Pomona is an incredible institution, so it makes sense that so much of what you hear about it is positive. If you like to measure the worth of things in rankings, we’re #8 on the Forbes national list, #5 on the U.S. News & World Report liberal arts college list, #20 on The Daily Beast’s list (#1 and #7 on the “Student Life” and “Campus Quality” sublistings, respectively), and a bunch of good numbers on the Princeton Review’s various lists. If you prefer measuring the worth of things empirically, ask a random student on campus how they feel about the college and you’re guaranteed to come away with at least one positive remark– “The campus is so beautiful!” ; “There are lots of opportunities and supportive professors” ; “The people here are just the best.”
That’s a lot to take in. And it’s a lot of positivity.
This year, I am one of Pomona’s 70-something sponsors; I live in the same hall as, and (try to) serve as a mentor to, 14 first-year students, along with my co-sponsor. (Shout-out to Zach Hauser, who may possibly be the greatest human being alive.)
One of the biggest things I’ve watched my sponsees struggle with is the process of re-evaluating their prior notions of life at Pomona. Because there is so much positive rhetoric surrounding the college–though not without good reason–it’s easy to form misconceptions about what being a student at Pomona is really like. After all, it’s always different once you’re on the other side.
So I want this post to be a space for you, the future Class of 2019, to read about some of the elements of being a student at this college that you normally won’t hear about until you get here. Without further ado,
5 Things Pomona College Isn’t
1. The Happiest Place on Earth
Before you come to Pomona, you’ll hear a lot about how happy everyone is here. Students are happy. Faculty are happy. Everyone’s happy—and we have plenty of Flickr photos to prove it.
Honestly, this just isn’t true.
The thing is, it’s not unique to Pomona. College is anything but easy, for so many reasons. For most of us, it’s our first time being away from home for anywhere near this long—and there’s a terrifying (sometimes self-imposed) expectation of Growing Up and Being Competent that comes with being the only one you can rely on to take care of you. Also, college academics are hard. This sounds facetious, especially when you’ve probably heard it so many times already, but there’s no way you can understand how true it is before you get here.
And, if we’re being honest, the whole “social” aspect of college can be hard to navigate, whether this means drama within friend group or fledgling relationships or, as it sometimes feels, a complete lack of real friends. All of this often builds on top of pressures, stresses, or conditions that students come to college with already.
The point is that a true “happiest” college doesn’t exist. A college is the sum of its parts, and no student body, however well they may smile in posed pictures, is 100% happy 100% of the time. Here, the student body has made an ever-increasing effort to decrease the stigma surrounding mental health issues and create a culture of discussion (shout out to TSL, which regularly runs articles and columns that further these discussions). The 5C Mental Health Alliance, which hosts inclusive events, is also working toward providing more safe spaces for support and constructive dialogue.
That said, my personal opinion is that, for the most part, we are collectively a pretty outgoing, cheerful bunch. Just be careful not to be too harsh on yourself when you make assumptions and generalizations based on the smiling faces around you, because there are so many of them here. I can’t put it any better than Katie Bent ’13 did in her Commencement speech, so I’m just going to link to that and urge you to spend five minutes reading it because it’s hilarious and the message is so very important.
2. Paint-your-face, Scream-your-throat-raw, Capital-S Spirited
Your class will be around 400 students. To put that in perspective, UCLA’s class of 2018 was nearly 5,700 students; Stanford’s was nearly 1,700; and all of the Ivies each enrolled at least 1,300 new students last year. Pomona is, objectively, a small school. Even when you consider students in the other classes, and at the rest of the Claremont colleges, the entire undergraduate population of Claremont is not considerably larger than UCLA’s first-year class alone. It’s a constant surprise to me when I meet someone from my class who I don’t know, and I can’t imagine anyone at the aforementioned colleges being able to say the same.
Our sports teams are all Division III, (and they generally do pretty well!), which means that while most home games/meets get a good-sized audience, it’s nowhere near the throngs of fans you’ll find at a USC football game or the crowds you’d expect at a Wisconsin basketball game. And there isn’t the same intensity or ridiculously focused energy—if people are there to watch, they’re usually there for a friend on the team or because they love the sport and just want to have fun watching it.
If you’re looking for school spirit, you’re not always going to find it expressed in the same ways you would at these larger institutions. As Pomona students, we tend to be proud of our institution in the same way you’d be proud of an older brother or sister: we complain about all the things it could do better, all the ways it’s let us down, and everything we’d change about it if we could, but we’ll defend it vehemently (especially if someone else insults it), we love to talk about how wonderful it is when it isn’t around to hear us (maybe this is starting to sound a little too much like my siblings), and for the most part we feel so grateful and lucky to be here.
3. The Best at Real Debate
This in particular is something I heard, and continue to hear, a lot from my sponsees. Pomona is an exceptionally liberal-minded college (unsurprisingly), and it’s a member of an exceptionally liberal-minded consortium (also unsurprisingly). This is probably not something that was a secret to you. However, what this really means and how it shapes the topics/way we debate and discuss across the campuses (because there is a lot of dialogue around here) can be tricky to explain.
