Whittier College is one of the more diverse liberal arts colleges in the country, serving students not only of different ethnic and geographic backgrounds, but also of a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. About one-third of Whittier's student body is Latino, and approximately twenty-five percent of the professors are minorities or are from foreign countries. A majority of the student body hails from California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Northwest, but the college also draws a significant number of students from the East Coast and the Midwest as well as a small percentage of overseas students. As of 2012, there are students from 28 states and 14 countries.
With more than 30 majors and 30 minors offered in 23 disciplines, Whittier's liberal arts curriculum sets high emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. Students may also apply for entry into the Whittier Scholars Program, in which each student, under the guidance of a faculty member, designs his or her own major and course of study based on individual interests and career goals. Also emphasized is learning beyond traditional classroom or lecture style of teaching; for example, professional internships and service projects are required or recommended as part of many academic programs. Study abroad is encouraged in semester- or year-long affiliated programs, and many students take advantage of Whittier's popular January Interim session, which is a four-week intensive "mini-semester" that typically involves fieldwork and faculty-led international travel.
Whittier College's Faculty Masters Program, modeled after similar programs at Oxford and Cambridge universities, delivers another optional learning experience for students. In this program, three faculty are selected as faculty-in-residence for a multi-year term, live in houses located on-campus, and create and host in their homes educational and social programs around a specific theme, such as health and society, writers and writing, alumni connections, and Spanish culture. Events feature noteworthy professionals—from artists to authors, musicians and entrepreneurs, politicians and scientists—and enable students to interact with, listen to, and often dine with an invited speaker. Recent guest participants in this program include world-class authors Maxine Hong Kingston and Ray Bradbury, and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock.
Regarding life on campus, Whittier College has approximately 90 registered, student-run organizations and clubs. The College also has four local fraternities (called "societies"): The Franklin Society, the Lancer Society, the Orthogonian Society, and the William Penn Society; as well as five local sororities: the Palmer Society, The Ionian Society, the Metaphonian Society, the Thalian Society, and the Athenian Society; and two co-ed society, the Sachsen Society and the Paragonian Society. Each of these societies began as literary societies. The Orthogonian Society was co-founded by Richard Nixon in 1930.
Other campus groups include student publications, the Quaker Campus newspaper and television; the Acropolis yearbook; and the student run radio station, KPOET radio, video studio productions, and the sports network.
The liberal arts university was founded in 1887 by members of the Religious Society of Friends, thanks to the generosity and efforts of local business leaders Washington Hadley and Aubrey Wardman. It was named after Friends (Quaker) poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Student athletes at Whittier College are still known as the Poets in his honor.
An event reminiscent of the famous alumnus occurred at Whittier in 2002 when an electronic bugging device was found in the office of the college newspaper, the Quaker Campus. The discovery quickly made headlines on the Drudge Report, the Student Press Law Center and other media outlets due to the similarity to the bugging of the Democratic National Headquarters in 1972 that brought down Nixon's presidency in the Watergate scandal.
The Whittier College Poets compete in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) of NCAADivision III. The school has fielded sports teams for over 100 years. Its current teams include football, men’s and women’s basketball, cross country, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, lacrosse and water polo; women’s softball and volleyball; and men’s baseball and golf.
The storied history of the Whittier College football program began in 1907, and since the inception of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1915, the Poets have captured 26 conference titles. From 1957–1964, Whittier won eight straight SCIAC titles under the direction of legendary coaches, George Allen (1951–56, 32-22-5), Don Coryell (1957–59), and John Godfrey (1960–1979). Their most recent championships came back-to-back in 1997 and 1998. 23 Poets have earned All-American honors, the most recent coming in 2007. The football program plays out of Newman Memorial Field, which seats 7,000.
The Whittier Lacrosse Program was established in 1980. In 1980, the Poets became a member of the Western Collegiate Lacrosse League (WCLL). From 1980 to 1999, Whittier won ten championships. As a result of their success, Whittier decided to become the first and only NCAA lacrosse program on the west coast. In 1990, they were recognized by the NCAA, but continued to compete in the WCLL. The Poets were the team to beat throughout the 1990s and it was not until 2000 when Whittier made the decision to make their mark on the national scene by leaving the WCLL and focus on being selected for the NCAA tournament. The lacrosse team has not been playing strong since the mid-2000s, though they have been a national contender every year since 2000 in the NCAA, as a quarter-finalist in 2003, and a semi-finalist in 2004.