I came to Hillsdale College because I wanted a normal college expe­rience.

Of course, I wanted Hillsdale’s liberal edu­cation, to read the canon of the western tra­dition — you’ve seen the brochures. I was skep­tical, too, of the monastic envi­ronment of “great books” schools like the 100-student Thomas More College of Liberal Arts or 400-strong Thomas Aquinas College. That was not the college life about which I’d heard so much — where the football games, where the fra­ter­nities, where even the majors and minors?

Hillsdale seemed to offer good young Repub­lican boys a solid edu­cation that could be com­fortably set aside for time with friends and recre­ation. I was going to a normal college, like the ones you see on TV. In that sense, Hillsdale has been nothing but a dis­ap­pointment to me.

I know now that Hillsdale College is a pro­foundly strange place. From my first inter­ac­tions with my peers and upper­classmen, I began to under­stand that a strange and scary thing happens: Hillsdale changes you into one of its own.

The real glory of Hillsdale is that I wasn’t entirely wrong about her when I chose to come here. Hillsdale is in fact a school with a vibrant Greek life, suc­cessful ath­letic pro­grams, parties and dorm rooms with video games and pranks and even enough anonymity to make it feel com­fortably unclois­tered. I wasn’t wrong about a lick of that stuff. I was simply unin­formed about the real, core, unre­peatable “only at Hillsdale” expe­rience: that these things are in no way exclusive of or set apart from our intel­lectual life.

Pro­fessor of English John Somerville enjoys bragging about the success of the Vis­iting Writers Program here and sharing the tes­timony of pre­vious campus vis­itors about their expe­rience with the college and its stu­dents. What stands out about these stories is that the writers, many of whom are not familiar with Hillsdale or its rep­u­tation, all identify in Hillsdale’s stu­dents some element of unique intel­lectual engagement. You can find nerds any­where in honors col­leges and human­ities core cur­ricula. What you cannot find just any­where is the type of part­nership which Hillsdale has been so quietly inten­tional about cre­ating among us as it trans­forms us from Hillsdale stu­dents into Hillsdale’s stu­dents.

Provost David Whalen warned me during an October visit to campus in 2011 that Hillsdale stu­dents can’t go home again without feeling like they’ve just left home. Halfway through my freshman year, I expe­ri­enced that ridiculous claim as per­sonally true. I realized I’d been wrong: that Hillsdale doesn’t simply mean that you happen to be cocktail-party com­fortable with The Western Tra­dition and The American Founding. What it can mean, if it is allowed to, is that things which have been in most places and for many years dead letter become a part of our shared life. It’s organic, unno­ticed as it develops.

This is, in my esti­mation, Hillsdale’s greatest strength as a college. It is informed by the con­ser­v­ative ethos of her pro­fessors and stu­dents and by the large core cur­riculum in the oldest, greatest things, but it’s not really reducible to that. It’s the ability to learn while living, or more accu­rately, live through and in our learning.
We should never take this for granted, and we should take some inspi­ration from our founders, “grateful to God for the ines­timable blessings resulting from the preva­lence of civil and reli­gious liberty and intel­ligent piety in the land, and believing that the dif­fusion of sound learning is essential to the per­pe­tuity of these blessings, having founded and endowed a college at Hillsdale, Hillsdale County, State of Michigan.”