Conversations & Learning Communities

The Art of Conversation

Conversation is at the heart of a St. Olaf education. We want students to develop the ability to listen carefully, argue forcefully, and be the kind of engaged thinker who makes a conversation more interesting.
St. Olaf’s signature Conversation programs are interdisciplinary, team-taught explorations that take students on five distinct intellectual journeys through influential texts and ideas that have shaped our past and will guide our future.
29%

Class of 2022 participation in a First-year Conversation program or Learning Community.

Application Deadlines for the Conversation Programs

Early Decision

Application: February 15
Notification: February 22

Round One

Application: April 5
Notification: April 12

Round Two

Application: April 19
Notification:  April 26

Round Three

Application: May 3
Notification:  May 10

The animating ideas that inform these interdisciplinary Conversations are pursued across the frontiers of the liberal arts, drawing on art, history, literature, music, philosophy, religion, and the natural and social sciences. Students drawn to the Conversations have an insatiable curiosity, eagerly engage in discussion, and have a passion for learning that is not easily quenched.

FAQ: Conversations & Learning Communities

What are the Conversations and Learning Communities?

Conversation is at the heart of a St. Olaf education. We want students to develop the ability to listen carefully, argue forcefully, and be the kind of engaged thinker who makes a conversation more interesting. St. Olaf’s signature Conversation programs are interdisciplinary, team-taught explorations that take students on distinct intellectual journeys through influential texts and ideas that have shaped our past and will guide our future. The first year Conversations programs include a residential component to further encourage intellectual exploration beyond the classroom. Roughly 25% of Oles graduate as alums of one (or two) Conversation and Learning Community programs.

There are six Conversation programs overall: The Great Conversation, American Conversations, Environmental Conversations, Asian Conversations, The Science Conversation, and Public Affairs Conversation. The two Learning Communities for first-year students are the Integrated Introduction to Chemistry and Biology (CH/BI) and — new for the 2019/2020 academic year — Race Matters.

Which programs can I take during my first year?

The Conversations and Learning Communities available for first-year students are The Great Conversation, American Conversations, Environmental Conversation, CH/BI, and Race Matters. The first two Conversations programs — Great Con and AmCon, as they’re known on campus — are two year programs that students begin during their first year at St. Olaf. Environmental Conversations and CH/BI (see below) take place during the first year only. Though Asian Conversations is a sophomore-year only program, it requires that a student take Japanese and/or Chinese during their first year at St. Olaf (as there is a study abroad component over the January Interim of the sophomore year).

Beyond your first year, there are opportunities to be involved with a Conversation program. Asian Conversations and Science Conversation are sophomore year-only courses. Additionally, The Great Conversation program includes sophomore year. PACon (Public Affairs Conversation) is for students in their junior or senior year. After your first year, these programs don’t involve the residential component.

What are the details of the two Learning Communities and what makes a Learning Community different than a Conversation?

Similar to the Conversations, Learning Communities involve a course sequence that expands beyond one semester and employs the signature interdisciplinary exploration. The biggest differentiator is that they do not include a residential component.

CH/BI – or Integrated Introduction to Chemistry and Biology – or “Chubbi,” as it’s pronounced, is a sequence of three courses taken during your first year, including your interim during the month of January. Students work together to explore the fundamentals of chemistry and cellular biology. As a learning community, students and faculty explore ideas in the lab, through group-based problem solving and discussions. In addition to basic texts, readings from a variety of sources enrich discussions and illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of science.

Race Matters is a new learning community that will be offered for the first time during the 2019-2020 academic year. It is a two-semester, interdisciplinary learning community for first-year students dedicated to the examination of the role of race, ethnicity, and related “race matters” in twenty-first-century American life. Many of these “race matters” occur at the intersection of race with one or more related axes of identity, such as gender, sexuality, religion and class. For instance, Race Matters considers the experiences of Muslim Americans and South Asians since 9/11; it examines the diverse communities, histories, and individual experiences grouped under labels such as “Asian American” and “Latinx”; it takes up the role of gender and sexuality within racial and ethnic communities, as well as within movements such as Black Lives Matter; it attends to shifting ideas about citizenship, immigrants, and refugees; it looks at the increasing visibility of self-identifying biracial and multiracial Americans; and it explores the role of geography, technology, demographics, and broader economic and political forces in shaping race matters in the present.

With a sociology-focused course in the fall and a writing seminar in the spring, the thoroughly integrated curriculum bridges the humanities and the social sciences, offering students a deep and broad engagement with race and ethnicity in the contemporary world.

What’s this about a “residential component”?

Students who are involved with Great Con, AmCon, or EnCon live among each other in specific residence halls during their first year only (though non-Conners live there too, so you won’t have a Con roommate). Hoyme Hall is typically where AmCon students live; Kildahl and Ellingson are where Great Conners reside; and you can find EnCon students in Kittlesby, which is the designated the “green” dorm on campus. There is a lot of writing, reading, thinking, discussing, and debating in the Conversation programs — and much of it happens in the residence hall lounges where the students reside. It creates a fun and dynamic intentional learning community that can also aid in the transition to college life during your first year.

