Thursday, December 16, 2010

Good college, bad college

Posted originally on Un-schooled.

People say “college” like it’s just a stage of life. You go somewhere called college, you party, you learn, you’re happy, and after that, for the rest of your life, you get to say things like, “Aw, man…college….” with a distant look in your eyes and a slow, wistful shake of your head.

But on a really basic level, there is good college and bad college. I know, because I went to both. I started out at a giant state school, and then I went to a small, Ivy League school. When people ask me about the state school, I usually defend it. I say, “You know, that kind of environment forces you to be self-sufficient. And there are some incredible professors. If you’re in the right department, it’s a great education, and you don’t go completely bankrupt after."

(college. it doesn’t always look like this. source)

These things are all true. But I don’t mention the part about getting locked out of the dorm in the rain when I forgot my keycard by a big, mean guy who told me he’d let me in if I could prove that I wasn’t a thief. About my adviser retiring without anyone letting me know, and then receiving an email two months before graduation that stated I wouldn’t be able to graduate because my language requirement hadn’t been properly fulfilled. Or the night I called the campus police three times in a row because I couldn’t leave my room– there were guys pounding each other to a pulp in the hall. The dispatcher sounded unsympathetic. “It might take a while. They’re across campus.”

They never came. Eventually, an ambulance came, to take away someone who was unconscious.

Or what about the girl who cursed me off in class, for asking her to please stop using the word “faggot”? She called me a lot more things than that, in front of a quivering, helpless assistant professor, who, after she’d stomped out, told me apologetically, “Kids say these things a lot, I hear. Even in middle school. It’s not a big deal.”

Or my personal favorite: the teacher who found out that I’d been homeschooled and when I tried to answer a question in class informed the other students conspiratorially, “Kate doesn’t understand how these things work because she was homeschooled.” Awesome.

These are things that just don’t happen at some schools. Like at Stanford, where my husband went. When I talk about freshman year with him, he says, “I don’t even want to tell you about how annoyingly nice everyone was to everyone my freshman year.” He wished they would give him some space and stop bringing him cookies. I wished boys would stop yelling things about sex positions at me on the way to the dining hall. I wished I felt safe doing my laundry (a girl had been raped somewhere in the labyrinthine basements). I wished I had called 911 when a man tried to break in through my ground floor window in the middle of the night, rather than freezing in my
bed and waiting and waiting.

(or this. sheesh, it really looks like a place where the people are nice…source)

I am proud of the scholarships I got, and the practically negligible cost (compared to the small liberal arts schools that are so desirable) of a lot of my education. I’m proud of myself for being strong and finding mentors and doing well academically.

But I’m also angry. I’m angry that there are two distinct worlds of college, and that many students only have access to one of them. I’m angry that as a homeschooler, I didn’t know that there was a different kind of college out there. I thought that maybe all schools were just terrible. I hadn’t known what to expect, and so I accepted the environment without asking the right questions. I figured, “Well, everyone has to put up with this stuff to get a degree.”

But when I went to the other school, I realized that wasn’t true. At the Ivy League school, there were other problems. Frustratingly arrogant people, entitled people, intimidatingly famous professors, and flawless designer clothes. But no one was cruel. I never felt physically threatened. I never felt like a loser for being interested in the subject. I felt like I should be smarter, like I should try harder. I felt outmatched and intellectually naive. But when I wrote a good paper or made a good point, and people congratulated me or smiled or gave me an A, I knew it was because I was doing really well. Not just because I wasn’t asleep, or had actually read the book. Not just because I was one of the few who cared.

In the end, though, I think college is mostly about two things: getting a degree, and networking.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t get to network with enough people I respected at the first school I went to. People didn’t act as dedicated to their futures. They didn’t end up going into fields that interested me. There’s a whole discussion about class and wealth that needs to happen here, but it requires a lot more attention than I can give it right now. I will say that at the state school, some of the students I knew were working two jobs and commuting. They were almost too exhausted to pass. Many of the students were happy to have gotten into college, and had no goals beyond it. A lot of the students retained attitudes that must’ve worked well for them in middle school and high school. “Learning is lame.” They were not the students who had done well in their classes as kids.They had learned to be defensive.

Going to college did a lot of important things for me. I learned a lot about the way the world works. About sucking up. About fitting in. About avoiding being raped. Important skills. And most importantly, I got the degrees I needed to look valid. But if I could have spent the whole time at the second school and forgone the first, it would have been better, without question. I wish I had had that option. I wish everyone had that option. Or the option not to go at all.


  1. Kate--

    Thanks so much for your honesty and clarity in the post. I believe you are ABSOLUTELY correct in saying that there are different college experiences. I have had the opportunity to attend several institutions in the state of Nebraska, from undergraduate to the specialist level. Even schools comparable in size, courses offered, shared professors, etc., provided a wide array of experiences. I hope that, as educators, we can prepare students AND parents for all of the experiences of college...not merely the academic side. Thanks for great insight.


  2. Wow, I did my undergrad at a SUNY (State University of New York)college, my two children are doing their undergrad at SUNY schools. I never experienced the kinds of horror stories that you described. In fact, these schools were on par with the private universities I attended for my MLS, MBA, and now Doctoral work. Perhaps other states should take a look at the SUNY schools. My children are enjoying and thriving in their areas of study.

  3. You are right in thinking there are different college experiences but that could be said for any experience in life. I'm sorry you are upset about the "two distinct worlds of college" but I think you are oversimplifying things and are only taking examples from two experiences you've had. I believe you went to one good school and one bad school. There are infinite worlds of college depending on the school and I can guarantee that it doesn't come down to public vs private.