SCHENECTADY Will Trabaris stared up at a very large portrait of past Union College President Harold Clark Martin. Martin looked back, the weight of education and experience gathered in the furrows of his oil-painted brows.
“Look at his mustache,” Trabaris said. “He looks like a cop.”
Trabaris was one of 564 freshmen lining the century-old benches of Memorial Chapel for the official Class of 2017 welcome Sunday afternoon. The young history major sat with new friends, whispering, snapping covert iPhone pictures, but mostly listening as college officials dispensed wisdom.
“Sleep,” said Steve Leavitt, vice president of student affairs. “Seriously, you’ll feel better.”
Another official recommended parents and students write “real live paper” letters. Brian Steiner, a computer science major with vintage shades, adjusted his loose stocking cap and grinned.
“Real live,” he said.
Steiner, Trabaris and their friends are pretty typical freshmen. They’re happy to be away from parents and on their own — ready for a relaxed sort of adulthood. But they’re also some of the smartest freshmen ever to grace the smooth Memorial Chapel benches.
Their applications were selected from a pool of 5,725. Last year’s freshman class was, at the time, the most competitive admissions year on record. This year topped it.
“So whatever happens for the rest of your life,” Vice President of Admissions Matt Malatesta said from the podium, “you can always say you got into the most competitive class in Union history.”
At the back of the hall, orientation staff member and bioengineering senior Amy Loya did her best to explain the school’s rising popularity.
“At Union you get a very broad education,” she said. “Like, I have to take English classes.”
Her words lined up with a number of freshmen. Steiner, for example chose Union for the language programs, while Trabaris was sold on the school by a medieval music club — his greatest ambition to join a minstrel band.
“Union is always trying to get better at things,” Loya said. “I think they look at other schools and take the good parts.”
A new wellness center opened in time for the new wave of students, causing Leavitt to wax philosophical on the broader meaning of the term “wellness.” Sleep figured heavily, along with self-acceptance and the pursuit of dreams.
Loya said the school is always improving its academics, as well. Her own program, the bioengineering major, received accreditation just weeks before students arrived on campus.
“It’s a new field,” she said.
The fledgling program attracted Scott Zinck from Maine. He sat with his parents on a garden bench in front of the chapel before the ceremony. They kicked back, Scott killing time while Steve and Nancy Zinck soaked in one last hour before officially becoming empty nesters.
“There are plenty of things to do with a bioengineering degree,” Scott said. “I could do prosthetics, or rebuild organs.”
He predicted major breakthroughs in stem-cell research by his own graduation and common use of the technology within the first decade of his career.
Leaning back in the late-summer sun, he predicted a Union education will lead him to success in the burgeoning field.