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Common Threads

Class of 2013 The class of 2013. Click to enlarge.

How the Whitman Admission Process Weaves a Community

Campus tour
A steady stream of tours with prospective students and their families flows through campus on fall and spring visitors’ days.

   Class of 2014: By the Numbers

  • 23% Students of color
  • 36 States represented
  • 4% International students
  • 15 Countries represented: Bulgaria, Canada, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Lesotho, Lithuania, Mexico, Montenegro, South Africa, Thailand, Venezuela
  • 57 First-generation students (first in their families to attend college)
  • 54 Have a sibling, parent or grandparent who attend or attended Whitman
  • 22 Have other relatives who attended Whitman

Whitman College’s Class of 2014 is about to arrive on campus. It wasn’t a quick trip.

It involved a journey of many months and, in some cases, years for some of the nation’s most gifted students, and for Whitman’s 10 admission officers and 10 support staff members, who scoured high school transcripts, essays, recommendations, résumés and the world, literally and virtually, to bring together yet another spectacular assemblage of students.

Like the students who came before them, the members of the Class of 2014 most certainly will go on from Whitman to contribute significantly, and often prominently, as leaders in business, government, medicine and academia, as well as in artistic and humanitarian roles.

Weaving together an incoming class of students whose academic scholarship, talent and leadership will enrich the larger Whitman community is a complicated, multilayered endeavor. Doing the job well and completing it on schedule is a marathon at times, a sprint at times and sometimes part miracle, said Tony Cabasco ’90, dean of admission and financial aid.

For Cabasco and his team, the great joy in completing this new section of the larger Whitman tapestry comes from their unique approach to the responsibility they hold.

“We’re recruiting alumni,” Cabasco said. Not just new students. Alumni. This represents a different focus than many college recruiters, but Whitman admission officers know on average 89 percent of the students who enroll will graduate from Whitman.

“It changes your perspective. This is a long-term relationship,” Cabasco said. “It’s not just about meeting a specific goal for the number of students this year. The students we choose are people who are going to become important to the college.”

“We’re looking for individuals with stories to tell”

If admission officers focused only on academic strength, deciding which students to admit would be a relatively simple task of sorting through test scores and grade-point averages.

But Whitman’s admission officers are charged with finding more than just intellectual firepower on paper or in presence. Most students who apply are qualified or highly qualified academic candidates. “They can do the work. We’re looking for what else they bring, how they will participate and enrich our community. We are looking for difference-makers,” Cabasco said.

“We’re recruiting alumni. The students we choose are people who are going to become important to the college.”
— Tony Cabasco ’90
dean of admission and financial aid

“We aren’t looking for numbers. We’re looking for individuals with stories to tell.”

Stories from the Class of 2014, for example, include the daughter of agricultural workers in central Washington, one parent with a kindergarten education, and the other third grade. To make her parents’ lives better, the straight-A student with a plethora of school leadership and community achievements dreams of going to college.

“She’s going to change the world. She’s amazing,” Cabasco said.

Philip “P.J.” Petrone, associate director of admission in the California office, holds degrees in marine resource development and family studies, and is a certified K-12 school counselor. As he meets with students at college fairs and other venues he gets a sense right away if a student is a fit.

“Usually, it’s a student who isn’t scared to step up to the table and talk to me on their own,” he began.

“It’s someone who is articulate and thoughtful: They realize that academics don’t just happen in a vacuum. That it’s something they want to apply and integrate into their lives.

“Someone who values what they’re doing outside the classroom as much as they value challenging themselves within the classroom.

“Someone who can write not just about themselves in their personal essays, but write about how the experiences they’ve had affected them and changed them. Prospective Whitties have the thoughtful presence of mind to kind of just ‘take it in’ a bit more than other 17-year-olds.”

Petrone believes current high school education is very much focused on taking as many Advanced Placement courses as are available and having the highest possible GPA. “Everybody wants a quick and easy answer to, ‘What do you have to do to get to this next step?’ I just don’t think the students who are attracted to Whitman are looking for that simple answer. They’re looking to continue on the journey and be at a place where they are going to be challenged but where they also can contribute,” Petrone said.

“We look at the students who are still working hard in their high school classes. They’re challenging themselves. They’re not bailing out on the fourth year of math or science. They’ve seen through courses that presented difficulty to them. They’re good community members both on the high school campus and in the community.

“They don’t portray an image of having a definitive grasp of everything that’s possible. They’re open to the possibilities. … It’s the applicant whose high school counselor or teacher glows about how strong of a community member that student is and how lucky we are to get them.”

Cabasco said a good Whitman prospect also has an adventuresome spirit.