At Pomona, we do our best to be “open-minded” and receptive to opinions that differ from our own. That said, because we are only human and it can be hard to step back from our own deeply-rooted beliefs, we often fail. If your opinion is in the minority (usually because it is rooted in traditional or conservative values), you may find yourself frustrated by the reactions of your peers. You may feel dismissed, ignored, or written off as ignorant before you are even able to articulate the reasons for your beliefs. On the other hand, if you share the (often liberal) opinion of the majority, you may find yourself feeling exasperated, insulted, or just generally pissed off when you encounter arguments that go against all of your core values or what you consider to be respectful. We are a community of deeply passionate people, and this often makes it hard to see that there is value in what the other party is saying—whether or not you agree with it or exactly how it is said.
The college is good at talking about certain things (some of the departments recently co-sponsored a talk on Economic Inequality in America, where my advisor was a speaker!), but there are also many topics that we don’t like to talk about as much, if at all. This is to be expected, since figuring out the best way to approach sensitive subjects can be difficult, particularly for an institution that wants to make everyone feel welcome.
As for the student body, it’s incredibly important to us to acknowledge these issues, which range from the treatment of staff workers (largely, but not entirely, dining hall workers) at the Claremont Colleges to sexual assault to the less-visible divide between students from different socioeconomic classes. Students have opened forums for discussion by creating Facebook pages where experiences can be submitted anonymously (like Claremont Worker Confessions and Claremont Class Confessions), and organizations such as IDEAS or the Women’s Union regularly host constructive events and discussions (with free snacks).
If we’re being honest, Pomona does do a better job than most institutions at acknowledging that these sensitive subjects exist–the fact that I am allowed to post this on the college’s official blog should speak volumes–even if there’s still a long way for us to go.
4. “The Real World”
If you’ve done your research, you will often hear Claremont referred to as a “bubble.” This is partly because the campuses can feel like a disconnected island at the edge of Los Angeles County, but it’s more because of how easy it is to forget how privileged we are here. We don’t run into homeless people every day (or, for some, at all); we don’t have to navigate a dirty, sprawling, clamoring city just to get from one class to another; we don’t have to scrimp and save and still wonder how we’ll afford our next meal.
We are surrounded by greenery and Friday steak nights, by free jazz concerts and puppies during finals week. We discuss issues in our classes that aren’t real to most of us when we are in this somewhat unreal setting—no matter how much your eyes were opened by a discussion of corporate greed or a debate on what it means to be Latina, you eventually return to the comfort and familiarity of dorm rooms, dining halls, and cramming for midterms.
This is a point with which I do not agree. You are not trapped in Claremont by any means. (Have you seen the $1.25-a-ride Foothill Transit? Checked out the Metrolink? Registered for Zipcar? Realized that you have two perfectly good feet and/or a bicycle?) The only investment is time, and while it may be true that you just don’t have time to “escape,” it’s important to remember that none of us here have a lot of time—we have to make it for the things that are important to us.
But beyond this, I do not agree that by living in Claremont, we are disconnected from the issues that we discuss and learn about here. We are not immediately surrounded by affluent cities. The city of Pomona in particular is home to many families who live in poverty, many of whom are minorities. The Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties encompass some of the poorest cities in the state—and Los Angeles itself is one of the poorest (and most ethnically diverse) cities in the country.
This region is not a bubble, and there is no shortage of ways to get engaged, both locally (the Draper Center is a good starting place for this) and in the greater Los Angeles area. If we are disconnected, it is almost entirely by choice, and this is something we can change. Being trapped is more of a mindset than anything else.
Pomona isn’t going to be everything you want, or expect, it to be. And this is a good thing. The process of choosing a college means asking a lot of questions, including but not limited to: “Do I fit in / feel at home here?”; “Are there opportunities to explore the things that matter to me?”; “Am I going to get the experience I want from this college?” These are all valid questions, and the answers can be invaluable in helping you make what is ultimately a very subjective decision.
And yet, I encourage you, as I would have encouraged my sponsees if I had known them before last August, to question your own reasons for asking these questions (question-ception!). As important as they may be, it’s equally, if not more, important to be aware of why you have the expectations you do—not just of a specific college, but of the very idea of college, which serves many purposes.
At Pomona, you may be here to gain experience and knowledge for a future career, but you are also here to learn how to be a good human being. You are here to make a difference, to learn and grow and change (usually for the better), to not only discover more about yourself but to be continually surprised that there is still more to discover. You are here to realize just how much you don’t know—and to accept this, which is much harder to do. After all, colleges are essentially just large communities of intelligent people who have no idea about anything but continue to do the best they can.
Because of this, it almost doesn’t matter where you choose to go. What matters is you.
No college is going to tell you how to discover yourself, or what that even means. No college will be able to fix your problems for you, whether they be financial or social or personal. No college, regardless of how many resources or opportunities it boasts, will single-handedly change your life for the better; just because you get here doesn’t mean you’re “set.” Whatever you expect of Pomona, or of any college, be realistic. And be forgiving.
Pomona isn’t going to be everything you want or expect it to be—but it isn’t Pomona’s responsibility to be this for you. No matter where you go, what you do with what you have is up to you. There is only so much Pomona can do for you when so much of your college experience depends solely on what you decide to make of it.
The bottom line? Choosing Pomona doesn’t mean you are choosing a college where you are guaranteed to have a perfect experience. It doesn’t mean you are choosing a college that is perfect. But you shouldn’t expect Pomona, or any other college, to be. Choosing Pomona means choosing a college (and a community) that, like all of us, is really trying to do the best it can. It doesn’t always succeed, but for the most part it is honest and its intentions are good. More than anything, this is why I am grateful to be here.