my study partners. We proofread each others’ term papers, shared notes, helped with the choosing of classes and grilled each other before big exams. Those relationships would have been be much more difficult to foster in a larger department.
Unlike at UNC, there are no political science graduate students at State. The only degrees offered in political science are a B. S. and a B. A., with various concentrations. For that reason, experienced professors teach nearly all the courses, from basic introductory survey courses to those on niche policy topics. The only exceptions are a limited number of discussion sections, led by students in the Ph.D. program in public administration and a few students hired as temporary instructors. Although graduate students can be very good teachers (when I became a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I like to think I was one of them), the quality of teaching is unpredictable at best. Graduate teaching assignments change from year to year, subject knowledge varies, and many graduate students are plunged into teaching with little formal training. I’m glad I didn’t have to roll the dice with a graduate student while I was at State.
Classes at State are also smaller than many at other large universities. My first political science course, the honors section of Introduction to American Government, had only 25 students. Many of my other courses had fewer than 35 students. Today, the largest section of Introduction to American Government has room for 150 students, but many more sections are limited to 40. Smaller classes allow professors to actually hear and respond to student needs and dedicate careful attention to grading papers and exams.
Another perk at State was that my academic advisor was also a professor of political science. At State, all students are assigned an advisor based on their chosen majors. My advisor was familiar with the departmental requirements, courses that could fulfill them, and the many other options that are often challenging to navigate. Having an advisor in the department made it easier for me to plan my courses from semester to semester. He was also a great source for recommendations about which concentration to pursue, and which classes to take – the ones that would be good for graduate school, the sequence in which they were taught, how often they were taught, and he even offered tips on the professors’ styles that would be best for me.
I got lucky. I chose State for reasons unrelated to academia, but ended up getting a sound education that has served me well since then. At the end of my time at State, I was prepared for the rigors of graduate school. By that time, I knew how to evaluate a department, and knew that graduate students have very different needs than undergraduates.
So, for graduate study, I chose UNC-Chapel Hill, because of its high national ranking, large size, and the opportunity to become a teaching or research assistant to various professors. Chapel Hill also has a wide range of graduate courses from which to choose and provides access to programs at both UNC and Duke. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Political Science Department is a fantastic place for graduate studies. I’m there now, pursuing a Ph.D.
But as an undergraduate, N.C. State’s political science department was better for me and it would probably be better for other undergraduates like me.
In spite of all I’ve said here about State’s small class size and its focused advising, though, the biggest advantage of State (and of Carolina as well) is the great professors. Class size or academic advising can’t replace good classroom instruction. Today’s students have many tools at their fingertips to help them choose the right university, and even to scrutinize professors in their chosen field. By using those tools they can go beyond the usual rankings and find a department that fits them perfectly.