Even though I’ve been teaching for some 27 years, I don’t get overly enthused about semester breaks. They usually involve a fair amount of grading exams and papers, followed by catching up on other work tasks and getting ready for the next term’s classes. They’re all good, but they’re more of a respite from teaching than a break.
Nevertheless, as the weather gets colder here in Boston and classes come to an end, I do get especially nostalgic about two semester breaks that date back to my own student days.
The first was during my senior year (1980-81) at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. Had I planned to spend my final semester of college on campus, I would’ve been at serious risk for developing a bad case of “senioritis” — i.e., playing out the home stretch of my undergraduate career without a lot of enthusiasm. However, I was about to spend my last collegiate semester at VU’s Cambridge, England study center. As I’ve written on this blog, it turned out to be a deeply formative experience.
Of course, I didn’t anticipate how life-changing that semester abroad would be as I completed my fall semester papers and final exams and then left my Brandt Hall dorm room for home. The nostalgia trip for me today is recalling how totally, utterly, completely clueless I was about the experience that awaited me.
In keeping with my procrastinating nature back then (less so today), my preparations for the trip were last minute and minimal. Honestly, I wasn’t even all that curious about England and Europe. I had signed up for the Cambridge semester largely because friends with whom I worked on the VU student newspaper were going. I also welcomed a change of scenery from our small town Indiana campus. (Of course, today I also get nostalgic about those days in Valparaiso. Click here for an essay I wrote, “Homecoming at Middle Age,” published in The Cresset, VU’s journal of the arts, literature, and public affairs.)
As a collegian, although I managed to maintain a certain confident front, in reality I was a jumble of ambition, insecurity, immaturity, and uncertainty over the future. I wouldn’t trade my current level of wisdom (umm, still a work in progress!) for said jumble of that stage of my life. However, it’s kind of neat to look back at that time with the gift of hindsight. As I pondered what to stuff into a suitcase and a backpack, I had no idea that the next five months would shape my personal culture, worldview, way of living, and base of friendships for a lifetime.
The second memorable semester break was during my third and final year of law school (1984-85) at New York University. I was in the job hunt, and my hope was to secure a public interest legal position in New York City for after graduation. During my short time in NYC, I had fallen in love with the city. New York of the 80s was a much grittier and affordable place than it is today. It was possible to enjoy the city on a tight budget. I badly wished to stay.
In addition, I was committed to working in the public interest field. During the previous summer, I was a summer associate at a large commercial law firm in Chicago. The money was great, and the firm treated its lawyers and staff with respect. But my heart wasn’t into corporate legal work, and so I would end up turning down the firm’s offer of a full-time associate attorney position for after graduation. Instead, I returned to the reasons that attracted me to law school in the first place, doing some type of public interest work in the non-profit or public sector.
I interviewed with a wide variety of public interest employers during the fall, and things started to develop during the semester break. During the break I received and accepted an offer for an attorney position from the New York City Legal Aid Society in downtown Manhattan. I was going to be a public interest lawyer in New York City, and I couldn’t have been happier about it! (The realities of paying rent and repaying student loans on a $20,000 salary would come later.) I recall spending a chunk of that break diving into my growing little collection of books about New York City, delighted that I would be staying in my adopted hometown.
Major junctures and events in our lives often don’t appear significant until we can look back at them via the rear-view mirror. Then they become part of our personal narratives. As mythologist Joseph Campbell observed, “when you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another” (Diana K. Osbon, ed., A Joseph Campbell Companion, 1991). That’s how these two semester breaks fit into my story.
Both of these remembrances embrace a post-Second World War, American middle class ideal that has valued higher education as a stepping stone to a better life. I was not fully appreciative of these gifts back then, but I certainly am grateful for them today.
For middle class and working class folks in the U.S., the path to upward mobility that I enjoyed is narrowing sharply. The “college experience” of going away to school, while cobbling together enough money from financial aid, summer and part-time jobs, and parental assistance to make it relatively affordable, has too often given way to sky-high tuition and costs subsidized by significant student loan debt. Many students and their families are pursuing less pricey alternatives as a result, such as two-year colleges and distance learning programs.
