When I was a kid there were television shows that portrayed college. They were bright, shiny, and had laugh tracks. Where I came from college was just part of growing up, it was a natural next step. So it made sense that Denise from the Cosby show went off to college after high school, it was natural that the kids from Saved by the Bell would all do the same, and thanks to a lack of cable- I watched both those shows. Being a teenage heterosexual white male meant I felt myself expert in pretty much everything, and as I watched those shows with my finely tuned critical thinking mind, I knew that what I was watching, was ridiculous.
I saw students living in dorms where professors and influential alumni frequently engaged in teaching moments punctuated by one-liners and every now and then, there would be a song and dance number that was supposed to somehow appear normal. I always chalked it up to lack of casting budget when the school’s quarterback would also star in the school play with a confused pre-med major doing everything she could to impress the dean. I knew college wasn’t really like that.
I knew this because my parents had both graduated college, so had all the parents of my friends. So I was confident in knowing that above all else college was: harder than high school, expensive, and that athletes did not go to class let alone star in plays. Those shows with all that good natured life lesson fraternizing and goofy situations, were nothing more than B level showbiz lies.
Then came last week.
I work at a small liberal arts college in Southern California and we have a live bulldog as a mascot. His doghouse is a miniature version of the school’s main administration building, complete with Greek columns and terra cotta roof tiles. He was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness and so just last week, the president of the university, the provost, and hundreds of students and administrators all gathered in the amphitheater to watch the bulldog, dressed in cap and gown, receive his diploma and be sincerely praised over the podium while everyone cheered. We graduated the dog.
It was surreal. It was almost as if Freddy from a Different World, the bi-racial adopter of whatever social movement was in vogue, the meddler attempting to solve a roommate’s generational family drama, the silly one, had taken it upon herself to honor the ailing symbol of our school’s pride. Except Freddy is fictional and I was there in real life.
This alone would have just been cute, but two weeks before that was homecoming. A few hours before the big homecoming football game I sat in the memorial chapel and watched as the music majors played polka music and a crowd of students and professors danced on stage in lederhosen singing a song about study abroad in Vienna. After that number was over the president of the university did an actual song and dance to introduce an alumni, whose name is on several of our buildings, who then came up on stage and announced a fund raising campaign. It was almost as if Zack Morris had gotten Mr. Belding to participate in a half-baked scheme to save the library. Except Zack isn’t real and the tubas in that chapel definitely were.
It made me question my entire upbringing.
All this time I thought those shows were not only fake but ridiculously preposterous. I thought college kids, including myself when I was one, were mostly cynical and isolated. I recall being an undergrad not knowing the name of any adult on campus who wasn’t my professor, and absolutely none of those professors knew me. I remember college being just like my teachers and parents had told me; harder than high school, expensive, and mostly about football games. Fraternities were not inclusive bands of brothers but rather exclusionary bastions of alcoholism and sexual abuse. I found my place on the rugby team but no one ever came to watch our games. We had to pitch in to buy our own uniforms and the administration was always reluctant to let us use the field. I regularly had to skip important games because my part time job had inflexible hours.
There is a useful lesson here. Almost the kind of lesson a wise old cafeteria cook would teach a disappointed freshman after failing a test. The lesson is that college can be exactly like I thought it would be, or, to my surprise, it could be exactly like TV. Both exist. Both are right, or depending on where you end up, either could be wrong. But I didn’t learn this lesson till long into adulthood and I mostly learned it by mistake. Over the years I have traveled across America and visited hundreds of college campuses. I have studied college types, different educational models, and counseled hundreds of aspiring college students. And what I tell those kids, and as often as possible try to tell their parents, is that college isn’t one thing. It can be all sorts of different things. Sometimes it is like Hillman College with singing and dancing pre-med majors, and at other times it is State University with power forwards courting the NBA. It isn’t really about which one is or isn’t real, it is more about what sort of experience you want to have. What is even more relevant is that all of these different types of experiences lead to different results depending on what kind of kid you are. These experiences vary so much, that when thinking about college it makes sense to ignore the question, or even more, ignore the advice of others, regarding what college is like, but rather consider more the qualities and needs of the kid in question.
But so many of the people I know don’t do this. Not only don’t they do this, but they ignore me, and others like me, when we give advice about what college can be (see what I did there?). Most people prefer their personal anecdotes and experiences and then pass those along to the next generation as universal truth. We all think we know best because we were there. And sure, you were in fact there, but you weren’t everywhere. You can surely say how it was for you, at that place, in that time, but that is all you can say. Because everywhere, and everyone, are not all the same. And because not every person is the same, if we want each person to grow and thrive, we should start by realizing that maybe not everyone should go to the same place we did or do the same things. Maybe, if we didn’t like our college experience, it shouldn’t cause us to condemn the whole concept of college, but rather it is possible we weren’t well matched to our institution. Or, then again if we loved college, we may need to consider the idea that our school might not be best for everyone else.
I think most of us get this, but only when it comes to rooting interests or US News & World Report rankings. When thinking of colleges outside our own experience we think good better best, as in who is ranked higher or who won which bowl. That isn’t what I mean.
What I mean is that at some places you are 1 of 100,000 other fans in the Rose Bowl, and at others you do song and dance numbers with the provost.
I still can’t believe we graduated the dog.