Frequently Asked Questions

Conversations and 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. First-years are eligible for five: The Great Conversation, American Conversations, Environmental Conversations, Asian Conversations, and The Science Conversation. Public Affairs Conversation is closed to first-years.

The two Learning Communities for first-year students are the Integrated Introduction to Chemistry and Biology (CH/BI) and Race Matters. The Pre-Professional Finance Fast Track Opportunity is offered for those interested in careers in finance — new in the 2020-2021 academic year.

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). Kildahl Hall is where AmCon students live; Hoyme is 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 (Great Conversation, especially, requires intensive reading and writing); 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.

Didn’t find the answer you were looking for?

Don’t hesitate to contact your Admissions officer for more information.