Monday, June 19, 2017

Old Fogey's College Advice

Last month, my great-niece Haidyn graduated from high school and will be heading on to college.  She will be the first of her generation in our family to do so.  I know that my parents (her great-grandparents) would be very proud of her.  They were never able to attend college and, in my mother’s case even finish high school.  I know something about how Haidyn must feel because, though it seems common place – even compulsory – now, I was the first person on either side of my family to attend college. It is a bridge that, once you cross over it, you can never go back. The best analogy is that it is something like it must be for men and women who go away to war.  No description of it to others is going to convey what it is like to those who have not been there.  You leave not being the same person who entered.  It changes your world view; you can no longer see things in the same way you once did. 

While advice from a 71 year-old man is about as welcome as dandelions in a suburban lawn, I’d like to offer a bit of it for any family members of Haidyn’s generation that are planning to go college.  The first is: go away to school.  Education is more than only books.  Learning first hand that there are people who see the world differently than you do – who talk a little differently, dress differently, have a different background of experiences, have value systems different from yours – is a part of the education itself.  Simply living in an environment that is different from what you are used to broadens you,  teaches you something.  Seattle doesn’t feel the same as Phoenix.  There is a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Anecdote in A Jar” in which he places a jar on a hill in Tennessee and instantly that jar becomes the central reference point for everything we do. While our house, our home town, our family may always be the emotional center of our universe, it is not the physical center.  Moving that glass to another hill gives you perspective and that is not something that you get by staying home or going to Florida for spring break.

When the time for college came, I urged all of my children to pick a place that was not in their geographic backyard.  Pat was the first one and, in all candor, he would have been very comfortable staying in Buffalo and going to UB.  Instead, he went spent his first year at Syracuse University because at the time he was interested in going into journalism and the school had a good reputation.  It was not the best experience. He had gone to high City Honors in Buffalo where the students were highly motivated. His friends went off to Harvard, Stanford, etc.  They were kids who were bright but worked hard for what they got. What he learned at Syracuse was that the rest of the world was not like this.  They were interested in partying, joining frats and drinking (some things haven’t changed). Having to go to class was a minor annoyance for them.  Their parents paid for their education, so they didn’t care. Despite good classes, Pat learned that Syracuse wasn’t for him.  He also learned that he was more interested in political science and ended up transferring to Buffalo.  Nevertheless, he learned something valuable.

In a somewhat different vein, Maya went to the University of Indiana and, her first reaction was an incredulous “Everyone there is white!”  On the up side, she added that despite their counterparts in New Jersey, school officials and employees at IU were actually friendly.  While she learned that she could probably never live in Indiana, she loved the school, and her education and made long time friendships.

A second piece of advice that I would give is to take some courses that you enjoy.  You may not get the chance again to try out some of the things that colleges and universities give you a chance to do.  I know. For some people that sounds frivolous, like a luxury.  I’ve worked with enough students over my life time that have come from backgrounds where they thought they would never be able to make it to college.  They are seeking an education to get a good job, to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. They feel the imperative to stick to the game plan and pick up skills and a certificate that can be cashed in for a better standard of living.   I respect that.  Not everyone has a choice. But in that case, what people are looking for is training, not education – and that is a whole different ballgame.   Education is expansive, not one directional.  My model here is my son Eli.  Eli was admitted to the architecture program at the University of Maryland. It is extremely competitive and famous for the fact that during the junior and senior years students basically sleep all night in the architecture studio.  Nevertheless, his first couple of years he experimented with classes that appealed to him like calligraphy and Italian.  It’s made him a more interesting and empathetic person and over a decade later, he is doing just fine as an architect with his own firm.   You have your whole life to work, often in ways that give you little time to pursue things that really interest you.  Haidyn, I have no idea what you are  planning to study or what your career plans are, but I say, take advantage of it while you can. Let yourself grow. 

My final wish for each of those of the next generation is that if at all possible, you take a semester abroad – or spend some time living in a foreign country.  It combines both of the first two experiences that I mentioned and adds a deeper third dimension. Each of my children was lucky enough to be able to live for a while in another country prior to having to get out and dive into their job or career:  Pat (Germany), Maura (England), Melissa (Guatemala), Maya (Australia), and Eli (Turkey). Again, it is a fact of life that this is not possible for everyone.  If you are already married and supporting a family, it probably is not a possibility. On the other hand, when Maya took a semester in Australia with IU, aside from plane fare, it cost her no more than she would otherwise have been paying.  She got all of her college credits and even ended up finishing college a semester early. While going away to school is a big step towards allowing your perspective to broaden, you are still to a large extent playing on home field - more or less the same language, same laws, same religious and cultural values.  Staying for some time in another country allows you to be able to shift your prejudicial lenses some. We all have them and, particularly in this era of Trump nativism, it is crucial to be able to get outside and see what the world looks like from another vantage point.  There is no better educator than travel.

Last week my grandson Connor graduated from middle school, Maggie and Owen had their kindergarten graduation, and Daisie, the youngest of all my grandchildren Face Timed with me and said Grandpa for the first time.  Chances are that by the time Daisie is ready for college, I won’t be around any more. Those of us who have been through college have frequently heard that in its origin the word educate means to draw out.  It is not about cramming stuff in, but about bringing yourself out to a larger understanding of the world. I am fortunate that all of my children value education – in the broadest sense of the word, so I know that Connor, Maggie, Owen, Daisie and all of the others will do fine without my advice.  It is comforting to know that. Still, one of the prerogatives of getting older is the freedom to stick your nose in and say it anyway. Education transforms.  I can’t imagine who I would be now, if I’d never had the opportunity for college.