Nancy Meislahn, Wesleyan University, Answers Five Questions

Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, at Wesleyan University of Middletown, Connecticut, joins us this month and graciously answers -- not five -- but six questions.

 Wesleyan was founded in 1831 by leaders of the Methodist Episcopal Church and began with 48 students (all men); the president; three professors; and one tutor. Tuition was $36 per year.

Today, Wesleyan’s 316-acre campus located in central Connecticut hosts about 2,900 full-time undergraduates – both men and women -- who choose among more than 900 courses offered in 40 departments and 44 major fields of study, taught by 375 faculty members. Its student/faculty ratio remains at 9 to 1, with two-thirds of classes enrolling fewer than 20 students.

Named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the college was never a seminary, but offered a liberal arts program from its inception. Unlike most college curriculums at the time of its founding which were steeped in the classics, Wesleyan set out to put modern languages, literature, and the natural sciences on equal footing.  That orientation continues today with students pursuing a self-directed curriculum, numerous undergraduate interdisciplinary programs, and broad research opportunities.

Known as one of the “Little Ivies,” Wesleyan has an active campus life with more than 200 student organizations from martial arts and a cappella singing to literary magazines, dance troupes and political organizations. Reflecting its origins’ early emphasis on social service and education, its students and faculty remain involved in a wide range of community service activities.

Part of the Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), the college fields intercollegiate varsity teams in 29 sports.  It also competes against traditional rivals Amherst and Williams as part of the “Little Three” athletic conference, believed to be America’s oldest, continuous intercollegiate conference.

Notable alumni include New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick; Ted Fiske, creator of The Fiske Guide to Colleges;  authors Sebastian Junger and Wells Tower; creator and writer of Mad Men Matthew Weiner; TIVO CEO Tom Rogers; Sprinkles founder Candace Nelson; and director and screenwriter Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Toy Story fame.

Meislahn joined Wesleyan in 2000 after serving as director of undergraduate admissions at Cornell University for fifteen years. Please join her here to learn more about Wesleyan admissions, the value of a liberal arts education and her favorite place on the Connecticut campus.


What kind of student does well at Wesleyan? How would you describe the student body?  What would you most want an applicant to the school to know?  

Wesleyan students are an eclectic mix coming from a very broad range of experiences and backgrounds, all of which contributes to the quality and richness of the education here.  At the same time, there is a wonderful sense of community at Wes.   I’m often asked,  "How does that work? What's the common thread?" Wesleyan students are smart, engaged and engaging - open-minded and curious about the world and their place in it.  Because we celebrate different perspective and choices, students need to come to campus ready to join the mix.

How do you read applications? Does every application get read by the admission office at Wesleyan?

A new edition of The GATEKEEPERS, the book by Jacques Steinberg about the Wesleyan admission process, has been released this fall with an updated afterword.  The book has had such positive response and long shelf life in part because it is such a realistic view of the application process.  Since it was written, we've tweaked our review of applications a little as our pool has grown (almost 30% in the last four years!), but the process is fundamentally the same.  

All applications follow the same path; there is no "triage" or indexing by some secret formula.  The first full read is by the admission dean responsible for the student's region, typically a major metro area, state or country. We expect most files to be read a second time by a different admission officer with a somewhat different perspective, followed by a discussion/review by a team of three admission officers, a mini-committee of sorts.  At that point, a decision is recommended to me as the admission committee chair and if I agree that decision is considered final (perhaps pending a review of senior grades). Alternatively, a final decision could be postponed pending a discussion by the committee of the whole, all 13 of us around the conference table with what we refer to as "collective wisdom."

What is your favorite thing about Wesleyan?

The great room in which we welcome visitors and introduce them to Wesleyan, McKelvey, is probably my favorite place on campus.  It is a beautiful architectural space with a fabulous landscape painting by Tula Telfair, our beloved art professor who has become a personal friend. Its abundance of windows and light, with many views and perspectives of campus, make it a popular venue that brings the campus into the admission office throughout the year. I like to think of it as Wesleyan's "living room." 

I also love that everyone at Wesleyan knows The Wesleyan Fight song...and we sing it all the time!  It ends with rousing "Go Wes!" You can see a snippet of this fall's incoming class singing it here.  

Wesleyan President Michael Roth recently published a piece on the value of a liberal arts education.  To quote from that article, “Education isn't just an object that you use to get started in a career; education is a catalytic resource that continues to energize and shape your life.” Can you comment on why the value of a liberal arts education goes beyond procuring employment?

We recently hosted a presentation from a McKinsey Higher Ed consultant who remarked that McKinsey hires liberal arts graduates because they have learned to think creatively about solutions to tomorrow's challenges, not focus on answers to yesterday's problems.  

We expect Wesleyan grads to help shape the conversation, make connections and collaborate in ways that move whatever they are involved in to the next level.  It is not about training for a job but education for a lifetime of rewarding work and contribution. As President Roth likes to tell our students:  find what you love to do, work hard to get better at it and you are not "done" until you've connected what you do in meaningful ways with others.

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, can you tell us about a time when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

I am reminded of this every time I hire someone to join the admission staff!  Essential to enrolling a broadly diverse student body at Wesleyan is having an admission committee made up of individuals who have different life experiences and perspectives they each bring to bear on our review and discussions.  I have learned so much from my colleagues who look at the world a little differently than I, the product of rural, small town America. I grew up in the northernmost town in the northernmost county of Appalachia.

What are the college admission-related issues that you have been thinking about lately? What keeps you up at night?

The answer to the question is easy....but the solution elusive and the challenge extreme:  access and affordability!  Access for those not typically part of the elite academy has been in Wesleyan's DNA for a long time. As the sticker price of a Wesleyan--or Wesleyan-like education--has risen, the cost of financial aid has accelerated to a point that raises questions of sustainability.  We are taking steps to control costs and tuition increases, offering a three-year option that could save some families real dollars... while we continue to actively recruit first-generation-to-college and low-income students.  This year we will distribute over $50 million in grants to meet the full demonstrated need of those we admit and enroll-- a huge institutional commitment that keeps more than just the dean of admission and financial aid up at night!


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