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Sight-seeing at Western Colleges

Colleges aren't just for students. They're great places for the whole family to visit.

aerial view of Brigham Young University Campus
Photo caption
An aerial view of Brigham Young University campus shows a tree-filled plain backed by scenic mountains.

Nine Western universities prove that they're not just for students. Check out cool architecture, museums, and botanic gardens.

The comedian George Gobel once dismissed college as "a place to keep warm between high school and an early marriage." We heartily disagree. As the name implies, universities can offer the universe.

Among the finds on the six college campuses we've chosen to tout are a 307-foot clock tower and a 150-million-year-old dinosaur egg. These schools are among the best in the West—repositories of the eccentric and the exotic, the beautiful and the bizarre. Tour gardens of all types—botanic or organic, herbal or sculptural. Examine an antique telescope or an architectural gem. Visit a genealogist's treasure trove or a people-watcher's paradise. Make it part of the perfect road trip—no homework necessary.

Stanford University
Palo Alto, Calif.

Founded: 1891

Notable Alumni: Tiger Woods, Sigourney Weaver, Herbert Hoover, William Rehnquist, John Steinbeck, Sandra Day O'Connor, William Hewlett, David Packard

Surprising Fact: The first moving pictures were shot in 1878 at the Red Barn when Stanford was still a horse farm.

The Farm began as Leland Stanford's spread for raising trotting horses. Things have changed. Take an elevator to the top of Hoover Tower and you can appreciate Stanford's transformation into a world-famous research institution with a lovely, sprawling campus. Architecture buffs can visit the sandstone-and-tile Quad and Memorial Church. For the physics-minded there's the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, where scientists study particles colliding at nearly the speed of light. History students can check out the "Last Spike," which completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869, at the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts. Art lovers shouldn't miss the Rodin Sculpture Garden.

University of California-Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, Calif.

Founded: 1965

Notable Alumni: astronaut Kathy Sullivan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurie Garrett, actress Camryn Mannheim, TV producers Anne Flett-Giordano and Chuck Ranberg

Surprising Fact: Although the sea lion was adopted as the school's mascot in 1980, student preferences prevailed and UCSC's teams are now officially the Banana Slugs.

Nature and science coexist comfortably at UCSC, where cutting-edge research is conducted on 2,000 picturesque acres overlooking Monterey Bay. Surrounded by meadows and redwoods, the campus has been honored for its artful integration of buildings with the natural environment. And you can take nature home with you, too. At Norrie's Gift Shop, pick up a plant from South Africa or New Zealand, grown in UCSC's arboretum. At the university's organic farm—run by the Center for Agroecology—buy fresh produce or attend a gardening workshop. Or simply visit the Seymour Marine Discovery Center—a few miles from the campus proper—and take home a photo or two of some rare sea creatures.

University of Washington
Seattle, Washington

Founded: 1861

Notable Alumni: American Legion founder Walter Beals, Dyan Cannon, former Speaker of the House Thomas Foley, Bruce Lee

Best Event: The Summer Arts Festival explores the way different arts handle a common theme—for instance, the role of the beat in everything from dance to poetry.

At the University of Washington, affectionately known as U-Dub, it's all about the view. Nestled amid Seattle's lush greenery, the campus boasts gorgeous vistas of Lake Washington and the Olympic Mountains. The school offers other perspectives as well. You can gaze skyward through the antique telescope at the Campus Observatory. You can look backward in time at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, which offers the chance to size up a 140-million-year-old allosaurus. And you can check out plants from all over the world in the medicinal herb garden. Bee balm, bearberry, blazing star, blessed thistle . . . the names alone are enough to soothe the soul.

Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah

Founded: 1875

Notable Alumni: CBS's Early Show anchor Jane Clayson, Steve Young, television inventor Philo Farnsworth

Best Event: In August, 25,000 people converge for Campus Education Week, which offers more than a thousand classes in everything from ballroom dancing to the Bible.

