At the request of one of my readers, this 16th installment in my series of profiles of great universities in the U.S. features Texas A&M University. The largest school in Texas, A&M is a major research institution known for academic excellence, rich school traditions, and enthusiastic, friendly students.
Founded in 1876 as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, it was the first public university in the State and specialized in agriculture and military training. As the school grew and expanded its focus, it changed its name to Texas A&M University, retaining the ”A” and “M” in honor of its roots.
Sprawling over more than 5,200 acres (21 sq.km.) of the Bryan-College Station metropolitan area, the campus so dominates the surrounding area that it is commonly referred to as “Aggieland.” With nearly 50,000 students, the school is the 7th largest in the United States. Among its other accolades, A&M is ranked in the top 100 global institutions for “openness and diversity.”
Near the heart of campus is the heritage Main Academic Building, with the iconic statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross. A university hero and former president, Sully was beloved for his generosity in tutoring students even during his retirement, asking only a penny for their thoughts. Before examinations, students still stack pennies at his feet, for good luck.
A&M students can choose from more than 150 degree options across 10 distinct colleges. Many of those degree programs and the university itself place high in national and international rankings. U.S. News & World Report rates the institution in the top 20 among public universities, as well 58th among all tertiary education institutions in America. The National Science Foundation ranks A&M as one of the top 20 research universities, while the Wall Street Journal in 2010 praised the school as one of the 2 best in country in terms of placing graduates in “key careers and professions.”
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, as the school’s history might suggest, is one of the best in the world. Its biological and agricultural engineering degrees are both ranked #1 by U.S. News & World Report. The poultry science, plant pathology and microbiology, and entomology curricula are all internationally renowned, with extensive field research support, state-of-the-art laboratories and research facilities, and world-class faculty.
The Dwight Look College of Engineering is one of the best in America. U.S. News & World Report ranks the overall undergraduate engineering program at the 9th best in the country. In terms of national rankings of individual degree offerings, the College’s petroleum engineering degree places #1 in the nation, nuclear engineering #2, industrial and systems #6, civil engineering #8, and mechanical and electrical engineering each place #9. The graduate programs rank highly as well, producing a high-quality path should students wish to remain to pursue advanced degrees.
The Mays Business School is ranked the 15th best in the nation by Businessweek and places highly in U.S. News & World Report listings as well. The School’s accounting, finance, and management offerings have been praised by numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Among the School’s distinguishing features, students have access (via the Reliant Energy Securities and Commodities Trading Center) to a $250,000 portfolio of donated funds with which to learn the skills of effective currency trading.
One of A&M’s defining features is its vast investment in research activity. Among educational institutions without a medical school, it places in the top 3 in terms of research expenditures, along with titans MIT and UC Berkeley. With a strong commitment to practical innovation, A&M supports successful technology commercialization by professors as an avenue to tenure. The resulting environment accords faculty a remarkable amount of freedom and exposes undergraduate and graduate students alike to cutting-edge industry partners.
It should be no surprise that such an environment stimulates experimentation and impressive achievement within the faculty. A recent example is Dr. Bruce McCarl, a 2007 Nobel laureate for his work as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Other professors and researchers, at A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine, were the first ever to clone a domestic animal (a cat). The team subsequently was the first to clone cattle, Boer goats, pigs, deer, and horses.
A&M has an intense spirit of tradition passionately embraced by generations of students and alumni and often linked to the school’s military roots and history of military service. The first group formed on campus, in 1876, was the Corps of Cadets, a student military unit. Participation was mandatory until the 1960s.
During World War II, more A&M Cadets served as officers for the Allied forces than did graduates of the U.S. Naval and Military Academies combined. Nearly Cadets 30 achieved the rank of general during that conflict.
Today, service in the Corps is voluntary. More than 2,200 students join per year, constituting the largest uniformed student body in the nation outside of the service academies. The Cadets have always been known for their deep commitment to the school, earning them the role of “Keepers of the Spirit” in Aggieland.
An intense commitment to sports and athletics is also part of A&M tradition and culture. Teams and students are known as Aggies because of the school’s agricultural roots. A&M’s s teams have won 11 national championships and are regularly successful across all sports including women’s soccer and volleyball. The great passion in maroon-and-white Aggieland, however, has always been gridiron football.
During the football season College Station’s Kyle Field becomes a fierce arena of combat, with 83,000 roaring spectators at every Aggie home game. The stadium is regularly ranked as one of the best in the nation, as well as one of the most intimidating and difficult venues for visiting teams because of the raucousness, precision, and unity of Aggie fans.
When freshmen arrive at A&M, they’re invited to participate in Fish Camps, 4-day retreat-style orientations that teach students everything they need to know about the “other education” (i.e., what isn’t taught in class). Those students who don’t attend are referred to as “2-percenters” because 98% of the Aggie experience takes place outside the classroom.
