Transferring to Minerva… My Thoughts Two Years Later

by Lusana Ornelas | Feb 17, 2017

The first time I heard about my current school, Minerva, was in 2013 while on a gap year. I was working with a Physics research project in a very well known university in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Minerva’s website promised a revolutionary education, global student body, and traveling experience. My first thought was, “This sounds too good to be true. Where’s the trick?” That year, I didn’t apply to Minerva. Instead, I finished my research scholarship and tried pursuing a traditional college education in Brazil.

I was accepted to some of the most prestigious universities in my country. I passed the Brazilian SATs with a high score and chose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Production Engineering — but that didn’t last long. To be honest, I barely finished the first semester.

My time in high school was marked by a number of extracurricular experiences, from artistic activities to academic competitions and social projects. I felt these experiences were part of who I was as a person; they made me unique and I was eager to share them with my college classmates. However (not surprisingly, now that I think about), at my previous school I was just one more student among thousand of others. I was nothing more than a number. I was not valued for my background. In fact, no one really cared about it, since it wasn’t “useful” now that I was attending university. This was especially true for the teachers, who were too busy to give any more than the minimum required attention to students.

Speaking of teachers, my previous university was known for its professors, with great resumes and tons of experience. Therefore, I was really excited to be in touch with these bright minds. Imagine my disappointment when I found that such contact would hardly exist. This was due to three key factors. First, I was often taught by teaching assistants, not the professors themselves. Second, the number of professors interested in talking to undergraduate students were very few. And third, even those who were interested taught classes that were much too large for them to develop personal relationships with their students.

While class sizes and the size of the student body in general were a major issue for me, even more problematic was the fact that diversity was almost nonexistent. Due to the biased selection process in the Brazilian university system, most students at top universities are white people, from private schools, in better financial circumstances, with very similar cultural backgrounds, and generally unaware of social issues or the concept of “privilege.”

Finally, most of the classes were large lectures with no in-class participation. Instead, I was expected to sit quietly, listening to the professors bestow their knowledge on me, while taking as many notes as I could. This teaching method often discouraged me from raising my hand and asking questions when I didn’t understand the content. That, plus the fact that there were few opportunities for clarification, made the learning process much less productive than it should have been.

I soon noticed that this method was not working for me. I didn’t feel motivated to sit through classes, passively listening to others. I would push my questions to the corner of my mind, until the night before a midterm or final, when I would sit at the library and pull an all-nighter, going through all the content and trying to learn everything from the semester in one sitting, on my own.

And here’s an even bigger problem: it worked. Yes, it worked. I would pass my tests, sometimes with an A+. Why is that a problem? I was learning more on my own in one night than I was in months of class.

If the point of education is to absorb information, I could have learned all the material from my classes on my own, at home. If you open your browser and type “Calculus” on Google, you will find thousands of websites with online classes that you can take at your own pace — many for free.

It was around this time that I noticed I couldn’t answer a very basic question: why should I go to college at all?

It was around this time that I noticed I couldn’t answer a very basic question: why should I go to college at all? This question grew in my mind to the point that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I had never been the type of person willing to settle for something that makes me uncomfortable. So I decided to act; I took a break from college and embarked on another gap year (let’s just say my parents were not especially happy), during which I moved to Colombia to work on a social project as an English teacher.

That’s when I heard about Minerva, again.

I won’t lie and say that I was sure Minerva was the best choice for me. I also won’t say that I knew everything about it. All I knew was what I didn’t want my college education to be, and that Minerva promised an alternative, revolutionary experience. It promised to solve the exact problems that I had at my previous university. This time, I decided to apply and was accepted, so I took the leap of faith.

Two years later, I believe that it was, by far, the best decision I have ever made in my life.

For starters, I’m not just another student. I am Lusana, from Brazil, passionate about feminism, business, and social causes. I am known for my strong personality and often bring a different perspective to our discussions. Here, I am valued as a person.

Every student at Minerva is bright in their own way and we share our knowledge and experiences to contribute to the development and welfare of our community.

On my first day, I was greeted by Minerva’s Founder, Ben Nelson, who called me by my name, gave me a hug, and mentioned how happy he was that I decided to enroll. It was a mind-blowing experience (and lesson in humility) to know that the founder of a university knows the students by their names. My classmates and I, the faculty, and even the staff, all know each other by name. Every student at Minerva is bright in their own way and we share our knowledge and experiences to contribute to the development and welfare of our community.

Just as important, Minerva has a really accomplished faculty. While this is something many universities tout, it is the rare class that is not taught by teaching assistants, but the professors themselves. At Minerva, professors not only know each student by name, they know how well each is performing in class. They hold regular office hours, during which any student is welcome to ask clarifying questions, request feedback on their work, or just talk about life. My Minerva professors have become my mentors and friends. I often go to office hours to talk about topics unrelated to my coursework.

Additionally, each student at Minerva is assigned an academic advisor, with whom we can check in regularly to discuss anything related to life at Minerva. My advisors know my interests and career goals, and give me guidance on which classes to take, how to improve my performance, answering any questions related to the academics, and offering support. Last semester, for example, I got sick and missed two weeks of classes. My advisor gave me personalized advice on how to complete the makeup work, and reminded me that I could reach out to talk with her any time. I honestly don’t know where else I could find this amount of support.

The student body at Minerva is extremely diverse. In fact, it’s the most internationally diverse student body in the world. Different from other U.S. universities, here, North Americans are the minority. Over 75% of the student body is composed of international students from more than 50 different countries. There are people from nearly every race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status. We often share our cultures, backgrounds, and world views with each other. I’m constantly being challenged to be more open minded and learning about countries and cultures that I didn’t know much about. You know that typical college ad that shows a group of outwardly “diverse” students sitting on the grass laughing? Well, we actually do that. Every week!

The most revolutionary thing about Minerva may be the teaching methodology. The curriculum and classes are based on active learning, which means that every student has to participate in every class. We are encouraged to raise our hands to ask questions and are often called on by the professors to share our thoughts on what is being discussed. In short, our opinions matter. No one is neglected or condemned to stay quiet in their seat.

Instead of lectures, classes at Minerva are small seminars built to foster discussion. The students learn the content for the class on their own and ask question beforehand, with class time reserved for activities that apply the knowledge we gain on our own to real life situations. I can see clearly how the education I receive at Minerva will be useful for my career.

We don’t have tests, either. Forget all the stress of pulling an all-nighter before your final, just to forget everything you studied the following day. Pretend your last test is in front of you. Roll it in a ball of paper. Now, throw it in the trash.

The best part of Minerva is that there’s no competition. There’s no grading curve, and there’s no comparison among students. You will never see a Minerva student trying to be better than the other, or trying to achieve higher grades to be the first of the class. There is no first of the class, because there are no class rankings. The most important thing at Minerva is learning, not grades, and the academic team discourages any level of rivalry. We are encouraged to collaborate and to help each other succeed. This cultivates a feeling of community I have never seen before. The people at Minerva have become like my family, and I don’t think I could have this level of connection with any other student body in the world.

I had very high expectations for my time in college. Unfortunately, the traditional college experience didn’t work for me. I’m sure it has its benefits and may still work well for some. For me however, Minerva is the one institution where I belong. Every single cell in my body seems made for this university. This is what I have been preparing myself for my whole academic life and I couldn’t be happier I ended up here.