Find Your Niche. Part 1

Niche schools have developed as a way to give students exactly what they need in a college or university. Attending a niche school is about connecting with a university on a different level, through the unique options and opportunities they provide.

Schools with a Jewish focus

Most colleges and universities, even secular ones, have some sort of spiritual life center. And while they may be welcoming to all faiths, some students are looking for a school with a focus on their religion. For Jewish students, maybe that means a synagogue on or near campus, or excused absences from class for holidays.

“The close-knit program of our Judaic Studies gives students a safety net for their lives on campus,” says Richard Freund, Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut. “Many students come to our dinners and luncheons on campus that we sponsor for the community. Many of the people in the community ask us if there are students who would like to be hosted for a Sabbath, Holiday, or Passover meal.”

The Greenberg Center does not provide spiritual guidance, Freund says. Rather, it’s about creating bonds between students and professors joined by a common interest in Judaism. (Freund says he is still in touch with students he taught 25 years ago!)

“The University of Hartford is seen as a very welcoming Jewish environment that is built from many pieces,” Freund says. There’s the Jewish community of West Hartford, with synagogues and other institutions; kosher dining options; classes in Arabic, Hebrew, and Yiddish; Jewish Greek life and Hillel on campus; study abroad programs in Israel; the L’Shir a capella group; and a Jewish museum. Schools sharing Hartford’s commitment to Judaism often provide similar things.

“A school can demonstrate its commitment to faith by the resources they provide for students,” says Jennifer Walker, Senior Associate Director of the Office of Admissions at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “There will often be resources that aren’t readily available at other places and other students that share your unique interest.” At Brandeis, there are well-publicized policies supporting Jewish observances, like minimal conflicts with Shabbat and holidays. They also have visiting Jewish scholars and performances of Jewish dance and music.

“We have a variety of resources for Jewish students, and they can choose to use them or not.” It’s about choosing the level of participation that’s right for them, Walker says. “Students can do something Jewish once a week, once a month, once a semester, or not at all.”  

“Core values of that faith can also permeate the campus,” Walker says. For example, social justice, an important part of a Brandeis education, is “very much founded in the history and tradition of the Jewish faith, as is non-sectarianism and the commitment to inclusion and community.”

Institutes of technology

Perhaps you’re considering a degree in engineering, science, or computer programming, and you’ve heard about institutes of technology, but you don’t really know what makes them special and unique.

Institutes of technology most often offer degrees in fields like electrical engineering, chemistry, applied mathematics, and computer science, as well as “hot” areas like software engineering, interactive media, and biotechnology. Often, students at technical institutes are fairly clear about the career field they want to explore. Degree programs are often structured so students take courses directly related to their major from the very first semester.

However, don’t rule out an institute of technology if you’re undecided about a college major. Many also have programs across a wide range of other academic fields. For example, at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, students can major in film and animation, accounting, and hotel and resort management; similarly, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers degrees in economics, history, and even philosophy. Science and engineering are the primary focus, so make sure to take a look at the list of a college’s programs of study before you enroll to see if they offer what you are looking for.

If there’s one feature institutes of technology have in common, it’s a desire to prepare students for the future. As technologies change in the real world, tech schools are quick to install them in labs and classrooms and to integrate them into the curriculum. Most pride themselves on offering you the opportunity to learn on the same equipment and technology used in business and industry. This means when you start your career or head off to graduate school, you’ll be able to contribute from the get-go. In fact, institutes of technology are so future-oriented that they are often quick to offer undergraduate programs of study in new academic disciplines.

The faculty are highly trained in their areas of expertise—and they have a passion for teaching. Most are active in their fields as researchers and consultants, which means that you’ll have many opportunities to collaborate on projects and learn from the best. At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Arizona campus, professor Shigeo Hayashibara teaches various aspects of aerospace engineering fundamentals such as aerodynamics and works with students designing airplanes with advanced computer-aided design (CAD) applications. “Students can actually do better than they think; all we need to do is open a new door and encourage them to step in,” says Dr. Hayashibara.

Technology, modern facilities, and state-of-the-art equipment also set tech-oriented institutes and universities apart. Chances are you’ll have wireless Internet access from virtually every part of campus—from your residence hall room to the dining hall. And the research you conduct will be on the most up-to-date and modern equipment.