Cruise Ship College

Sep 22, 2012

I have a high school senior in my house these days, so I’ve been trying to get a head start on next fall by imagining what it will be like to send my boy off to college. Fortunately, I have excellent resources to help me.

For instance, a multi-page Target circular we received a while ago tells me that college life is a whirl of crazy fun, the kind of fun that requires an assortment of consumer goods. Your dorm room, we learn, should “express your personality.” Whatever extra bed linens you dig out of a closet at home will not suffice. Your bed must be colorful, coordinated, strewn with pillows, and above all, you. Moreover, you will need electronics, and lots of them. An iHome for sure, and a brand new TV. Of course a TV! But no worries: Target will deliver one, with coordinating stand, directly to your dorm room for $99. And since college life is about partying, you will need trendy lounge clothes and party supplies: a fridge, plastic dishware, and—no kidding, it really said this—tools and supplies for cleaning up afterwards. Cute inset comments from “real” college students offered helpful advice about college life (“Bring money!”) and strongly suggested that, as for studying, that’s what college students do only when they absolutely must, ha ha.

So from this I gather that college is a four-year frolic with a pleasing assortment of nubile friends, lightly supervised by professors and administrators, and only occasionally interrupted by a class or two. Sort of like a four-year, rather expensive, cruise ship vacation.

Of course, a lot depends on which college you choose, so I’ve been learning what I can from movies and TV about which school might be right for my son. For instance, I’ve already ruled out Harvard, because I’ve seen the movie The Social Network. Harvard students have genius ideas and start businesses in their sophomore year—which is all very impressive—but they do this while drunk, and they also stand outside in their underpants in the winter in order to get into prestigious clubs. I don’t want my kid to be either drunk or cold, certainly not both at once. So I think maybe we’ll look into Yale instead, because it seems to be pretty easy to get in there. After all, Quinn on the TV show Glee is planning to go to Yale, and from what I can tell she hardly ever goes to class at all, let alone takes an AP course. Granted she’s a great dancer and singer, and has mastered the art of being darling and vulnerable. But she seems to expect to get into Yale with no particular academic interests.

Yale is not the only possibility, though. Many many many many colleges and universities have sent pieces of mail to the end of our driveway in the last year, all of them touting the distinctive features of their institution, all of which begin to sound alike. The postcards and booklets and perfect-bound tomes don’t mention any partying, but they do emphasize comforts and amenities. We got one letter from a Midwestern liberal arts college in which some high official (I think it was the president—I’ve recycled the letter so I can’t check) assured parents that the new dining facility at his college features a Jamba Juice. What a relief! Another public university in the south, given the space of one postcard to present their case, assured me that my student would enjoy a new recreation center, a fine health service, housing, internships, and career placement. Apparently there are also lots of clubs, and a nice café in the library. It’s good to know that, should my kid go there, he may not actually go to class or study, but he will be sheltered and fit and have wholesome hobbies and snacks while he gradually becomes employable.

Amenities are only the beginning for many schools, though. Hundreds of majors, access to professors, research opportunities, really awesome sports, a zillion student organizations—everyone seems to have it all. Beautiful, diverse students and beautiful, historic (or perhaps LEEDS-certified) buildings on rolling, umpteen-acre campuses. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine that my son wouldn’t just thrive his little brains out anywhere he goes.

I wonder if he’ll actually sit down and study, though? It’s a little doubtful even at the most prestigious universities. Both Yale and Columbia sent impressive, thick, full-color “viewbooks” featuring “day-in-the-life” scenarios for a sampling of their undergraduates. These vigorous young people seem to stride confidently through their days, going from club meetings to class (yes! they do go to class!) to fascinating research gigs with prestigious professors to casual brunches with friends. (Note to self: if kid goes to Columbia, he will need plenty of spending money for lunches and brunches.) Late at night they arrive back at their dorms, where they flop on sofas and chill with great friends and snack on fresh-baked brownies. Apparently, they have no need to block off hours to read or write. At Columbia, one fellow did settle in at 7 p.m. one evening to read Montaigne. The rest didn’t get to their problem sets till 10:30 or 11:00. If ever. Ha ha.

Perhaps that’s because at these institutions, the students are already super-human when they arrive. They’re majoring in aeronautical engineering and neuroscience with a minor in French. They’re studying abroad in Madagascar while simultaneously maintaining a concert performance schedule on piano. They’re helping their professors cure cancer while collaborating on a save-the-earth startup business venture. Goodness, they’re all so energetic and bursting with potential and diversely attractive. It’s exhausting.

So it’s a good thing I know better. I don’t really believe the depictions of college life in ad circulars or the movies or TV shows. Even the wowza stuff produced by admissions headquarters—true as far as it goes—presents only part of the full picture.

We devalue real college life by leading people to believe it’s a cruise ship frolic—or the land of happy, youthful geniuses with nary a trouble to weigh down their rocket-trajectory to greatness. College can be wonderful, intense, a time of delight and amazing growth; but it can also be hard, stressful, lonely, and frustrating. Most students at my college spend a lot of time studying—actually reading and writing and working on problem sets and lab reports. They struggle through depression and relationship problems and family crises. They miss home. They worry about the future.

Knowing all that makes it harder to imagine sending my son on his way next year. I will be sending him off with a lot of prayer, that’s for sure. Well, and perhaps some fashionable loungewear and crisp new bed sheets.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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