Two weeks ago I talked about the oldest tertiary education institution in the United States, private Ivy League titan Harvard University. This week I thought I’d turn my gaze westward, to a highly regarded public university in our great heartland State of Iowa.
The University of Iowa was established in 1847 in Iowa City, located in the southeast region of the State. Founded less than two months after Iowa was admitted to the Union, the University has grown to encompass more than 120 major buildings spread over 1,900 acres.
The school has a sizeable student population – approximately 21,500 undergraduates and 8,000 graduate and professional students – but it assiduously maintains an impressively low student-faculty ratio of 16:1. Small class sizes and close interaction with professors are two of Iowa’s great assets.
Described by education commentators as a “flagship public university” and a “public Ivy,” the University of Iowa is widely recognized as a leading research institution and one of the nation’s most prestigious public academies.
Among other distinctions, the University has had 21 graduate programs ranked in the top ten in their fields according to U.S. News and World Report, with various undergraduate programs placing in the top 25 nationally. Asian Correspondent ranks Iowa as one of the top ten international universities in the U.S.
Like many public universities (i.e., tertiary schools established and supported by an individual State), Iowa offers a large array of colleges and degrees from which to choose — 11 different faculties with more than 100 distinct fields of study. It is alway a challenge to parse academic highlights, but I think it’s safe to say that the University has particularly notable strengths in medicine, public health, nursing, business, genetic research, hydraulics, speech and hearing, and creative arts, among other things.
Plus, the University contains the world’s most advanced driving simulator, used for behavioral and technology research. There is an innovative engineering communication program. Iowa scientists have made significant contributions to America’s space program, designing and fabricating research instruments for more than 50 successful space missions. The business school has among the most successful job placement and cost recoup records in the world.
Perhaps the University offering best known outside the United States is the highly regarded Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Founded in 1936, the Workship is a graduate degree program in creative writing designed around actual writing, group readings, peer critique, and public performance. It was the first program in the United States to offer a Masters in Fine Arts in English.
The Workship has produced 25 Pulitzer Prize winners and numerous best-selling authors. In 1967 it launched a special International Writers Program that pulls together a small number of overseas students each year to write, collaborate, critique each other’s work, network, and engage with American professionals and audiences. It’s a highly selective and very powerful opportunity. Thus far 15 Kiwis have attended including poet Hinemoana Baker, about whom I wrote twice in 2010.
To maintain its small average class size, the University supports a large faculty that contains a great variety of noted scholars, cutting-edge research scientists, well-known authors, Pulitzer Prize winners, former political figures, highly specialized physicians, and numerous members of prestigious scholarly academies.
Notable alumni of the University include Ashton Kutcher, Tennessee Williams, Gene Wilder, iconic American painter Grant Wood, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, Mary Beth Hurt, Tom Brokaw, pollster George Gallup, Paul Harris (founder of Rotary International), dozens of NFL football players, and miscellaneous larger-than-life personalities such as WWE professional wrestling star Ettore “Big E Langston” Ewen.
Because the University was established and continues to be supported by the State of Iowa (i.e., funded by taxpaying Iowans), the children of Iowa residents receive a discount on tuition. That’s a common phenomenon in public universities in the United States.
Financial assistance, however, is available to all students (including international students) who qualify based on need or achievement. Overall, more than 70% of the students at the University receive some financial aid, and an impressive 20% of all undergraduate students receive full scholarships.
In addition to acclaimed academic programs, Iowa has the usual American blizzard of extracurricular choices for students. Among its major strengths are sports and athletics. The varsity football team is a perennial Big Ten Conference powerhouse and competitive nationally in the top 25 college teams every year.
The University also has successful Division I teams in more than 20 sports for men and women including golf, rowing, basketball, baseball, field hockey, tennis, track & field, and much more. The wrestling program has produced numerous national champions in recent years.
There are more than 450 student clubs and organizations including the usual range of outdoor adventure activities, intramural sports teams, a student-run television station, vibrant Greek (fraternity & sorority) houses, and groups devoted to various political, philosophical, international, environmental, social, cultural, arts, music, religious, and professional interests.
There is, for example, a Juggling Club. The Dance Marathon Club runs 24-hour dance marathons that have to-date raised more than US$ 11 million to support youth with cancer. The Tuba-Euphonium Studio engages in a variety of activities including building immense musical instruments and playing a highly popular Christmas concert.
Although I would argue against choosing to attend any university on this basis alone, I should note that Iowa also has a dynamic social scene, legendary in scope, diversity, and vigor. For those who value league tables as evidence of things, Iowa is consistently ranked in the top ten “party schools” by both Playboy magazine and the Princeton Review.
Fortunately, I hasten to remind, that reputation for fun coexists comfortably with a strong, consistent reputation for achievement and excellence.
Like other American schools, Iowa has enduring campus traditions that enrich student life. Just to name a few off the top of my head …
The Unversity’s colors are black and gold, perhaps reflecting rich dark soil producing abundant corn. (More than 90% of the land in the State of Iowa is devoted to agriculture).
The University’s students and sports teams are nicknamed the Hawkeyes, which is derived from the home State’s own nickname. (The State of Iowa has long been known as the “Hawkeye State,” purportedly in honor of great Chief Black Hawk, leader of the Sauk Indians.)
The Hawkeyes have a heated cross-state sports rivalry with the Cyclones of Iowa State University which culminates each year in a hard-fought football battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy.
One of the more curious local traditions is the voracious consumption of large turkey legs — sold by the legendary Chuck from his “Big A#@ Turkey Leg” stall — before the start of football games at the University. Chuck is beloved by generations of Hawkeyes for his largely good-natured heckling of the crowds of sports fans who pass his barbeque pit on their way into the stadium.
Traditions, though, aren’t just about fun, food, spirit, and good-natured rivalry. The most impressive elements of Iowa’s culture spring from its historic, long-standing reputation for inclusiveness, diversity, open-mindedness, and educational innovation.
Iowa was the first public university in the United States to accept men and women on an equal basis (in 1855). It was the first to officially recognize an LGBT/straight student alliance (in 1970). And it was the first university in the world to accept creative work in theater, writing, music, and art on an equal basis with academic research for degree purposes. The philosophy and core values that drove such steps continue to guide, inform, and enrich the University today.
As I noted earlier, the University is located in Iowa City in the southeast part of the State, an easy drive to the capital of Des Moines or over into Illinois, Wisconsin, or Missouri.
A charming college town, Iowa City has approximately 68,000 permanent residents and a reputation for being passionate about the arts, with numerous music festivals, three live theaters, and regular visits by Broadway touring companies.
The population has a particular focus on creative writing. In recognition of the town’s “quality, quantity, and diversity” of publishing, UNESCO has recognized Iowa City as one of its six world “Cities of Literature” (along with Dublin, Edinburgh, Norwich, Melbourne, and Reykjavik).
If you would like to learn more about the vibrant culture, entertainment options, clean-green reputation, and other joys of Iowa City life, please browse the municipal website.
For more information about the University of Iowa, including the application process, check out its main website or the graduate program website. If you have a particular interest in creative writing, see the Writers’ Workshop page. And of course, you can contact our Embassy’s educational adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov.
Next up in this series will be the University of Southern California, so stay tuned. If there are other specific universities or particular types of tertiary education institutions that you would like me to highlight thereafter, just let me know.