American University - Comments and Student Experiences|
The academics themselves are pretty solid at AU. Professors generally know their stuff and are pretty passionate about it. Like any other school, it has its share of subpar instructors. In four semesters there, I think I had an average of one bad professor per semester, but a lot of my qualms were with the way the courses themselves were structured, which profs can only do so much about, what with departmental oversight and all that jazz. Professors definitely expect a lot from you, but they're generally very friendly and willing to help. They don't usually publicly encourage students to come to office hours, but will always be happy to see you there.
Now onto the stuff that I dislike, finally.
The environment on campus is toxic, and only getting worse. I think the roots of it are three things:
1) AU brands itself as "the most politically active college in America." This in and of itself is not a bad thing, and is probably to be expected considering where the school is located. But it trickles into the academic side of things. No less than 2/3 of all undergraduates at AU major in either political science or international relations. Politics is discussed A LOT. It's what the school pours all of its marketing and resources into. Not even most students at AU know about the $2 million recording studio tucked away into a corner of campus that no one goes to, or that AU has one of the best pre-med programs in the country, among other things. That stuff is almost completely ignored. Politics dominates.
2) Ideological homogeneity. No less than 95% of undergraduates are politically liberal. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing. Most colleges these days are overwhelmingly politically liberal. That's just something that you have to accept as reality. But combine it with the dominance of political studies and topics, and you get an echo chamber. Lots of people saying the same things over and over and over. Not only is everyone liberal, but everyone is politically minded. It's impossible to escape it, so it can be a nightmare if you don't like it. I studied political science myself at AU, but because I was more interested in areas of political science that were not as widely discussed (i.e. I was a lot more interested in learning about why people voted for Trump than automatically and simplistically branding them as evil and constantly shouting "resist, resist, resist!" 24/7), I felt ostracized and was frequently told that I was "part of the problem" even though I myself am politically very liberal.
3) AU students are blind to their own classism. AU students often refer to themselves as "wonks," people who are extremely nerdy about one or more topics. It's common DC-area jargon. My small circle of friends and I had a joke that any time an AU student pointed out how you were blind to your own privilege or would ask you to walk back some seemingly harmless comment you just made, you were getting "wonked." It happened a lot. Many AU students will gleefully point out instances when you are overlooking your own privilege. Many of the more politically active ones will put out lists of demands for the administration to enact to make AU a place more friendly for marginalized groups, but if you look closely at these demands, the only class-related one is often something like a tuition freeze, or just making the school more affordable for low-income students. They completely overlook the many cultural differences between upper- and lower-class people. It never occurs to them that not only might AU be unaffordable, but it might also be a place that's just too alien for lower-class students to want to attend.
What ties all of this together and makes it all impossible to fix is that AU students, without even realizing it, are encouraged to be narcissistic. Personal identity and experiences are emphasized to a sickening degree. Any time any event, good or bad, happens on campus or off campus in the news, the first question you are encouraged to ask yourself, as an AU student, is something along the lines of "how does this affect me and my personal identity, my self-concept?" It's introspective in a really unproductive way. I remember walking around campus the day after Trump was elected and watching a group of students burning American flags on the quad, and one of them shouted something like "all of our unique identities no longer mean (expletive) if Trump is president." That's what gets me. You're in a bubble of a campus surrounded almost completely by people who think just like you, a place where you have almost all of the institutional power, and still you are afraid for yourself. What about the people outside of campus who can't enjoy the same protection? They need help. They're scared, and they have so much less agency to fix all of these problems than you do. But all you can think about is yourself and your "uniqueness" not "meaning anything" anymore. Boo hoo (again, I say all of this as a political liberal who chose AU largely because I wanted to be surrounded by people who thought like me, as my K-12 schooling was largely very conservative).
Fear governs so much more of the campus culture than anything else. AU Public Safety has to put out a campus-wide email any time "offensive posters" are found hung up somewhere on campus. It's just not the kind of place that is conducive to learning, even when the academics themselves are good. After two years, it got to be too much for my mental health. I couldn't take the constant pressure, not just to get an internship (as 90% of AU undergrads do), but to think like everyone else, to be an activist, a fighter. I'm too conflict-averse for that. I personally enjoy learning for the sake of learning, as an end itself rather than as a means to an end. I try to ask "why" more than "how." I try to let my path be governed through positive motivation rather than negative. If you're the same, definitely don't go here.
But maybe you're different. Maybe what I've outlined above sounds really cool to you. My values and experiences caused me to dislike it, but maybe yours will have the opposite effect. But I personally can't recommend that anyone go here. AU isn't doing any real good for anyone in the long run. Find a school that at the very least has a wider diversity of majors, like George Washington University--also in DC, but with a much more robust STEM program. Even that will help. You can still be politically active, but you'll be around people who view the world through a different lens, even if their political views are largely the same. And if you aren't super political, definitely don't come here at all. You will regret it, and that's only getting more and more true as time goes on. Then again, maybe fewer political types is what AU needs. Maybe that will help calm everyone down, reminding them that other stuff exists. I don't know. Go with your gut, don't listen to me.