How do I apply for one of these programs?

To apply, visit the programs’ home page and click the “Apply” button for the program you wish to apply to. You’ll be prompted to log in to your Admissions account (which is different from your St. Olaf account; the Admissions account is what you’ve been using to monitor your application status, and where you’re also able to make your enrollment deposit). Each application requires a short original essay component with prompts specific to the program. Need help logging into your Admissions account? Contact your admissions officer.

Can I apply for all Conversations and Learning Communities if I’m not sure of which one I want to do?

Yes. If you are accepted to them all, you’ll be able to do a little more research before choosing the one you want. Generally, one of the questions on the application requires students to rank their Conversation preference.

…And which deadline should I apply for if I’m unsure I want to do a Conversation program at all?

It’s always encouraged that if you have even a shade of interest to be involved with one of these programs, you should apply by the first application deadline. The majority of students are admitted from that first application round in April; but there is still room as well for students who decide by the later deadline in May (after the National Candidate Reply Date).

I love the concept of the Conversation programs and CH/BI, and I want to do THEM ALL! Can I?

Wow, we admire your excitement! You’ll make a great Ole. Even if you are an incredibly motivated genius, it’s impossible to do CH/BI, The Great Conversation, American Conversations, and Environmental Conversations alongside each other. However, it is possible to do either CH/BI or Great Con or AmCon or EnCon or Race Matters AND Asian Conversations or The Science Conversation. Technically, it’s also possible to take AmCon and CH/BI at the same time, as well as Race Matters and CH/BI — AmCon and Race Matters would not include a conflicting Interim class. Keep in mind that generally, there only are a handful of students who double-up on a two year and one year Conversation program.

How many students are accepted who apply to the Conversation programs?

Not all students who apply are accepted, but there are wait lists that exist throughout the summer as students change their minds or decide to opt out of the program. For each class, there are two cohorts of 60 students for Great Con, one cohort of 40 students for AmCon, and roughly 30 students in EnCon. CH/BI ha 24 students and Race Matters will be capped at 18. Generally, both programs are able to accept half to a third of students who apply.

How are applications reviewed?

The professors who teach in the programs review all applicant essays separately from any other consideration. They don’t look at your high school GPA, your test score, or essays you submitted in the fall. Their reasoning: you were admitted to St. Olaf, so you’re smart enough. It’s just about who puts together a compelling essay and how well it’s written.

Are these programs considered “honors” programs?

While there is a considerable amount of reading and preparation for each class (for Great Conversation, you read upwards of 80 extra pages of reading per night); no, St. Olaf doesn’t have any honors program. As a selective, academically rigorous college, every course sequence provides the rigor and opportunities you’d find at a typical “honors” level program.

What if I don’t do a Conversation program?

All in all, only 25% or so of Oles are involved with a Conversation program when all is said and done. While they are awesome for the students who are involved, they are not the only way you’ll get a rigorous, interesting, compelling education at St. Olaf. Evaluate if it fits what you want and how you learn best; if it doesn’t, you won’t be looked down upon or judged for not being a Conner.

American Conversations

American Conversations — AmCon — is an interdisciplinary learning community for students interested in an in-depth exploration of American history and culture. Thomas Jefferson thought education was critical to democracy. From its beginnings, the American Conversations program has encouraged students to seek to live Jefferson’s dream that “free and educated citizens should learn to understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going right.” This dream lies at the core of AmCon, which not only looks closely at America’s history, culture, values, and role in the world, but also helps students explore and practice engaged citizenship – regardless of the country they happen to call home.

Students approach the American story from historical, literary, artistic, cultural, and social science points of view. In the process, they will develop skills in writing, public speaking, and, most important, critical thinking.

Learn more about American Conversations

Apply

Asian Conversations

Asian Conversations offers students a dynamic cultural exploration that begins with two semesters of language study (Chinese or Japanese) during a student’s first year. Asian Con students continue their language study during the sophomore year, as they embark on a three-course Asian Conversations exploration of the history and culture of an increasingly important part of the world. (It is possible for an incoming student with a background in Chinese or Japanese to join the Asian Conversations program in the student’s first year at St Olaf College.)

Asian Conversations follows “Journeys Through Asia,” a theme that captures both the content of the courses and the opportunity for students to explore China and Japan during the Interim of their sophomore year. Readings include historic and contemporary narratives of Asian travelers, pilgrims, and migrants. Through these stories, students examine the range of communities and boundaries that have shaped Asia’s political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and environmental communities. Throughout, students will explore Asian interpretations of the human condition from a variety of religious, philosophical, and literary perspectives.

Learn more about Asian Conversations

Apply

Environmental Conversations

Environmental issues are a major concern of public policy and a profound influence on our daily lives. Environmental Conversations – EnCon – is a learning community organized around regular elective and required courses, exploring questions of environmental policy, science, and values. Through courses and co-curricular opportunities, EnCon prepares students to think about moral, scientific, and practical dimensions of human relationships with the rest of nature.