Indeed, it may be that Generation Jones (born 1954 through 1965) was the last major cohort to have higher education opportunities that didn’t come with enormous price tags. That reality should inform our potential choices for charitable giving and at the ballot box. Those of us who work in higher education should also be advocates for reducing student debt. We need to ease the financial burdens of higher learning, so that more may have such life-changing experiences.
Sometimes we can go home again, and if we’re lucky, the experience can be even sweeter than the first time around.
In a year of ups and downs, one of my most memorable, positive experiences was returning to Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, to receive an Alumni Achievement Award during fall Homecoming festivities. The awards presentation ceremony was part of a Sunday Homecoming service in VU’s Chapel of the Resurrection, followed by a luncheon in the new student union.
From the vantage point of my 1981 graduation from Valpo (the school’s informal monicker), this was an unlikely return to campus. As an undergraduate, I was a department editor and writer for The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. At the time, The Torch editorial board was something of a campus rebel cell, post-Sixties edition. Though too young to have experienced the student movement, we were given to questioning things and mildly anti-authoritarian by nature. Whether it was creeping vocationalism that threatened the liberal arts, behavioral excesses in fraternity behavior (“Animal House,” a wildly popular movie during that time, was influential), or challenges with various diversities on campus, we believed that our editorial mission was to take on the university for its supposed shortcomings.
Some of our critiques were insightful, the products of bright young minds applying the lessons of a liberal education to the institution that provided them. Others were more sophomoric, using the print medium to launch a few post-adolescent salvos. Mine mixed the two categories in a sort of hit-or-miss fashion. In any event, by the time Commencement rolled around, I had internalized those grievances and smugly assumed that I had outgrown the place.
Accordingly, when I first informed long-time friends that VU’s Alumni Association would be recognizing me at Homecoming, several humorously noted the irony of the sharply critical student returning to campus decades later as a grateful middle-aged award recipient. (Several senior VU administrators back in the day wouldn’t have predicted this development, either, though with less bemusement.)
However, my relationship with VU had been in a state of positive change for some time, marked by a steadily growing appreciation for the excellent education I received there and for friendships forged via experiences such as The Torch, a life-changing semester abroad, and everyday dorm life.
In fact, I was extremely blessed to have a group of friends, mostly fellow alums from our close-knit Cambridge, England study abroad cohort and several of their spouses, joining me for the Homecoming award ceremonies. (I know that “blessed” is an overused term, but that’s how I felt.) During my extended visit, which included time as a visiting scholar at VU’s law school, I also enjoyed welcomed opportunities to reconnect with other friends from my VU days.
Returning to campus was both nostalgic and slightly disorienting. For many years after our graduation, Valpo’s physical landscape had remained basically the same. However, during the past decade or so, new buildings have sprouted up seemingly everywhere, and even some streets and pathways on campus have been rerouted. On Homecoming weekend, our shared memories mixed with exclamations over how building so-and-so had disappeared. The downtown area of the small city of Valparaiso also had changed markedly, with a much greater variety of restaurants and public spaces. It was fun to make these discoveries with my friends, as if we were once again undergraduates exploring England and the European continent — even if this time we actually were in America’s heartland.
Valparaiso’s longstanding affiliation with the Lutherans and the importance of faith traditions in general are core parts of its institutional mission. During the early decades of the last century, Valpo was a secular, independent university well known for its vocational training. Hard times would visit the school, however, and its survival was in question until the Lutheran University Association stepped in to buy it in 1925. Among the continuing manifestations of this association are daily Chapel services, open to those of any denomination.
In my case, it would be an understatement to say that I was not a frequenter of Chapel services as a collegian. However, at Homecoming I now found myself unexpectedly moved by the fact that the University would devote a Sunday worship service to recognizing its graduates. As a denizen of higher education, I know well the differences between giving obligatory nods to alumni/ae honorees and showing genuine appreciation. This was a very touching example of the latter.
