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Our Wonderfully Small Liberal Arts University

Everyone has his or her own pitch for or against YU. And there are many pitches to be made in both directions.

Some students will complain—to no end—about the lack of classes, the low quality of classes, the bureaucracy, the facilities, the nepotism, the internet, the registrar, the campus life, the preponderance of one gender over another on either campus, and a list of other things they enjoy ranting about to friends under sunbrellas on the 185th Street Green.

Others take a more positive slant on the university, focusing on the benefits of attending a yeshiva: myriad torah-learning opportunities, a robust Judaic Studies program, and an all-Jewish—if not all-Orthodox—campus to boot. Let’s just say, YU students don’t quite have to worry about catching a minyan or whether the food at an event is kosher.

Now, it is not my goal to present all the pros and cons of Yeshiva University. There is not enough space on this page for such a discussion (especially for the cons—just kidding, President Joel), and I would not purport to speak for all the different viewpoints at YU. What I would like to do, though, is present one perspective on YU that I do not often hear discussed in this oft-raised student conversation: YU as a small liberal arts college.

When one envisions a liberal arts college, one probably imagines a quaint and quiet campus tucked away behind autumnal maple leaves somewhere in New Hampshire. The buildings are made of brick or stone, have stood for hundreds of years, and house throngs of extremely open-minded and politically liberal students. Now that sounds a lot like YU to you, doesn't it?

In all seriousness, several features of liberal arts colleges that make them some of the top rated institutions in the country can be found right here under our noses, and are at the core of what makes this university great.

You can find the exact numbers in Gavriel Brown’s “A Diamond in the Rough” later in this edition of The Commentator. But broadly, the lay of the land is as follows.

The faculty-to-student ratio here beats that at most any large research university. The number of YU classes taught by graduate assistants is minimal if not nonexistent, depending on the discipline. Putting sciences aside, I am not aware of any humanities courses taught by assistants rather than professors. Students have direct exposure to professors, resulting in a richer educational experience.

Add to that the small class sizes offered in YU’s humanities fields, and the opportunities for students increase exponentially. Most humanities classes at YU hold less than twenty students, many falling to less than ten, and some even below five. Students can be intimately involved in discussions instead of sitting aback a large lecture hall and can develop close relationships with professors. Professors here are willing to speak to students at length after class, to meet outside of class to discuss ideas and essays further, to email with students about any issue they might have. Due to the small number of students—and the generous attitude of professors—YU provides an educational context where individualized attention reaches its height. How many of us have close relationships with professors who act, in a sense, as our mentors?

But here I turn to extracurricular opportunities, where YU really earns its Nowhere But Here tag line, however cheesy it might be.

The ease of extracurricular involvement here is unparalleled anywhere else for an Orthodox Jew. Sabbath observance, a large barrier to entry on secular campuses, does not play a role on ours; you can join any club, group, society, or publication without having to worry about what you’ll do to get around Saturday meetings and events. But that’s just added incentive.

The most impressive part of campus life at YU is that there is such a large number of clubs and initiatives even with the small number of students. Any student can join these clubs and instantly become an integral part of its functions. And rising to a leadership position isn’t unusual either. Within a year new members become board members and soon enough are running the show themselves.

I have personally reaped the benefits of YU’s unique situation. As an English major and Writing minor, I can count the number of my classes that exceeded 20 students on two fingers. I can point to several teachers who profoundly influenced my life both academically and personally over the course of my time here. And I have enjoyed the privilege of being involved in multiple clubs and rising to leadership positions in more than one of them.

And this is where my pitch switches from YU to The Commentator.

There are many worthwhile endeavors on this campus, from Israel-related clubs, to academically oriented groups, and even a vibrant theater program—and you should get involved in those too. But writing for The Commentator—or working with it in any capacity, for that matter—is a special experience.

My first real exposure to The Commentator came in an open meeting for any students who wished to come, staff or otherwise, in which we brainstormed and discussed tens of ideas about goings-on around campus and possibilities for future articles. I had barely even met any of the staff, but they were immediately open to my ideas and critiques and suggestions. My first semester in college and somehow the editor-in-chief of the newspaper was excitedly writing my comments on a white board.

I heard about section editors who met with any teacher or administrator they wished to talk to; they had the ear of the highest officials in the university. Others told of the complimentary books, movies, concerts, and other assorted stuff they received through The Commentator in order to cover those stories in the paper.

But most of all I felt a sense of camaraderie you don’t find just everywhere at YU. The editors and writers at all levels had a rapport with each other that frankly, I was jealous of. And now, almost three years and about a hundred meetings later, I am glad to be a part of this special group.

As Chanukah approaches and the semester’s end comes into view, it’s worth taking a minute to consider how we spend our time during these precious years at Yeshiva University: are we taking advantage of all that it offers?

For some of us, next semester will be the last, while for others it is just the beginning. Either way, let’s make the most of it. Register for small seminar classes with accessible professors. Meet with teachers as often as you can. Get involved with a club you’ve always been interested in but never tried. And if nothing else, send me an email. The Commentator is recruiting staff for next semester. Get your start with the paper now; maybe one day you’ll write about it in this very column.