You’ll feel like you’re on vacation while touring Eckerd College! Previously called Florida Presbyterian College prior to its 1972 renaming after the drugstore magnate, Eckerd is located on Florida’s Gulf coast, less than 100 miles from Disney World. A member of the Colleges That Change Lives, this small liberal arts college has gained recognition and visibility across the country. Eckerd’s 1,800 students come from 475 different high schools—and 80% come from out of state.
At Eckerd College, there’s no traditional freshman orientation, and students are not assigned advisors. Instead, in addition to the fall and spring terms, all freshmen attend an initial 3-week term where they study a pre-assigned subject under a faculty member who will be their designated mentor. Subsequently, students follow a 4-1-4 calendar for the remaining 3 years. Once students declare their major, they are reassigned to a mentor within their chosen field of study.
About 70% of Eckerd students study abroad, with a goal of 100% participation in abroad programs. Among the 300+ opportunities are boat-based marine research in Costa Rica and the London Study House. My freshman tour guide was soon to leave on a trip to Germany with her class mentor, where they will study the Holocaust. My senior tour guide chose Eckerd because she wanted to study sea turtle conservation and one of the lead researchers in this field is an Eckerd College faculty member. He’s been her mentor for the past 3 years and the relationship has evolved to a point where she described him as being “like a dad.” Minutes later when he passed us on campus, there was an obvious joy in their greeting, before he jumped on one of the famous yellow bikes and headed off.
The recently completed state-of-the-art James Center for Molecular and Life Sciences is the pride of campus. The fully-equipped fitness facility, filled with machines and offering regular exercise classes, operates in a building fully powered by the energy students generate on treadmills and other cardio machines. The Yellow Bike program is another example of this eco-friendly campus. One hundred fifty yellow beach bikes are available for anyone to use throughout the campus. The beach bikes, laying in the grass, on a sidewalk, or leaning against a building seemed haphazardly abandoned, but the idea is that anyone can pick up a bike, ride it to a destination, and leave it for the next user.
Though Eckerd dorms are identified with Greek letters, that’s the extent of Greek life on this campus, which has no sororities or fraternities. Residential housing is clustered by themes, and the renovated facilities offer contemporary areas for socializing, cooking together, and studying together. Skateboard racks are found in most buildings and it wasn’t a surprise to see skateboards propped up outside dorm rooms. Colorful hammocks hanging between the palms contribute to that laid-back beach feel, as do the co-eds sunning on the greens, practicing on the slick new double sided skate board ramp, or walking their dogs.
Eckerd College is the #1 pet-friendly college in the nation, with pets allowed in 8 of the 12 residence halls. They even have a graduation ceremony for pets who will be leaving with their owners. My freshman tour guide said she has two roommates: a human, and her 8-month old Pit Bull. She assured us that caring for a pet is easy because others want to share the puppy love, and in return they help out with everything from trips to the dog park to trips to the pet store for food and supplies. Pets aren’t limited to dogs. There are snakes, birds and even chickens laying fresh eggs on the patios of the dorms. Given the environment, the facilities, and the welcome mat for pets, it’s not surprising 90% of Eckerd students live on campus!!
Basketball is intense here, but most other typical college sports are not. Instead, sports culture is oriented around tennis, golf, sailing, and beach volleyball. Even the covered outdoor basketball court doubles as a concert venue. Down at the tennis courts, the guides paused to hear the plethora of birds in the area. The bird reserve across the bay brings more birds to campus than any other campus in the world.
There’s plenty of balance between work and play here. Eckerd students are well-supported in their academic endeavors through the Center for Innovative Excellence and, in addition to a mentor, every freshman is assigned a librarian. The computer lab is open 24 hours for students to study and print at all times. Social consciousness and responsibility are promoted through the requirement that every student complete 40 hours of service learning before graduation.
The fitting tour finale was the waterfront. Eckerd College boasts the only collegiate maritime rescue team in the nation, but that’s not the only student group you’ll find enjoying the water here. At the waterfront, students can borrow everything from a Hobie Cat or a paddleboard to a fishing rod. Chalk boards advertise water events and it’s clear this is where Eckerd College co-eds gather on those sunny warm weekends.
As the tour guide summed it up, “living, learning, and playing at Eckerd College is an incredible experience, with everyone supporting your success.”
I asked an Admissions officer what makes applicants stand out. The immediate answer was “If I can put a face to the name; if the student has been here and shown an interest.” Indeed, as I waited for the tour to begin, I noted that each applicant had a one-on-one meeting with an admissions representative. Parents were kindly NOT invited to join. Jake Browne, Director of Admissions, says Eckerd College is for the student looking for something “different” than his/her high school experience. “Black sheep tend to find their place here.” Eckerd wants students who are authentic and like being who they are, students who aren’t striving to conform. The typical student is “more adventurous,” and Browne recognizes the successful Eckerd student can be a student who, although intellectually capable, may not have attained conventional success in high school. He’s looking for the student to explain that in his/her application.
The middle 50% of Eckerd’s admitted class has SAT scores that range from 1010 to 1240, and an average 3.4 GPA.
Fay wrote this summary after her visit to Eckerd College in 2017; Evelyn visited in early 2019. You can scroll through all of their photos below.