The memories stoked by this weekend went well beyond student life and into the realm of world events that transpired around us as undergraduates. Among other things, little did we know at the time that we were bearing witness to the emergence of at least two major mega-trends — the primacy of the Middle East as an American foreign policy hot spot and the conservative resurgence in American politics — that would help to define our civic lives well into middle age.
In November 1979, young Islamic revolutionaries took some 60 American hostages during a seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranian hostage crisis, as it soon would be tagged, would endure for nearly fifteen months until the hostages were freed in January 1981. During that time, ABC journalist Ted Koppel became a national media figure with his daily hostage crisis updates on “Nightline,” a program that followed the late night local news. At Valpo, many of us tuned in each night in our dorm rooms, watching on our rabbit-eared portable television sets.
The fall of my senior year also marked my first opportunity to cast a general election ballot for President. Jimmy Carter was the Democratic incumbent, having successfully run on an anti-Washington platform in 1976. However, change was brewing in the form of a conservative movement that would sweep Ronald Reagan and a group of new Republican Senators and Representatives into office.
I was deeply into politics at the time. In fact, I was majoring in political science and planning to go to law school as preparation for an eventual political career. My own political views were in a state of flux, moving from right to left. In terms of presidential candidates in 1980, I had become enamored of an Illinois Congressman named John Anderson, a one-time conservative whose own views had become more liberal over the years. Anderson ran as a liberal Republican in the spring presidential primaries and then decided to leave the GOP to pursue an independent candidacy in the fall. I would serve as the Northwest Indiana coordinator for his independent campaign, a volunteer assignment that said less about my political organizing skills and more about the green talent the campaign had to rely upon in certain parts of the country.
Looking back, I now understand that Anderson’s departure from the Republican Party represented a harbinger of things to come. The 1980 election marked the beginning of the GOP’s rightward turn and a coming out party for a conservative movement that has dominated much of American politics since then.
My collegiate years at Valpo felt heavy, as if I was carrying the weight of my future on my shoulders, fueled by a growing desire to explore life outside of my native Indiana and anxieties over where I would be and how I would fare. In 1982 I would decamp to Manhattan for law school at New York University, thinking that Indiana would be viewed mainly from a rear-view mirror.
Fast-forward to 2016: During a moment in the alumni hospitality tent at the Homecoming football game, I remarked to VU President Mark Heckler that it felt very light to be back on campus — a stark contrast to my emotional center of gravity as an undergraduate.
Indeed, this return to VU was accompanied by gifts of appreciation and maturity and was made especially meaningful by the company of dear friends who now richly deserve the label “lifelong.” A homecoming can’t get much better than that.
Marlene Cimons writes for the Washington Post about a recurring anxiety dream experienced by many, including yours truly:
For most people, including me, it goes like this: We’ve signed up for a course that we never attend, or we forget we enrolled in it. When final-exam day approaches, we are panic-stricken because we never went to any of the lectures, never took notes and never did the readings or assignments. (In one bizarre twist, some people report that they show up on final exam day naked — perhaps feeling vulnerable?)
For some, the course is one in which we did poorly in real life. Others dream of a subject in which they actually did well but had worried about failing.
She digs pretty deep into the commonality of this dream, interviewing therapists and others about why so many people continue to have it many years after their formal schooling ended.
My academic anxiety dream usually is situated in my final semester of college. It’s exam period, and — in keeping with the script! — I suddenly realize that I’m facing a final exam in a course I’ve never attended and for which I’ve never cracked open a book. Furthermore, it’s in a subject area in which I have no interest or aptitude.
Oh no, I’m screwed, I dream-speak to myself. I’ll flunk that course and have to take a summer school class in order to graduate. What will my parents say? And what will this do to my law school aspirations?! Maybe I calculated wrong and I really don’t need that class to graduate!
At some point I realize it’s a dream and will myself to wake up, but I’m a tad rattled until I confirm that all is ok.
The roots of my academic anxiety dreams have some basis in fact. I spent my final collegiate semester participating in Valparaiso University’s study abroad program in Cambridge, England. For some of us, including me, close proximity to one of the world’s greatest universities failed to inspire complete devotion to our studies. Although we were graded on essays rather than examinations, it’s fair to say that work on said written products often got left until the last minute.
