Savor adventure of college life ...

March 03, 2002|By Thomas Belton

HADDONFIELD, N.J. - My family has just weathered the most stressful four months of our lives.

No, not buying a house or getting a loved one through a serious illness. I'm talking about real stress - finding a college for my son. And the biggest stress was getting him to take it seriously.

As we traveled around, looking for the perfect learning environment, I had trouble connecting with him on my own college experience.

From the looks he threw me, I realized that I might as well have gone to school on Mars compared to what he expects.

I began college in the 1960s at a conservative Jesuit school that had just gone co-ed. During the first week, I found myself speaking with an interesting woman between classes when a priest built like a linebacker with the face of a bulldog grabbed me by the neck and propelled me out the door with the parting shot, "Don't come back till you're dressed to learn." Looking down, I realized I wasn't wearing a jacket and tie. So began my take-no-prisoners college experience.

Back then, seniors were required to wear black academic gowns that billowed behind them as they crossed the Quad looking like a flock of ravens. Every Wednesday, we'd have mandatory ROTC - Reserve Officer Training Corps - involving close-order drills and assaults on flocks of geese by the river with noisy M14s blazing away, leaving a trail of smoke through the tall rushes. All in preparation for that war in Vietnam that awaited many of us upon graduation.

I didn't really know what I wanted out of a college education since I was the first in a long line of manual laborers to make it so high. I had no one to ask about career arcs or intellectual pursuits. In a way, I was doing it all by Braille, trying to decipher the mysterious opportunities presented by opinionated teachers, boisterous peers, campus clubs and coffeehouse alliances.

But like most of my generation, I was curious and wanted to find out something about everything, to get answers to all the questions that rumbled around in my head like loose gumballs looking for escape.

If you asked most of my son's friends what they want out of college, they'd probably reply, "A good job and a whole lotta money."

Surprised by this end-of-the-road response, I'd suggest they enjoy their college years. But that comment usually gets blank stares. They don't know yet about the professor who will change their lives - a person who'll capture their imagination and excite them, their intellects opening like hothouse flowers under his or her careful nurturing. And, of course, there's the new friends, the lovers that will come and go, the activities that will consume them and the new cities and campuses they will explore.

But college, like life, can throw some curve balls.

For example, my college experience began conservatively but descended into radicalism with 1967's so-called Summer of Love in San Francisco, the anti-war demonstrations shutting down campuses, teach-ins and academic freedom becoming the watchwords of universities.

By the time I graduated, the genie was out of the bottle. Mandatory ROTC and the dress code were out, more radical courses were in and some students dropped out or went west. Others shipped out to the war, while some of us became teachers, social workers and scientists.

We became different people in college, crafted by the society that surrounded us. What we got wasn't job training but a new way of thinking, a fresh perspective on people, a respect for their opinions, recognizing and embracing diversity.

They used to call college a finishing school, with the idea that it completed a person, taught you culture the way a regular school could not. It forged a more complete and compassionate human being, a person who made an impression, who had character. That's what college should be about, and I hope that's what it will remain for my son's generation.

Thomas Belton is a free-lance writer who lives in Haddonfield, N.J.

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