Cowell College: Blazing the trail to lifelong learning

UC Santa Cruz’s first college prides itself on academic rigor and the spirit of community, living up to its motto: “The pursuit of truth in the company of friends”

Cowell College Provost Alan Christy
Cowell College Provost Alan Christy
Image of the Cowell College Courtyard
Cowell College Courtyard. Photo by Jim MacKenzie.
Cowell College in the spring.
A snapshot of Cowell College in spring. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.
Students working in the Cowell Press class.
Students working on projects in the Cowell Press class. Photo by Alison Tassio.

UC Santa Cruz’s first college started out as a bold experiment to transform higher education.

Following in the footsteps of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, UC Santa Cruz’s founding provost, Page Smith, seized the opportunity to reform teaching and learning in the UC system. 

When he established Cowell College, the first residential college on the UCSC campus, Smith was reacting against an educational system he considered passive and uninspiring.

Named after the Henry Cowell family—namesake of the Cowell Foundation, which was willing to donate back a good chunk of the $2 million price tag for the land that was once home to Cowell Ranch—Cowell College was the first of 10 residential colleges created to provide a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for students. 

Today, it hasn’t lost its core values of collective inquiry and community. That legacy is best summarized into the college’s motto: “The pursuit of truth in the company of friends.”

“It’s the lifelong learning commitment to knowledge through collaboration with others and relationship building,” said Alan Christy, provost of Cowell College and associate professor of history.

A rich history

Cowell College is full of landmarks and gathering places that foster a sense of community. Students can study or hold meetings at the intimate and inviting Page Smith Library, which dates back to the construction of Cowell College. 

“Page Smith Library is almost like walking through a time capsule,” said Seymour Hendrik (Cowell ‘20, history), Cowell senator and Student Union Assembly member. “Things are quite pristine and look very similar to the original images posted on the walls in the library.”

It’s no wonder that this library is also a popular meeting spot during UC Santa Cruz’s Alumni Weekend festivities. Acclaimed historian Patricia Nelson Limerick (Cowell ‘72, American studies) drew a standing-room-only crowd to the library last year when she talked about the power of improvisation. 

The story of one of Cowell's most unique features—the Cowell Press—began in the late ‘60s when a former student found a vintage handworking letterpress and brought it to the Cowell campus. What started off as an enjoyable project turned into an established press and spin-off class for students hoping to explore this painstaking craft. The Cowell Press workshop began with one vintage Chandler and Price platen press, but now includes three vintage Vandercook cylinder presses and two small Pilot presses.

Gary Young, literature lecturer, award-winning poet, and Cowell Press director, teaches the press courses, covering topics on letterpress printing, book binding, printmaking, and typography. He also lets his students explore literary and visual design projects. 

“It’s a class for students to be artists,” Young said, noting that he only admits one art major into these printing classes in order to encourage students from other disciplines to grow creatively. “Students get the chance to use their hands, manipulate materials, set type, and express themselves in artistic ways.”

The college even has its own cafe culture. Cowell Coffee Shop has been a popular hub since it’s opening, but in recent times it has expanded its scope and mission to help students in need. It has transformed into a basic-needs cafe, becoming one of several food pantries on the UCSC campus that offers free food to UC Santa Cruz students, aiding the efforts to minimize food insecurity in the campus community. 

The Cowell way of life

At Cowell College, learning is part of a social process. Student government, meeting hubs, and a strong spirit of mutual aid promote a robust atmosphere of learning in and out of the classroom.  

“The Cowell student body is a close-knit community that is very supportive of one another. They are serious about their work but always willing to lend a helping hand,” said Young. 

Visitors to Cowell College will often come across gatherings of students in the Cowell Courtyard, just a few steps away from the East Field recreational complex, with sweeping views of the Monterey Bay peninsula. Students enjoy lounging in the quads and on the grassy knolls, where they build friendships and discuss their studies.

“Cowell is an open, inclusive space. No matter where you go, there are always people welcoming you and interested in getting to know you better,” said student Hendrik.

Cowell Student Senate, the governing board at the college, has two primary goals: to ensure inclusion and to distribute funding to Cowell-related programs and events. 

The Senate invites students to take part in their campus community and learn about the different programs and initiatives that support and foster academic and social growth.

Aside from overseeing the funding of events, Cowell Senate also supports campus-wide initiatives. 

“The Senate acts as a platform to promote growth in the campus community, from getting more diverse voices represented in organizations to implementing sustainable practices,” said Cowell Senator Edie Trautwein (Cowell ‘22, film and digital media with a history of consciousness minor).

Continuing a legacy through newly-acquired initiatives

The Center for Public Philosophy recently transitioned to the Cowell campus from the Humanities Institute. The center is a place for students to “engage in respectful and mutually beneficial discourse, including difficult topics,” said Christy. The center holds events, supports student research, and provides programs that involve philosophy and ethics. 

One event in particular is the popular Ethics Bowl. The Ethics Bowl differs from the standard debate format because the two competing teams get to choose their stances on issues they believe in, and then make their case through valid reasoning and collaboration.

As the Center for Public Philosophy site states, “The Ethics Bowl is less about persuasion and rhetoric, and more about truth, inquiry, and intellectual honesty.”

An inclusive space for all

Cowell College has always prided itself on its spirit of inclusion and community support, and the Smith Society exemplifies those values. Based on the Cowell campus, the Smith Society, established over 20 years ago by Bill Dickinson (Cowell ‘68, philosophy), provides a sense of belonging, academic support, and financial assistance to UC Santa Cruz students lacking family guidance, including current and former foster youth and victims of child neglect or abuse.

These students enter UCSC having to adapt to the rigors of college life without the traditional family support that many of their peers have. The Smith Society provides scholarships, in addition to faculty and community mentorships, research opportunities, and academic advising. 

Imagining Justice: Past and Present

Cowell's large population of Social Science majors have a keen interest in Cowell’s core course class, which explores the concept of justice and its relation to punishment. 

Originally a two-year sequence, the core course, Imagining Justice: Past and Present, has been streamlined since the early days of Cowell; these days, it lasts for one academic quarter. The course curriculum takes a deep dive into the themes of philosophy, ethics, and the justice system and analyzes the basis of rights across different societies and cultures.

Whether it’s the founding history, student engagement, prime location, or core course curriculum that draws students into Cowell College, one thing is certain: by the time they leave Cowell, their mindset of lifelong learning never dissipates. 

“We are not just a place where students have their first-year course, live, and eat at the dining hall; we are a place that instills community,” said Christy. “Community building is a key component of the overall experience.”