In fact, one of my two phone calls home during that semester (remember, this is pre-cell phone 1981) came after our grades were reported. I wanted my parents to check my grade report — most notably because of a worrisome Art Appreciation class that I pretty much blew off completely — before I embarked on a post-semester romp through Western Europe. Fortunately my grades were pretty good, except for a barely passing grade in Art Appreciation. Phew…dodged that bullet!
It so happens that I’m writing this from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. I have a fall semester research sabbatical from my home school (Suffolk University in Boston), and I’m spending part of it at VU as a scholar in residence, working on a book project. I’ll have more to say about this stay in my next blog post.
In the meantime, hopefully no academic anxiety dreams will be triggered by this visit.
Hello dear readers, it has been a while since I’ve posted! I’ve been hip deep in various publication projects related to work, and they’ve drained much of whatever writing energies I’ve had this summer. But with another academic year about to begin, I’d be remiss if I didn’t write something to mark it.
Here in Boston, the arrival of thousands of college students during late August and early September is an annual ritual. Here’s what the Boston Globe had to say about it this morning:
This late-summer ritual, the return of tens of thousands of college students to more than 50 area schools, replenishes Boston and infuses it with youth. The transformation is hard to miss. Boston traffic backs up and horns blare as families double-park to unload; the city’s shops and restaurants bustle with new activity; the Esplanade fills with joggers and bikers.
Boston, the country’s ultimate college town, is back.
The so-called “college experience” — that of going off to school, usually starting with a year (or three or four) of living in a residence hall — became a standard middle class aspiration during the last half of the 20th century. It holds this status today, too, even in the face of rising costs of higher education and a shaky economy.
And so in college towns big and small, the students are returning in droves. For those of us who enjoy seasons, this is a harbinger of fall, which in New England is our best time of the year weather-wise.
And fast forwarding…
Among the pieces of advice I want to share with today’s college students is this: If you work on it and are fortunate, you can start building some lifelong friendships.
Every five years, our Valparaiso University study abroad group holds a reunion to catch up with one another and to exchange increasingly exaggerated and dramatic stories from our semester together in England. Many of us manage to see each other on other occasions as well.
We met in Chicago earlier this summer. Our gathering was a little smaller than usual because of a tangle of family and personal schedule conflicts, but we had a wonderful time nonetheless. A photo of most of this year’s attendees appears below.
Sometimes it’s just the way things work out: A group of 20 or so people are tossed together for a term overseas, and many of the bonds created and strengthened during that time ripen into lasting friendships. True, the “college experience” should be about learning, growing, and preparing for the rest of life. And if it includes the forging of friendships that endure, well then, that’s an awesome thing indeed.
This fall, I’ll be revisiting Valparaiso University when I return to campus for homecoming (35th year) and an extended stay to do some work on my writing projects. I’m fortunate to have a research sabbatical this semester, and so I arranged to do a “visiting scholar in residence” arrangement at VU, whereby I’ll be camping out in the library with my laptop and research materials for a few weeks.
This also will give me another opportunity to connect with some of my VU classmates. I look forward to writing about this visit later this fall.
Okay, college graduates, if you could continue dormitory-type living even after leaving school, would you opt to do so? If your answer is “yes,” then you may be pleased to see this option developing in certain cities.
WeWork, a company that has pioneered the concept of co-working rental office space for entrepreneurial start-ups, is now branching out with WeLive, “communal housing” rentals aimed at recent graduates and young professionals who may find themselves priced out of the housing market in expensive urban areas. Melody Hahm, writing for Yahoo! Finance, explored the new WeLive space in Manhattan:
I thought my college years were behind me. But I’m seriously reconsidering the dorm life since visiting Manhattan’s first-ever location of communal living startup WeLive.
Of course, the concept of communal housing isn’t novel. . . .
But this isn’t your typical dorm situation: You have your own apartment but get access to a chef’s kitchen, yoga studio, conference room, laundry/arcade room, and neighbors who actually want to talk to you.