Thumbs up Admission officers give a thumbs-up as they review a prospective student’s application materials projected onto a screen in the Penrose House conference room. A two-week period in March is an intense time of decision-making for the officers, who sequester themselves in the conference room with laptops and plenty of snacks. They are long days, as one might surmise from the look of the gentlemen’s beards. In truth, though, the beards were the result of a friendly challenge not to shave until the admitted class list was finalized. Pictured here, clockwise from bottom center: Victoria Lidzbarski ’05, assistant director of admission; Kevin Dyerly, director of admission; Joshua Smith ’07, admission officer; Anne Thatcher ’97, associate director of admission; Tony Cabasco ’90, dean of admission and financial aid; Cate van Oppen ’08, admission officer; and P.J. Petrone, associate director of admission, California regional office.

“It takes a certain independent spirit, a thoughtful, intentional person to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to go to school in Walla Walla.’ That kind of person is going to be less swayed by friends who are going to NYU or UW or whatever. They’re going to say, ‘This is the place for me,’ and that kind of individual is, by definition, willing to go off the beaten path, is willing to be a pioneer, is willing to be a little different, willing to kind of follow their heart … ‘I found this place I fell in love with, and I’m going to follow that.’”

Also integral to the creation of a student community are the students and parents who labor through the college-search process, Cabasco said. “It can feel like a full-time job as they wade through college viewbooks, college Web sites, social media — Facebook, college review sites, blogs about colleges and the college-search process, campus visits and college rankings.

“The plethora of information sources can be daunting, engendering questions about access, affordability, academic prestige and quality, meritocracy and social mobility. And complicating things further: The economic turmoil is affecting most students, parents, and colleges,” Cabasco said.

“But in this milieu, the college and admission officers and staff are there to help prospective students and parents navigate through it successfully.”

Whitman’s deep and abiding commitment to access

An essential part of the admission process is helping families work through the cost of attending college, Cabasco said.

At Whitman this is especially so. “Whitman has a deep and abiding commitment to providing access to students of all socioeconomic levels — a commitment limited only by resources available.”

About half of Whitman students qualify for need-based aid. About 75 percent receive some sort of financial aid (a combination of Whitman scholarships, federal and state grants, student loans and student employment). The average need-based aid package in 2009-10 was more than $31,000.

Update: “Common Threads” strike familiar chord

Judy McClane Slattery ’59 offered these reflections on Whitman’s dedicated staff and faculty after reading the July 2010 Whitman Magazine feature section, “Common Threads.”

“I read the feature on Whitman’s current admission process with special interest, since I grew up watching my father (the late Douglas McClane ’28, former dean of admission) and Tommy Howells (professor of English) sort little index cards on our basement ping pong table.”

The connection between Whitman students and faculty “goes deeper,” she wrote, than being on a first-name basis or sharing a cup of coffee with a favorite professor. “Phyllis Hutchings (professor of astronomy) was my Blue Bird leader. Louise Pope (professor of biology) ordered a tree frog so Santa could bring it to me. I grew up around Whitman faculty — learned adults who were consistently generous of their time. It is heartwarming to read after years of innovation and change, this generosity of spirit is still at Whitman's core.

“Regarding the (admission) Traveling Season. Among my father’s last lucid words: ‘Time for me to hit the highway.’”

To meet the financial need, the college annually awards about $20.5 million in student scholarships. In addition to need-based financial aid, the college also awards merit scholarships for academics, art, music, debate, theater and leadership.

“Whitman has done an admirable job in ensuring access,” Cabasco said. One in eight current students comes from a family where neither parent earned a college degree, and 12 percent of Whitman students are recipients of federal Pell Grants (awarded to the neediest students).

“Even with Whitman’s generous financial aid awards, funded, in part, by gifts from alumni and friends to the scholarship endowments, the college cannot meet the demonstrated financial need of every admitted student,” Cabasco said.

There is an unending need for scholarship funds, and the college’s efforts to ensure exceptional students are afforded the opportunity to benefit from a Whitman education are ongoing. In the meantime, when families face a funding gap, admission and financial aid staff talk with them about the transformative experience Whitman provides its students and alumni, and the long-term value of an investment in a Whitman education.

“We believe it’s important to focus on the value, not just the cost,” Cabasco said.

More than twice as many applications as 15 years ago

Whitman’s academic rigor, experiential learning opportunities and vibrant, dynamic residential community are in high demand. The flow of students and families visiting campus has increased significantly, and applications have more than doubled in the last 15 years.

For the incoming Class of 2014, about 3,300 students applied, the second best year in the college’s history; 1,500 were admitted. Whitman can offer opportunities to less than half of the students who apply.

