The College Experience (is not what it used to be)

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The conversation on NPR and other media outlets in respect to students missing out on a real “college experience” has focused on how Covid-19 has forced more long-distance education, zoom lectures, hybrid courses, and only the occasional face to face teaching/learning many students and faculty are familiar with and prefer.

The fear is that they’re missing out on the campus-life activities, the nighttime routine with classmates and dormmates and frat and sorority mates. There’s a severe lack of mating as a result of this pandemic and the subsequent downsizing of schools, and everyone is upset about it.

It’s true. I loved my professors when I was in college, and as a journalism major I appreciated the small group of peers I met in class and became friends with for four years, in and out of class, in and out of each other’s lives, stopping to talk when crossing campus or in the Rathskeller, packed in like sheep, bodies pressed together, beers held over our heads because there was no room in front of us, eyeglasses steamed up, music—Springsteen and Joel—blaring from the dj booth, tables packed with students playing drinking games and ordering wings and two dollar (not kidding) pitchers of beer.

We talked to each other all the time, I mean all of the time. We were in the hallways of the dorm, packed into each other’s rooms, tight around café tables with eight, nine, or ten chairs at a table for four, everyone talking at once, heading to or from classes, spending five minutes to make plans and say goodbye to people we would inevitably see that evening, or before. This went beyond friendship—we were tight, family, we lived together, ate together, showered, peed, and played together, we moved in groups and just about everyone knew just about everyone else.

So when the conversations center on students missing out on campus life, I have two thoughts—first, yeah, they are, and that is the best part of college. We spent fifteen hours a week, tops, in the classroom, and absolutely all of the rest of our time with these people, doing these things, road trips on weekends, floor parties, groups of us moving like a pack of wolves down the road, laughing and talking, crossing to the local pizza place, running into another pack of wolves where we stayed until closing, and then kept the momentum back to the dorm. Dawn came hard more than a few nights. Yeah, missing out on campus life—I get it.

Except (you had to see the “however” aspect coming, right?):

A chasm exists between the campus life of the current coed and the way it was when we were in college. This is not about being old now; this is about changes—real changes—which changed the experience of dorm life to more often match the home routine than anything new being out on their own, back when all ties to high school and parents had been cut completely until the next vacation.

Most notably, back then we had no technology. Personal computers didn’t exist yet and the only phones available to students were the pay phones—one on a floor for ninety people. If anyone called, which wasn’t likely since getting through to an actual student was always a challenge, someone would answer and be summoned to fetch the student from a room. If that person decided to do so, there was no guarantee they didn’t let the phone dangle and go back to bed, but if they decided to find the floormate, that person might not even be around. So communication was intensely limited. No cell phones existed, and the only televisions were in the lobby of the dorm, usually only on when a sporting event was on or if it was raining out. The campus lawns were crowded with people playing ball, reading, and just hanging out. We talked to each other because each other was all we had. No connection existed to friends from high school or before unless one of them happened to go to the same college. You were adults now, and everything before that was set aside for what comes next, which as it turns out was way more fun than anything that came before that.

No video games, no “online” anything. And we had more expendable money to spend on the two dollar pitchers of beer because we had no cell phone bills, no Starbucks (coffee was in the cafeteria), no laptops or desktops or computers at all to spend money on, hardly anyone had a car so we hung out or hitched to somewhere. I’m not talking about a primitive lifestyle absent of luxuries. It’s just that we were focused on each other and absolutely nothing else.

Just three vocabulary words which didn’t exist back then:

Cell phone (except for Captain Kirk but it was called a communicator)

Laptop (for this you had to go to a strip club)

Online (completely non-existent phrase…in line comes close but involves waiting more than anything else)

My point isn’t to demonstrate how old I am, or how things have changed, though I am and they have. My issue is with the “college experience” which should not involve late night texting with junior high school friends, or a room full of people (as is common in my classrooms before I arrive to start class) and NO ONE is saying a word to each other but are deeply engrossed in their phones.

I will say this about what used to be: we got to know each other, we talked and laughed and planned and grew close.

So close, in fact, that thirty-seven years out of college and those people are still my brothers and sisters, my confidants, and are the people who “can see where you are but they know where you’ve been.” This way of connecting to others was losing ground for years before the pandemic, and students today stay tethered far too long to high school ways.

The college experience as so many of us knew it died long before classes went online, and it is a shame because it was from that experience I learned how to love beyond my family, to share, to compromise and sacrifice, to confide in people.

I was on campus only a few weeks freshman year when one Friday night about two am the floor was loud with laughter and stereos and people getting to know each other, so I walked to another building where it was quiet and just a couch was there. And a guitar. I picked it up to play and a young woman walked in and told me to keep playing. Until six in the morning we played and sang songs, told stories, laughed, and others joined in so that what I was escaping in the dorm after several hours of partaking in that lifestyle, I inadvertently recreated there; and that type scene played out every night all over campus for four years. That’s college life.

That’s what they’re missing. That’s what’s missing from their lives—being on their own without calling home or old friends, not spending hours at the coffeeshop online, not holed up in some corner watching Netflix.

Two years ago a close friend of mine now who I knew forty years ago met on campus in western New York. We walked around noting how much had stayed the same and what had changed, which, visually, wasn’t a whole lot. But we both noted one major significant difference. It was mid-week around lunchtime when we walked across campus, and maybe, MAYBE, we saw a half-dozen students on what was a beautiful, clear day. During our tenure the paths and benches and lawns would be packed with people and a five-minute walk would take twenty for all the conversations you’d have along the way. We saw six students. We said something to a quiet, wandering worker who told us this was pretty normal. “Yeah, they’re all in their rooms.”

But no music flowed from the windows; no groups of guys stood in the doorway. They were all in their rooms. That’s not a college experience. It’s just not.

When this is over, I hope students move back into the dorms, wander down the hall or out into the common areas, and get to know each other without the umbilical still attached through WiFi to what they left home for to begin with. “Look around you” I’d like to tell them. “If you get to know these people now, you’ll be closer than ever when you’re sixty.”

Maybe I should text that to them.

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