In many ways, WeLive looks and sounds like a post-graduate residence hall, at a premium price:
The layouts in WeLive’s 400 units range from small studios to four-bedrooms, and all apartments come fully furnished. Per-tenant pricing begins at $1,375 but if you want a bit more privacy, you’ll have to dole out at least $2,000 per month. The most common setup is the “studio plus,” which comes with two beds (one is a Murphy hidden in the wall); these range from $2,500 to $2,800. A flat monthly utilities payment of $125 covers electric, water, cable, wifi and cleaning costs (yes, housekeeping is included).
Here’s how WeLive describes itself on its website:
WeLive is a new way of living built upon community, flexibility, and a fundamental belief that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. We know life is better when we are part of a community that believes in something larger than itself. From mailrooms and laundry rooms that double as bars and event spaces to communal kitchens, roof decks, and hot tubs, WeLive challenges traditional apartment living through physical spaces that foster meaningful relationships. Whether for a day, a week, a month, or a year, by joining WeLive – you’ll be psyched to be alive.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, then you know that I’m fond of sharing nostalgic moments from my college and law school years. I can even get a little soggy over memories of dorm life. At Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, I lived in dormitories, with the exception of a final semester spent in a study abroad program. At New York University in Manhattan, my legal alma mater, I lived in law school residence halls throughout my stay there.
When I graduated from NYU Law, bound and determined to save the world as a Legal Aid lawyer (and with a $20,000 salary to remind me of my lofty idealism), my Manhattan housing options were practically non-existent. Consequently, I followed the trail blazed by other young denizens of the city’s non-profit sector and crossed the bridge into Brooklyn for a relatively cheap apartment share and a long subway ride to work. My first place was a three-bedroom apartment share. I believe the total rent, split three ways, was $1,000.
Those affordable Park Slope apartment shares are no more. The brownstone rentals so popular among my fellow Legal Aid colleagues and others similarly situated are now homes commanding high six and even seven figures in the current real estate market.
And so comes the market opportunity for WeLive. With more bohemian living options no longer available in places like New York, WeLive steps into the void and offers young, hip, and conveniently located housing options aimed at Millennials. Measured against the cost of living standards of almost any other area, WeLive is still pretty expensive. But to find a comparable rental in New York, your daily commute might start to resemble a sojourn.
When I moved to New York in the 1980s, gentrification and higher living costs were very much a part of the civic dialogue. Today, however, the housing costs are mind boggling. New York is not alone in this reality, at least among high demand urban places. This is definitely the case here in Boston.
It’s why ventures like WeLive are getting attention. In reality they are expensive versions of what 50 or 75 years ago would’ve been called boarding houses, with a dose of social selectiveness built into the marketing: WeLive is a new way of living built upon community, flexibility, and a fundamental belief that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with.
Personally, I’d rather have affordable apartment shares in Brooklyn, but I realize that time has passed.
For many years I’ve quipped that Introduction to Typing and Driver’s Education were the two most valuable courses I took in high school. Actually it’s more than a quip. If you toss my junior year American History course into the mix, I think you’d have the academic holy trinity of my high school career. (Yes, I was something of a rebellious underachiever in high school.)
Anyway, back to typing class: I really wanted to learn how to type. Even as an adolescent, I felt that typing out my thoughts and ideas would somehow render them more, well, significant. Once I learned how to type, I would use my mom’s old Royal manual typewriter to bang out term papers for school. And when I got involved in the student council, I would learn how to cut mimeograph stencils for printing out the council newsletter.
Of course, just because I enjoyed typing doesn’t mean I was good at it. I made lots of mistakes…and still do. In the ancient era before word processing programs and home computers, that usually meant using either liquid paper or Ko-rec-type to cover up one’s mistakes and then type over them. I did this a lot, and it slowed down my typing speed.
Off to college
When I went off to college at Valparaiso University, my main off-to-school present was a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Whoa…..I was now moving up in the world! This model used ribbon cartridges instead of old-fashioned spooled ribbons. If you made a typing error, you could swap out the ribbon cartridge for a correcting cartridge that would white out the mistake. It is a miracle that I did not develop a repetitive stress injury swapping out those cartridges.