While many colleges struggle to make a class by admitting every student who is academically qualified, Whitman’s admission officers have a different challenge: They sift through a large pool of candidates, of which 80 to 90 percent are highly qualified academically, to find what else those applicants might bring to Whitman.

“Inevitably every year we have hundreds more students whom we want to admit than we can,” said Kevin Dyerly, director of admission.

Tasked with finding each new Whittie crop is a crew of admission officers from a broad range of ages, experiences and backgrounds. Cabasco and Dyerly work to ensure the pool of admission officers reflects the spectrum of students interested in Whitman, and they strive to eliminate any potential bias by selecting students through a collaborative, thorough and thoughtful process. No one person makes the decision.

This is where the “marathon” and “miracle” aspects of the admission cycle come into play. Each admission officer reads between 500 and 1,000 applications each season, and each application, along with supporting documents, including essays and activity résumés, is read by two different admission officers. In mid-March, admission officers come together to review all the applications and narrow the field from 3,300 to the 1,500 students who will be offered admission. (See more about the admission cycle on Page 25.)

This year’s group of enrolled students is the most diverse class in the college’s history: More than 23 percent are students of color, another 4 percent are international. One in eight is the first in his or her family to attend college. Thirty-six states and a wide array of religious backgrounds are represented.

Admission team Admission officers gather in front of Penrose House (the Office of Admission). Seated, left to right: Alana Kaholokula ’08, admission officer; Victoria Lidzbarski ’05, assistant director of admission; Anne Thatcher ’97, associate director of admission; Tony Cabasco ’90, dean of admission and financial aid. Standing, left to right: P.J. Petrone, associate director of admission; Joshua Smith ’07, admission officer; Kevin Dyerly, director of admission; Cate van Oppen ’08, admission officer; Bruce Jones ’67, associate director of admission; and Katie DePonty, assistant director of admission.

Alumni contribute to the rising reputation of Whitman College

The ever-increasing number of applications is a reflection of the admission staff’s efforts but also a tribute to Whitman alumni, whose personal and professional achievements and love for their alma mater are the best possible testimonial.

Cabasco points to the alumni who represented the college at recent admission events: the vice president of a Portland bank; a pediatrician; an alumnus with a Cornell University doctorate in chemistry; another with a doctorate in neurosciences from Stanford University; and an alumnus who is Apple’s product manager for the iPhone software technology.

“Having a well-rounded, broad-based education is what helped prepare them to be successful … to learn how to learn, to speak, to write, to think critically and to question answers,” Dyerly said.

Admitted Students Day Admitted Students’ Day drew record attendance in April 2010 with more than 400 students and family members representing 22 states visiting campus for the day.

Whitman’s growing national reputation also may have been aided by its inclusion in important rankings and guidebooks, such as several Princeton Review Top-20 lists, U.S. News & World Report and author Loren Pope’s “Colleges That Change Lives.”

Students who also are admitted to other select liberal arts colleges across the nation often choose Whitman. Many focus solely on Whitman: About 25 percent of each class is “early-decision admit” and applied only to Whitman.

“We are very fortunate that, in many ways, we really get to pick the most interesting students from a pool of highly qualified applicants,” Cabasco said. In recent years, only about 43 to 47 percent of applicants have been admitted.

Ultimately, the school sells itself. Admission officers’ main role is to accurately and fully portray the college.

“If we do that, students self-select,” Dyerly said.

And after they select, invariably they, too, become trumpeters of the Whitman experience.

Talia Gottlieb ’11, who considers Hood River, Ore., and Kenya, Africa, her hometowns, is a prime example. She is a member of the A-Team, a group of student volunteer ambassadors who advise and assist the Office of Admission with outreach to prospective students and families.

“It allows me to share Whitman with so many people. To see them smile as friends greet me, admire the beautiful campus, or respond enthusiastically to an interesting quirk about the college — I can’t help but feel tremendous pride,” Gottlieb said.

“Every time I give a tour I am reminded why I decided to come to Whitman.”

When the Class of 2014 arrives in August, Gottlieb and her classmates, along with faculty, staff and alumni, will continue the work the admission office staff began — weaving these new community members into the now generations-old Whitman tapestry.

Staff The Office of Admission support staff top row, left to right: Cristie Crawford, campus visit coordinator; Stephanie Johnson, executive assistant; Barbara Cox, credentials coordinator; and Maureen Vollendorff, administrative assistant. Bottom row, left to right: Thorin Zanger, admission technology specialist; Maranda Norton, data entry assistant; Chris Tarvin, admission manager; Christy Bandy, receptionist/office assistant; and Amy Moniz, administrative assistant.

– Stories by Virginia Grantier and Eleanor Ellis ’13. Photos by Greg Lehman

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