EnCon students engage in student-led sustainability initiatives, and learn about environmental questions and opportunities facing the college – from the student-run STOGROW farm, to the college wind turbine and planned solar farm. They become part of a larger community of students who seek to think clearly and responsibly about environmental policy, sustainability, and “the moral ecology of everyday life.”

Learn more about Environmental Conversations

Apply

The Great Conversation

The Great Conversation is designed for students interested in exploring the cultural legacy of Western civilization through the influential books and works of art that have informed and inspired people through the ages. Great Con is for students who believe that learning about the past is profoundly relevant to understanding the present, for students who want to examine the Western tradition in a unified way, and for students who believe that an education ought to cultivate discriminating minds, inquisitive spirits, and moral sensitivity.

The Great Conversation is a liberal arts education in full, incorporating literature, history, philosophy, religion, and the arts from many points of view. The reading is far-reaching, the pace intense, and the class discussions forceful. The discipline and skills developed through Great Con benefit all scholarly paths and for the past three decades have prepared students for professional experiences ranging from social work to teaching to law and medicine.

Learn more about The Great Conversation

Apply

Integrated Introduction to Chemistry and Biology

A Learning Community also known as CH/BI (“Chubbi”)

First year students with a passion for science at the interface of biology and chemistry are encouraged to apply to our integrated introductory Chemistry/Biology sequence or CH/BI. CH/BI students complete a series of three courses and work together to learn the fundamentals of chemistry and cellular biology. The interrelatedness of these disciplines is emphasized through examples of biological applications of fundamental chemistry and exploring biology in light of chemical principles. As a learning community, students and faculty explore ideas in the lab, through group-based problem solving and discussions. In addition to basic texts, readings from a variety of sources enrich discussions and illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of science. This unique interdisciplinary community approach to learning introductory material prepares students for more specialized courses by developing inquisitive habits and the flexibility to draw on ideas from multiple sources.

To apply to the CH/BI program, you will need to complete an Integrated Chemistry and Biology Learning Community Application Form followed by completion of the Chemistry Placement Exam (a link to this placement exam follows completion of the application form).

Learn more about CH/BI Program

Apply

Race Matters

Race Matters is a new learning community that will be offered for the first time during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Race Matters is a two-semester, interdisciplinary learning community for first-year students dedicated to the examination of the role of race, ethnicity, and related “race matters” in twenty-first-century American life. Many of these “race matters” occur at the intersection of race with one or more related axes of identity, such as gender, sexuality, religion and class. For instance, Race Matters considers the experiences of Muslim Americans and South Asians since 9/11; it examines the diverse communities, histories, and individual experiences grouped under labels such as “Asian American” and “Latinx”; it takes up the role of gender and sexuality within racial and ethnic communities, as well as within movements such as Black Lives Matter; it attends to shifting ideas about citizenship, immigrants, and refugees; it looks at the increasing visibility of self-identifying biracial and multiracial Americans; and it explores the role of geography, technology, demographics, and broader economic and political forces in shaping race matters in the present.

With a sociology-focused course in the fall and a writing seminar in the spring, the thoroughly integrated curriculum bridges the humanities and the social sciences, offering students a deep and broad engagement with race and ethnicity in the contemporary world.

Apply

Finance Fast-Track Program

The Finance Fast-Track Program is designed to provide students with the opportunity to access an accelerated course progression in order to prepare them for certain competitive careers in finance. Students accepted into the program will take economics and finance courses in their first two years at St. Olaf – earlier than would otherwise be possible in the standard course progression. Course registration would include the following:

  • First Year: Principles of Economics, Micro- or Macroeconomics, Principles of Accounting, and Calculus I or II
  • Sophomore Year: Micro- or Macroeconomics, Corporate Finance, Investments, and complete math courses through Linear Algebra
  • Junior & Senior Year: Additional upper-level economics and finance coursework

Finance employers are increasingly engaging with students early and hiring for internships begins in the spring semester of the sophomore year. The Finance Fast-Track Program, in addition to intentional coaching in the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, enables students to be competitive for these opportunities by providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to successful.

Learn more about Finance Fast-Track Program

Apply

For Sophomores: Science Conversation

The Science Conversation is a general education program for sophomores designed around an interdisciplinary exploration of science. The 24 students who complete the year-long program will earn HWC, BTS-T, HBS, SED or IST, and WRI general education credits. It is intended to attract a wide audience for rich, interdisciplinary discussions.

The program brings together students and faculty with a broad range of academic interests for a critical exploration of science within its historical, cultural, and social contexts. The program will encourage a philosophically and theologically informed appreciation for the development of science, the relationship between reason and faith, questions of meaning and purpose, and the complex interplay of science and society. It is designed to illuminate the distinctive character of science and its relevance to the challenges facing our world.  We seek applications from a broad mix of students — from art appreciators to book lovers to science fans.

Learn more about Science Conversation

For Juniors and Seniors: Public Affairs Conversation

The Public Affairs Conversation is a year-long program of two courses (fall and spring) and a funded internship opportunity (this may be pursued in the fall, interim, spring, or summer). The program focuses on contested ideals and contemporary controversies in American public affairs, and is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors by application.

Learn more about Public Affairs Conversation