Southern California College Road Trip: Pepperdine University

Michael Morella

Spirituality and community are hallmarks of the student experience at Pepperdine University, whose beachside campus in Malibu is embedded in the sweeping green foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains and set on some 830 acres.

From the sand- and rust-colored Spanish Revival-style buildings, visitors can hardly escape scenic views of the Pacific shoreline, and the beach is a common hangout after class.

Undergraduates speak highly of Pepperdine's close-knit atmosphere, and many note that the 13-to-1 student-faculty ratio and average class size of about 20 students help them form close bonds with their instructors.

"I'm on a first-name basis with most of my professors," says Jessica Abu-Ghattas, class of 2013. Many faculty members live in condominiums on the upper campus of the university, which also enrolls about 4,000 graduate students. Close to 40 percent of undergrads come from outside California, and nearly 10 percent are from foreign countries.

Undergrads enroll in Seaver College, where they can choose from 43 majors and about as many minors; business, psychology and sports medicine are among the most popular. All majors have general education requirements, including a first-year seminar, a speech and rhetoric course and three religion courses.

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In addition, Pepperdine students must attend 14 convocation programs each semester. "Convos" are often religious in nature and can include popular Wednesday morning chapels at Firestone Fieldhouse, student-led worship services, speeches from outside guests and individual or small-group mentoring sessions.

Founded in 1937 by a Christian businessman, Pepperdine is affiliated with the Churches of Christ. At least three-quarters of students identify as Christian, but students of other religions - or none at all - say the university and their peers make them feel welcome.

"You're not going to find people throwing a Bible in your face," says Shelby McDaniel, class of 2014, but "be prepared for how open people are about religion here." Each residence hall is assigned a spiritual life adviser, an older student who acts as a confidant on matters of faith and other topics.

Many undergrads participate in a variety of student-led ministries, such as Sideline, for student athletes, or the International Justice Mission. Also popular is community service - which is often facilitated through the Pepperdine Volunteer Center - as well as spring break trips and the annual Step Forward Day, a day of service for all students, faculty and alumni.

Freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus in a variety of suite-style - and highly praised - dorms and apartments. Men aren't allowed in the female student dorms during certain hours, and vice versa. Student parties usually happen at off-campus residences.

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Malibu is a sleepy city of about 13,000 residents. Anyone looking for more entertainment options typically has to head further out to Santa Monica, about 15 miles away, or Los Angeles, 30 miles away.

Indeed, campus can sometimes seem like a ghost town on weekends, though the university tries to keep a packed calendar of events. Regular trivia nights, coffeehouses and outdoor concerts draw sizable crowds, as do the games of the Division I Waves or activities on the Alumni Park lawn. About 18 percent of men and 31 percent of women join fraternities or sororities.

More than half of undergrads spend their sophomore year off campus, living in university-owned facilities in six countries and Washington, D.C., taking classes with other Pepperdine students and professors.

Then "you come back and that community's still there," says Andrew Kasabian, class of 2013, who spent his second year in Heidelberg, Germany.

More From the Southern California College Road Trip:

--Occidental College

--Pomona College

--University of California--Los Angeles

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.