During Fish Camps students learn the “yells” and yell signals that they will need to know to participate fully in Aggie football games. While most schools have cheerleaders, A&M has yell leaders, an all male squad that leads fans in ferocious yells — such as Farmers Fight, Sit Down Bus Driver, and Skyrocket — to motivate the home team and demoralize the visiting opponent. Students who want extra practice can attend Midnight Yell, a campus tradition since 1930 in which an average of 20,000 students convene at Kyle Field the night before a football game to ready themselves for the impending contest.
The official team mascot is a purebred rough collie named Reveille. The dog holds the rank of Cadet General in the Corps of Cadets and must be addressed as Miss Reveille. When she wishes to sleep in a student’s bed on campus, the student on whose bed she settles must sleep on the floor. When she barks during a class, that class is cancelled.
Among A&M’s deepest traditions is that of the ”12th Man,” which is the name by which all Aggie football fans are known. In 1922 a particularly tough game saw many of the Aggie players knocked out with injuries. With no more players left on the bench, iconic Coach D. X. Bible called a student (E. King Gill) down from the bleachers to suit up and stand ready on the sideline. Ever since, Aggies in the stands remain ready and willing to take the field if necessary, and a walk-on player wears the #12 jersey and participates in kick-offs. Thus, metaphysically, whenever one Aggie scores a touchdown, every Aggie scores a touchdown.
Another grand tradition in Aggieland is the Aggie Bonfire. Begun in 1909, the conflagration symbolizes students’ burning desire to defeat their archrivals, the University of Texas. The bonfire became increasingly more elaborate over the years, exceeding a towering height of 100 feet (31 meters). It came to require thousands of students, expert engineering knowledge, and heavy machinery to construct.
In 1999, however, tragedy struck the campus during construction of the bonfire when the tower collapsed, killing 12 students. A memorial has been erected on campus to remember those students who lost their lives, and the school has delayed the building of the next bonfire indefinitely, until safety can be guaranteed. The tradition continues off campus in unsanctioned manner, however, with students building a smaller, less complex bonfires.
Aggies commemorate the departed through two of their greatest traditions. Whenever a student dies, a ceremony called called Silver Taps is held in which silence falls across campus and a special rendition of taps is played 3 times. In addition, on the 21st of April every year, Aggies around the world participate in ceremonies called Aggie Muster, to commemorate alumni who have died that year.
At multiple locations with critical masses of Aggies, formal Musters are held in the form of candle-light vigils to mourn the departed alumni. The roll is called, and friends and family of the deceased answer “here” to symbolize that each Aggie will always be there in spirit wherever a living Aggies happen to be.
There are many more traditions at Texas A&M, far too many to describe here. Some of the more prominent include the Aggie Rings, senior riding boots of the Cadets, Elephant Walk, and community service projects such as The Big Event.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of A&M tradition, though, is the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band. Composed of more than 400 members of the Corps of Cadets, the Band marches with such military precision that computer simulations reportedly suggest that its maneuvers are not humanly possible.
A&M is located in College Station, in a homey metro area of 230,000 residents with plenty of options for students looking for rejuvenating distractions, including the George Bush Presidential Library, Brazos Valley African American Museum, Brazos Museum of Natural History, Dixie Chicken, the renowned Messina Hof Winery, the revered Martin’s BBQ, vibrant nightlife at Northgate, and historic downtown Bryan.
For folks oriented towards the outdoors, Lake Bryan is only a half hour away and offers a tension-free, pastoral atmosphere for students to enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, and other aquatic endeavors as well as sunbathing on the beach. There is also an abundance of hiking trails, riding trails, and campgrounds in the vicinity.
Moreover, despite its small-town environs, the university sits less than 200 miles (320 km) away from 4 of America’s 11 largest and most dynamic cities — Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. In fact, Austin, the State Capital, is only about an hour’s drive away. Each of these exciting metropoli has its own unique personality and a great variety of activities to entertain visitors.
Not much farther afield — in fact, easily less than a day’s road-trip — are beguiling New Orleans and the pleasures of the Gulf Coast including Galveston and South Padre Island, all excellent locations for a quiet weekend or wild Spring Break, depending on one’s inclinations and the time of year.
To learn more about Texas A&M, specific degree programs, and how to apply, visit the university’s main website. For international students, take at look at the international office’s website. Click on the town’s name for more information about life in College Station or neighboring Bryan.
Next up in this series will be Princeton University, my alma mater and – per evaluations I’ve received from objective third-party observers – one of the most elite tertiary education institutions on this planet or any other. After that, I’m stymied, so send me your suggestions re schools or categories of schools that you would like me to highlight next.