When You Realize Your College is a TV Sitcom

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.Image result for A Different World

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.Image result for saved by the bell college years

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.Image result for thurber graduates

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.Image result for freddie different world

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.Image result for redlands forever yours

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.

Pomona: yes. just yes.

If you are going to build a campus in Southern California you should do it like Pomona.

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In 1887 a group of graduates from schools like Dartmouth, Yale, and Colby wanted to found a college in the New England style… but without the snow. They built Pomona.

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They must have done something right because in 2013 Forbes.com ranked Pomona the #2 college in the country. Stanford got #1.
Pause for a minute. #2 over all. This means it beat Harvard, Yale, Princeton, M.I.T., Duke, Cal, and pretty much everyone else.

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You may not have heard of Pomona before. Don’t feel bad. A lot of people are just like you and just like you, most people don’t really know what a liberal arts college is. Pomona is a liberal arts college. When I was 17 I thought a liberal arts college was a place for democrats. I was not too bright; one of the reasons I didn’t go to Pomona.

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A liberal arts college is normally small, which is why most of us haven’t heard of most of them. These schools focus a bit more on critical thinking ability than a specific marketable skill. If education was stretched out into a line, one end would be poetry and the other would be engineering; business perhaps. A large research University normally lets a student choose one point on this spectrum and focus on it. Upon graduation the student should be proficient, and employable, in whatever they studied ie chemistry, marketing, or even -gulp- English.

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A liberal arts education aims to give a student experience and knowledge on as many points on that spectrum as possible. Then, upon graduation, the student should have the ability to look at problems, tasks, or anything, and draw on a wealth of knowledge to generate answers, ideas, or whatever is needed at that moment.

What this does not always generate is a job; or so many think. Many people are wrong.

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Now lets not us get this wrong. A job on Wall St. is not and should not, be the sole purpose of college. That being said, about 20% of Pomona grads work in finance. But it is not a pipeline, that would be Wharton. Now if you want to go to grad school, or get a Fulbright (the class of 2007 alone won 24 Fulbright scholarships), or be a lawyer, or simply want to learn in a rigorous and supportive environment, consider the liberal arts route.

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There are plenty of such schools around, but at places like Pomona it is kinda hard to get in. 23% of those admitted were their high school’s valedictorian. Most were in the nation’s top percentile on the SAT. They accept less than 1,000 students year to year. That is small.

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Don’t worry about the money. When it comes to the top American schools, never worry about the money, worry about getting in. Pomona promises that if you get in, they will make sure you find the money. They also promise that money won’t come from a loan.
But ya gotta get in first.

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Claremont McKenna College

If you are a college without a long storied history, if you don’t have churchlike stone buildings, this is what you build instead:

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Claremont McKenna was founded in 1946, about an hour East of Los Angeles, as a men’s college. Back then there were a lot of men coming back from a war with tuition dollars to spend. In 1976 they went coed.

It is a good school. US News &  World Report ranked it the #9 liberal arts college in all America.

But theres a little twist.

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In 2012 one of the deans admitted to lying to US News & World Report about applicant’s SAT scores. They lied to get a better ranking. It is a shame really. They acadmeics are still top notch.
They have a new president now.
Not only do they have a new president but they have what is called “need blind admissions.” That means they have no idea how much money an applicant’s family has. This becomes significant once you consider they also have no loans, needs met guarantee.
This means if you get in, which is still very hard to do, and you happen to be broke, they cover your tution bill.
No seriously they do.

But you have to get in first.

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University of Redlands: Och Tamale

Back in 1906 there was a big earthquake in San Francisco. It caused enough damage that those in charge of California College in SF decided to pack up shop and start another school down south, in Southern California.

They set their sights on the orange groves of Redlands.
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Today the school is still somewhat small, less than 5,000 students overall, and it is for the most part focused on a liberal arts education.

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They are the bulldogs. They also have a bulldog. A real one. He lives on campus and students can take him for walks. And they do.
They also have a school song unlike any other… and they sing it.

Och Tamale

Gazolly Gazump

Deyump Deyatty Yahoo

Ink Damink

Deyatty Gazink

Deyump Deray Yahoo

Wing Wang

Tricky Trackey

Poo Foo

Joozy Woozy

Skizzle Wazzle

Wang Tang

Orky Porky Dominorky

Redlands!

Rah rah Redlands!

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The song is the result of an imaginative undergrad back in the 20’s. The school does not lack imagination.
Part of that imagination included starting a business school for people who already have jobs, which all sorts of schools have now, but they started it way back before the internet existed. It isn’t just a business school for grown ups, it is also a business school that focuses on critical thinking… cuz they are a liberal arts school… thats what they do.

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Rah Rah Redlands!

A “Townie” At Swarthmore

I once conducted an interview with a student leader at Swarthmore. “We are a small and tight student body. I mean, sometimes we might have trouble a with a townie but mostly we feel safe here.”campustower

I had never heard that word used in real life before. I thought it was purely the stuff of affected preppy movies where Matt Damon is a supporting actor. I thought it the second cousin of the phrase “daddy-o”. I smirked a little when he said it. He did not.obervatory

But as I looked around the room, and the campus, I realized I was an extra in that preppy movie. Lacrosse warm up jacketed kids mingled with scrawny girls wearing over sized knitted caps and thick glasses. A stone bell tower stands off to the side of a palatial main building, and there, off to the side, is a cottage topped with the dome of an observatory. I just imagine that inside is a grey haired fellow surrounded by plaid skirted girls and rep stripe tie wearing boys, all oohing and aaahing as the old man shows them the stars while quoting Plato.

pianoOur interview was put on hold as we were drowned out by a piano. A passing student had decided to sit down and play something classical, I would not be the one to tell you what it was, but I will tell you it was flawless. It appeared I was the only one in the common area that thought this was in any way impressive as most never looked up from their laptops or term papers.

quillAfter the interview was over I left the building and stepped out onto the tree lined quad. I walked down a path past the small train station with its scalloped wooden rails. I walked through the parking lot where I was parked next to an old Volvo that had an Occidental sticker in the back window. I pulled the car out of the lot and pointed north toward real life. I looked back in my mirror just to see if there were credits rolling down my back window, or perhaps an added scene of Robin Williams reciting poetry standing atop a school desk.

Nope. Just a waving kid who thought nothing of his use of the word “townie.”