STUDENTS: Extremely competitive. Are you obsessed with politics? Were you one of those kids in high school who wanted to be class president or involved in student government? If so, this is a good match. If you weren't interested in those things (even remotely) then you should just take this school off of your list. I began college with the objective of doing really well in my classes, and even as someone who is competitive academically I couldn't take people seriously because they were so OBSESSED with becoming the next Francis Underwood. During elections for student government there were scandals of people being paid off to drop in the race, etc.
COST: I was paying full tuition, which is close to 65,000 a year with costs considered. My dorm room was extremely old, and clearly hadn't been remodeled since the 1960's... stains on the carpet, old furniture, etc. The elevators were broken every week. Food was bad, and staff was usually extremely rude at TDR (where you'll be eating with your meal plan). Lots of racial tension. The campus is very small, you can walk from one end to the other in less than five minutes. If you get a dorm room in Anderson/Letts, I pity you. They flooded during the first week of classes last year, and also during that time over seventeen people were taken to the hospital for various reasons related to drugs/alcohol. The RA's are strict, and they WILL catch you if you try to smoke weed or something in your room. Three students were expelled in the first two weeks for this reason.
CULTURE: This is not a party school. At all. DC in general is full of functioning alcoholics, and that's what AU is also about. If you do want to party, join a fraternity or sorority. Although they are off campus, you may have some luck there. To get to the parties you'll gather behind Anderson/Letts and wait for the frat boys to select you out of a crowd (if you're hot enough) so that you can get in their car and be driven to the frat house... which is usually tiny and not nearly as great as everyone claims. Yes, this is exactly as sketchy as it sounds.
The culture of the school was very PC. I found myself censoring some very neutral opinions in most classes because the student body lives in fear of their classmates, should they say anything politically incorrect. Get ready to use doublespeak for everything. People are judgmental and can be extremely rude. You WILL be judged on your appearance, because the competition to get internships is so intense, speaking of which...
INTERNSHIPS: It is an unspoken rule that as a student at AU you should have an internship every semester. Yes, you will be judged on the kind of internship you have. Ideally you should work off campus, downtown, and hopefully in government at least once. Otherwise, why are you here? Get ready to use the metro every day, even though it frequently floods/catches fire and the metro workers are extremely rude.
3/4 of everyone that I spoke to was either THINKING about transferring, ATTEMPTING to transfer out, or had given up, although they felt that they should transfer it was just, "too much work, and I'm already here anyway." Rarely I would meet someone who was happy that they had gotten in, but that was very rare. Most people at AU were rejected by their top choice universities such as Vanderbilt, Rice, Georgetown, etc. and are either resigned to their fate or using it as a placeholder school while they try to get out. 2/3 of my friends successfully left AU and of the remaining 1/3 those who couldn't leave for some reason ended up staying, although it wasn't because they loved the school.
I successfully transferred out. The university failed to send my transcripts out, however, and it was only after multiple calls to the dean that I was able to get the situation sorted. By then I had been rejected from most of my transfer schools due to American University's failure to send out the transcripts. This also happened to two of my other friends, and it was not resolved until our parents were involved and threatened the school with legal action. After this happened I received a call personally from the dean of my college (liberal arts) asking me why I wanted to leave, and even requesting that I reconsider my decision. My friends receiving financial aid who were planning to transfer did not receive such a call, however all my friends paying full tuition did. Coincidence? I think not.
The university does not care about you. It's a machine that is there to take your money. Despite spending big bucks on advertising and marketing (many people I meet at my new school mention having applied to AU) they do NOT live up to the hype. They continue to lower their acceptance rate to artificially inflate their reputation and standing, but I assure you, this is just a trick. They accept many students through programs such as the "Washington Mentorship Program" and joint programs between the University of Delaware/Maryland and AU that are not factored into their total number of "accepted students" or their statistics. The students who get into these programs are not allowed to use their financial aid until they matriculate as "full" students of American University, although they are living on campus, paying for dorms, paying tuition to AU, paying for meal plans, and living without restriction in the way that any other student would. I'm surprised that this isn't illegal, but AU has certainly found a loophole to exploit.
I am personally offended by the way AU treated me. They will make you pay for everything, and you will be disappointed by everything but the professors. Although the professors are certainly not impressed by the school leadership either.
In sum... do you want the college experience? Clubs, friends, sports, etc? Free T-shirts? Work hard, play hard? If so, don't go to American University (go to GW or Georgetown). If you want to work a job and classes full time with access to downtown DC, come to this school. That's pretty much the only reason why. If I could go back I wouldn't change my decision because I made some amazing friends and ultimately had some great internships in DC... however, I'm glad that I left, because I really would have regretted my college experience if I had stayed.
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