Conversations and 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. Programs for first-year students explore the origins and development of Western civilization, the formation and ideals of America’s national culture, and the emergence of environmentalism. A Conversation program exploring Asian cultures begins with first-year language study and continues during the sophomore year.

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.

Application Deadlines for the Conversation Programs:


 Class of 2020
participation in a
First-year Conversation program
or Learning Community

Early Decision:
Deadline: February 23
Notification: March 1
Regular Round One:
Deadline: April 6
Notification: April 13
Regular Round Two:
Deadline: May 4
Notification: May 11


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 to the American Conversations Program


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 to the Environmental Conversations Program 

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 to the Great Conversation Program 


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 the CH/BI Program

Apply to the CH/BI Learning Community 

For Sophomores and Incoming Students with Previous Chinese or Japanese Language Experience: 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 to the Asian Conversation Program 

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 the  Public Affairs Conversation