My typing life changed when I joined the staff of my college newspaper, The Torch. You see, the newspaper office had two IBM correcting Selectric typewriters. Typing on those machines was a sublime experience. During down times when folks weren’t working on stories, we were free to commandeer the typewriters for our papers and projects. The presence of those typewriters is one of the reasons why that office became our unofficial hangout, even when we weren’t working on the newspaper.
Now, those of later generations might not fully appreciate these challenges, but writing term papers and other assignments in the B.C. era (Before Computers) was a very, very different experience, especially when minimum or maximum page limits were in play. Most of us would first write out our papers in long hand, and then estimate if the cumulative sheafs of paper would, when typed up, potentially run afoul of the page limits. If you didn’t have a good sense of how your cursive writing translated into typed pages, you might be in for some unpleasant surprises, leading to late nights before papers were due.
Lugging it to NYC
I took my Smith Corona with me to law school at NYU. I cannot recall how I got that heavy, bulky machine to its destination, but I may have even checked it as part of my baggage for the flight from Chicago to New York. In some ways, these challenges have not changed; even in the digital era, there are only so many ways to move one’s belongings from here to there.
This was right before the home computer revolution, and very few of my classmates had PCs. Most of us continued to type our papers, with added challenges in terms of margins and page length when writing out practice versions of legal documents. By this time, we were overlapping with the emerging age of computers. At NYU I worked on one of our scholarly law journals and on the law school student newspaper, and we had computer word processing capabilities for both publications.
A computer of my own
I would not own a personal computer until several years after graduating from law school, a Commodore 64 that supported a superb game library and rudimentary word processing programs. I would later move up to an IBM PC compatible machine, and at that point I transitioned from typewriter to word processing. I became enamored of the wonderful, awesome WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS program, which remains to me the best ever software package for writing productivity. In fact, ever since being more or less forced into using the tyrannical, control-freakish, and cumbersome Microsoft Word, my writing efficiency has declined.
Today, I’ve morphed over to Apple products, but I’m still stuck with Microsoft Word. Someday I’d like to give a serious tryout to Scrivener, a word processing program that has a fiercely devoted following. As for my blogs, I use the WordPress platform, which I find easy to navigate.
Changing technologies aside, it’s clear to me that my original motivation for learning how type — to share my thoughts and ideas — remains the main reason why I’m sitting before a keyboard today. And thank goodness that you, kind reader, get to read what’s on my mind with (most of) the typos cleaned up.
The 1916 Easter Rising was an armed insurrection centered in Dublin, and led by Irish Republicans who opposed British rule and sought to establish an independent Irish Republic. Although the Rebellion was quashed, it planted the seeds for British-Irish relations during the 20th century and remains one of the most significant events in Irish history.
As I wrote here last year, I became interested in this subject during a 1981 collegiate semester abroad in England. “The Troubles,” as they were dubbed, had reached tumultuous and violent stages. Irish political prisoners were staging well-publicized hunger strikes, and a prominent Irish Republican Army leader, Bobby Sands, was among them. (He would die in prison that May.)
I devoted part of my spring break to visiting Belfast and Dublin, and the tensions were evident. I was in Dublin over Easter weekend, which marked the 65th anniversary of the Easter Rising. A large, boisterous protest and rally ensued in the downtown.
I’ve put together three snapshots from that event. During the protest march, a young man stopped to allow me to take the photo at top.The rebel headquarters for the Easter Rising was the General Post Office, shown in the second photo above. The third photo was taken in front of the Bank of Ireland.
And here’s the 1916 Easter Proclamation:
This 1940s wartime era photo prompts a nostalgic moment for me, even if I wasn’t around back then and my soggy sentiments have nothing to do with the picture itself. This is the old Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the marquee features coming sporting attractions, including basketball games featuring Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater) and New York University (my law school alma mater).
