Once a season, I receive a glossy, thick magazine from my alma mater. Splendidly and colorfully designed, I’m treated to probing think-pieces from professors, photo articles from bright-eyed students in some third world country, an inspiring message from the college president, class news and updates, obituaries, and a last page essay from an important alum. The periodical paints the picture of a kinetic hive of progress, learning, adventure, and contemplation nestled safely inside a cocoon separate from the real world.
It’s not necessarily a place I remember.
I’ve always taken great pride in my alma mater. It has an excellent academic reputation, and is the most prestigious academic destination in my home state. I relished those factors before, during, and after my time there. And, indeed, I received an amazing education, many facets of which have only slowly revealed themselves over the stretch of years since I walked the campus.
Still, as I thumb through the seasonal magazine, looking at reunion pictures and large throngs of alumni gathered at weddings and other such events, it strikes me that my college experience shares little in common with those glossy magazines, with the perfectly manicured campus, the almost painfully cute (and ironic) tire swing on the great lawn, and the pictures of students lounging about, debating Greek philosophy while slurping on milkshakes.
Academically, I excelled in my major and minor, but, even in those classes that I loved, I never had the Dead Poets Society moment, where the underlying beauty of the subject material roused my passion and drove me to tears. Rather, I was interested in the subject, dutifully worked to please my professors, and took varying degrees of interest in my assignments and projects. I took no less pleasure in not having class, playing ping pong or basketball, and sleeping in.
Socially, I made one amazing lifelong friend, but my life isn’t filled with fraternity brothers, as we were reminded again and again that it would be. Lifelong bonds, plural, were not made. Rather, with one noted exception, college seems like most every other life pitstop: you meet great, nice people and, over time, you drift apart, if not technically, at least in substance. It doesn’t take away from the experience, but it does undermine, to a degree, its allegedly transformative nature.
And, as for the college years being the best years, I always want to ask the people that say that if all-night study sessions and mediocre term papers really trump a great job, a nice income, and personal, social, and financial freedom. To me, it’s a no-brainer.
I’m willing to bet lots of folks like me peruse their college magazines with something resembling alienation. The whitewashing effect can be disorienting. Certainly colleges want to put their best foot forward; it is, after all, really about publicity. Nevertheless, surely there is a cost when the narrative colleges advance about themselves materially diverges from the experiences their students have. And, yes, no college is going to publish an alumni magazine featuring a story about how Katie got dumped at Friday night’s party, or how Ben has already put on the Freshman 15, but maybe we should tone down the life-changing, world-beating rhetoric just slightly. Very few college students will make any noise in their respective academic fields, and, for many, it’s not a social nirvana. For all, however, it is a time of growth and change, and that growth and change doesn’t always translate into a PR-ready photograph with needy children from South America.
Increasingly, colleges have to sell themselves, and certainly selling the college experience, as commonly understood, is part of the deal. And, there’s really nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember that many students are walking different paths. The importance of those individual stories, those journeys of real progress, change, and, yes, education, outweigh the images we put forth as “the” college experience. To not remember that, we shortchange ourselves and the actual impact of the institutions we love.