BYU, with more students than any other church-sponsored school in the nation, has been described by one college guide as existing in "a 1950s time warp." But it can be a trip much further back in time. The Earth Science Museum displays a 150-million-year-old dinosaur egg. There's also a lovely art museum, and a collection of animal and plant specimens is exhibited at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum. For those interested in personal roots, the Utah Valley Regional Family History Center at Lee Library offers access to the largest collection of genealogy records in the world.

University of California-Los Angeles
Los Angeles, Calif.

Founded: 1919

Notable Alumni: Nobel Prize winners William Sharpe, Bruce Merrifield, and Ralph Bunche, Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Francis Ford Coppola, Carol Burnett

Surprising Fact: The Internet was launched at UCLA in 1969.

A perfect UCLA day might begin with a morning stroll through the campus in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Among the school's many architectural jewels are Royce Hall, a Romanesque building inspired by the Sant'Ambrogio Basilica in Milan, and the spectacular Powell Library. Follow that with a midday tour of masterworks by Jean Arp, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore in the five-acre Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden. Come the evening, grab tickets to a sporting event at legendary Pauley Pavilion or take in a show at the Geffen Playhouse, where drama students work alongside distinguished visiting artists like Peter Falk, Dana Delany, and Jason Alexander. You just might catch a star.

University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley, Calif.

Founded: 1868

Notable Alumni: Abigail Van Buren, Jack London, Gregory Peck, Earl Warren, Dean Witter, Julia Morgan, Joanie Caucus

Best Event: Every April, Cal Day offers events—from drum performances to talks on broccoli's cancer-preventive properties—for all ages.

Ascend to the observation deck atop Berkeley's 307-foot Sather Tower—best known as the Campanile—for a view of the San Francisco Bay. At Berkeley, the views have always been pleasantly askew—eccentric and eclectic. Like the people-watching paradise of tie-dyes and tattoos at Telegraph Avenue or Sproul Plaza, site of student protests in the 1960s. Or the Botanical Garden. Or the Lawrence Hall of Science, which has a stupendous exhibit on the history of elephants this fall. That's Berkeley, where scientists study quarks and visitors discover quirks.

Writer Brad Herzog graduated in 1990 from Cornell University. (He recommends the view of Cayuga Lake from Uris Library.)

University of Oregon
Eugene, Ore.

Founded: 1876

Notable Alumni: Antarctic explorer Ann Bancroft, Phil Knight, James Ivory, sports commentator Ahmad Rashad

Surprising Fact: Animal House, the comedy classic, was shot on Oregon's campus.

Perhaps the most striking artifact at Oregon's Museum of Natural History—along with Mexican ceramics, masks from New Guinea, and replicas of American Indian homes built of snow, wood, stone, and bone—is a pair of 10,000-year-old sandals. And this at a school famous for running shoes. Oregon spawned the legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, Nike founder Phil Knight, and the short-lived but long-remembered runner Steve Prefontaine. The area is a runner's dream, especially Pre's Trail, a four-mile path winding through a nearby park. And then there's Hayward Field, where many world and U.S. track records have been set. If you prefer walking, grab a map to the 500-plus varieties of trees on campus from the lobby of Oregon Hall.

Oregon State University
Corvallis, Ore.

Founded: 1868

Notable Alumni: Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, computer mouse inventor Doug Engelbart, NBA star Gary Payton, high jumper Dick Fosbury, Heisman winner Terry Baker

Best Event: In July, OSU and the town of Corvallis hold da Vinci Days, a festival inspired by Leonardo, celebrating art, science, and technology.

For years, Oregon State was known as "Moo U." for its agricultural contributions to the Willamette Valley. But some of its attractions are lower on the food chain. OSU owns 14,500 acres of forestland, a living laboratory for the College of Forestry. It was here, in 1989, that a researcher rediscovered the Fender's blue butterfly, long thought extinct. And there are more than 2 million insects in the arthropod collection—plus live versions (walkingsticks, hissing cockroaches, scorpions) at the university's Bug Zoo.

