Nestled among the tall oak trees and beautiful azalea blooms is Florida’s oldest university, Stetson.
A true ‘old Florida’ charmer, Stetson is located just north of (across the road from) downtown DeLand, a small community about 10 miles west the the I-4 corridor and 40 miles north of Orlando. Both the university and its surrounding town of 27,000 can trace their origins to the 1880s when a wealthy Henry Addison DeLand from upstate New York invested heavily to encourage fellow New Yorkers to move down to Florida and grow citrus. To entice them, he established a school as well as the university, then called DeLand Academy. Mr. DeLand enlisted the help of another wealthy man, John B. Stetson, maker of the Stetson hats, to finance the university, and when a terrible frost in 1889 destroyed all of the citrus crop and nearly bankrupted Mr. DeLand, Stetson pitched in to cover DeLand’s portion as well as his own, earning him the leverage to bear the name of the university. This history to the late 1800s is still felt strongly today, since the majority of the buildings both on campus and in the adjacent area visibly date back to an earlier time. It lends the campus a very familiar, cozy – but certainly not antiquated – air that is uncommon in Florida universities.
Stetson had a religious affiliation until 1995, but it is now completely secular. It does retain a magnificent chapel from those days, which is now used as a music hall to showcase the phenomenal talent of the Stetson music conservatory students. Word on the street is that the concerts are not to be missed!
Since the undergraduate enrollment is only 2900 students (and the reknowned Stetson Law program is housed in a completely separate location, Gulfport, FL), everything on campus is within easy walking distance, but at the same time does not feel small. Many bicycles were locked up on the racks that appeared outside every building, but over the course of the 5 hours that I spent on campus, I didn’t see a single student on a bike! It is possible to bring a car to campus but completely unnecessary for a student living on-campus or even nearby off-campus. I suspect the cars get most use traveling back home on long weekends.
There are a ton of housing options very central to campus, even the sorority and fraternity houses (minus one fraternity, which is off-campus and the home of the largest parties). One of the housing options, University Place, is quite obviously a converted two-story motel circa 1990 (complete with covered circular car port and all outside-facing doors), but others are very stately U-shaped buildings complete with swings on the front porch and picnic tables on the lawn. Certain dormitories are even pet-friendly (so you can bring a cat or dog to campus!), and all dormitories allow fish tanks. Know before you go. On-campus housing is required for all freshman and sophomores. The university has a strategic growth plan that should be complete by next year, to bring the total number of undergraduate students to 3,000. Since there will not be enough rooms to house every student, it seems likely that upperclassmen may not have a guaranteed spot on campus (at least until the housing construction catches up to the number of students!). This isn’t much of a concern, though, since many students across the state opt to live off-campus during their last years anyway.
Since one fourth to even one third of the students participate in Greek life, the Stetson social scene is dominated by frat parties. There is no unique or remarkable quality that I could uncover about Stetson social life, since it has all the typical student clubs and variety of Greek options (including some that are academically focused and even host all-night video gaming sessions) that most universities large and small offer. It didn’t strike me as either a rigidly academic place or an all-out party school.
On the academic front, though, Stetson certainly shines. The “Hatters”, as Stetson students are known, are proud of their extremely small class sizes and the boundless opportunities for personal connection with professors. Walking around campus, I saw many classes in session (because of an open-door policy) and not one appeared to have more than 10 students. Officially, 0.7% of classes have more than 50 students, and the vast majority, less than 20. Even the professors’ office doors were open, and I was amazed to see a student sitting across the desk from nearly every professor, thoroughly engrossed in some unknown, but clearly deep, conversation. This is not the place for students who are unwilling or uninterested in being invested in their coursework. Most classes grade for attendance and class participation, which may seem stiflingly high scool-esque to some, but is welcome news to the majority of scholarly types.
Independent study courses and study abroad are actively encouraged and popular options, and the honors program is competitive and robust. Only 48 students are selected for the honors program each year, but those 48 are given special housing very centrally located, enhanced coursework, extra mentoring, and extra funding for research or study abroad, among many other benefits. Applications to the honors program are separate from the general application and due 15 April. Accepted students have SAT scores above 1300 (out of 1600) or ACT scores of 30 and higher. The Bonner Program is a unique service and leadership program designed to launch students’ volunteer work to the next level. It includes volunteer placement services, paid summer programs, and financial aid to all participants. More detail can be found here and applications are due 26 February. Yet another highly popular special interest program is the Roland George Investments Program. I must say, I was impressed with this one. 20 students per year, across all disciplines, are selected to manage in real-time a portfolio of investments now worth over $3.4 million. The stakes are high since the money is real, and students have the opportunity for hands-on learning about financial markets that is impossible to find at many universities. In the national student investment fund competition, Stetson consistently ranks first or second in either fixed income or equity stocks.
Finally, Stetson requires all students to complete a senior research project – this could be lab-based research for science majors, a gallery presentation for artists, a computer program, or some other creative work. Since everyone in the school completes this thesis, it creates a culture of independent scholarship throughout all four years of study. Look through the archives for an idea of the range of former projects.
The dining options at Stetson are consistent with a small school – good quality but not very diverse – and on-campus services like the library and gym are similarly solid but not spectacular.
My overall impression of Stetson is that it is a great option for students who are interested in learning and engaging academically, and who are looking for the comforts of the intimate small school and small town culture. 60% of applicants are accepted with average academic GPAs of 3.8 and average SAT scores of 1170 on a 1600 point scale.