Gonzaga University
Spokane, Wash.

Founded: 1887

Notable Alumni: Bing Crosby, NBA all-time assists leader John Stockton, NFL Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo, first female attorney general of Washington Christine Gregoire, Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad

Best Event: Musicfest Northwest, held on the campus each May, is the largest event of its kind in the nation. Teachers and performers evaluate 1,600 young painters, musicians, singers, and dancers, from first graders to postgraduates.

Gonzaga (pronounced gon-ZAG-uh) was named after the 16th-century Jesuit priest Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of youth. To start your visit, take a stroll through the majestic evergreens on campus along the banks of the Spokane River, just a short walk from downtown Spokane. Then make your way to the collection honoring the greatest crooner of them all. The Crosbyana Room at the Crosby Student Center houses the world's largest public collection of Bing Crosby memorabilia. Some 200 items are on display, including a replica of his 1944 Oscar for Going My Way, several gold and platinum records, photographs, correspondence, a Bing Crosby coloring book, even a Bing Crosby ice cream carton. Oh, and don't forget to visit Gonzaga's alumni center. It was Bing's boyhood home.

College Visitation
Tuition-paying parents like foliage in exchange for their jack, so you can be sure that if there's a spot on campus where leaves fall, it will appear on the cover of the college brochure. To verify the actual arboreal quotient of a campus it is therefore necessary to make the time-honored College Visitation. We're not claiming that your trip will be as exciting as the one on The Sopranos, when Tony whacked a snitch and Meadow got wasted with some winsome coeds. But you can make it worth your while.

Herewith a few tips from a veteran:

  • Tip 1—Before planning the trip, secure from Junior an answer to two questions: Big or small school? Far away, close, or far-enough-away-that-the-'rents-won't-drop-in-but-close-enough-that-I-can-bring-my-laundry-home-once-in-a-while? (If Junior isn't communicating with you, try to ascertain preferences through facial expressions and grunts.) My wife and I, having graduated from small, leaf-laden liberal arts institutions, dragged our first son to a couple of those type of schools when, in fact, he wanted urban anonymity.
  • Tip 2—Take the trip when college is in session because a campus in summer will be peopled only by high-level math students from abroad, construction workers erecting a dorm paid for by a 7 percent tuition hike, and 10-year-olds attending the Mack McElroy Basketball Camp.
  • Tip 3—By all means take a campus tour, but do not allow Junior to base his or her decision on the hotness of the tour guide. (Note to youngest son: I remain positive that you wouldn't have gotten to first base with Tour Guide Rachel.)
  • Tip 4—Hang back when the other parents and students have dispersed and ask the tour guide this question: When students get together, what is the one thing they complain about? Tour guides look forward to providing the real dope instead of the college-prepared spiel.
  • Tip 5—Ask the guide and as many other students as possible this question: Where do students go and what do they do on weekends? Does everybody go home? Are there fraternity parties? Ski trips? Leaf collection outings? (Probably not.) Remember—Junior will spend more time out of class than in class.
  • Tip 6—Ask the guide and as many other students as possible where students escape to for serious study. Are the dorms noisy? Is the library a safe harbor? Is there a nearby coffeehouse with Internet access?
  • Tip 7—If Junior is certain that he or she really wants to attend a particular school, make sure to secure an interview with a member of that school's admissions department. Colleges want kids who want them.
  • Tip 8—Ask college officials and as many students as possible the following question: How hard is it to switch majors? Chances are, Junior will change his mind about a career (I'm still not sure what I want to be when I grow up) during his college years, and some schools make it difficult to change courses of study.
  • Tip 9—Don't overemphasize the trip or, for that matter, the college choice itself. What is ultimately tested during these years is not Junior's ability to make a perfect first choice but, rather, his capacity to roll with the punches if things turn out to be not as advertised.
  • Tip 10—Finally, if leaves are important, think Vermont.

Photography Courtesy Brigham Young University


This article was first published in September 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.