Valparaiso posted the pic to its Facebook page in connection with the appearance of the current men’s basketball team in the semifinal round of the National Invitation Tournament, which will be played in the modern Madison Square Garden next week. This year’s squad has set a school record for wins, including three in the NIT. A victory against Brigham Young University on Tuesday will put them in the tourney championship game, to be played later in the week.
The vintage photo shows VU players arriving for their game at the Garden. VU’s war-era team was one of the nation’s best, thanks to its successful recruiting of talented players who were too tall to enter military service. The team traveled all the way from the Hoosier State to play Long Island University, no small journey in the days before jet airliners.
The second marquee game featured NYU hosting Colgate University. NYU was a major college sports presence during the first half of the last century, and its basketball team played in many of the prominent arenas along the east coast. Today NYU is a non-scholarship Division 3 school, with men’s and women’s basketball teams playing very competitively at that level.
We all have our personal narratives, and part of mine involves growing up and going to college in northwest Indiana, discovering something of the world during a final collegiate semester abroad, and then heading off to law school in New York City. To see both Valparaiso and NYU on that marquee, located on the wondrous island of Manhattan, symbolically brings together two educational institutions that have played important roles in my life.
As for Madison Square Garden, when I lived in New York I watched my share of basketball there, mostly Knicks NBA games. It was still possible back then to get cheap tickets (four dollars, then eight dollars) to sit up in the nosebleed seats. But when the Knicks were on top of their game and the Garden was rocking, well, it didn’t matter where you sat, it was quite an event.
After VU’s home court victory over St. Mary’s of California that punched the team’s ticket for the trip east, the public address system played Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” That was my song, too. I hope their Manhattan sojourn turns out as well for them as it did for me.
Thirty-five years ago, I joined a group of fellow Valparaiso University students at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where we would board a TWA flight to London. We were to be the 27th group of VU students to spend a semester at the University’s overseas study centre in Cambridge, England, and the long flight was the first big step of our journey.
We landed in London the next morning and boarded a coach for Cambridge. Later that evening, bleary-eyed but hungry, we would gather for the first of many group dinners, this one featuring American-style pizza at a place called Sweeney Todd’s.
I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.
As I have written here before, despite my penchant for nostalgia, there aren’t many times of my life that I’d actually like to relive. But if I could enter a time machine to relive this one, I’d jump in right away and fasten my seatbelt.
Among study abroad offerings, a semester in England spent largely in the company of fellow American students ranks with the gentlest invitations to get beyond one’s comfort zone. Nevertheless, for a young man born and raised in northwest Indiana and not particularly adventurous by nature, those five months away were life changing and world expanding.
Our academic fare was pretty basic, a cluster of survey-type courses in British history, British drama, European geography, and art appreciation designed largely to introduce us to our new surroundings. Group trips, extended weekends, spring break, and the weeks following the end of the semester allowed for travel and exploration. I did a spring break trip through Scotland and Ireland, as well as a brisk three-week, post-semester jaunt through Western Europe (France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany), traveling alternately with fellow VU students and on my own.
However, I was not a frequent weekend sojourner; I enjoyed the old university city of Cambridge and tended to stay there. When I did travel, London was by far my favorite destination. I felt very much in my element in those two places.
I loved going to movies, plays, bookstores, and lectures in Cambridge. I joined the Cambridge Union Society, a famous debating and cultural activities club run by ambitious University undergraduates, some of whom already had set their sights on election to Parliament! The day I joined, I attended a formal debate on British economic policy. Among the speakers was economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who would become one of my intellectual heroes.
During visits to London, museums and plays were my main focus. Our theatre course required that we write a series of play reviews. It is only fitting, given my parochial outlook, that my first review was of a West End production of “Oklahoma!,” the classic American musical.
Given the personal significance of this experience, one might guess that I had planned to participate in a study abroad program from the time I first stepped on campus. Not so! I signed up mainly because good friends with whom I worked on the campus newspaper were going, and I wanted a change of scenery.
During my interview for admission to the Cambridge semester program, I managed to sling some mildly articulate fertilizer about expanding my intellectual horizons, but truthfully I had no idea what I was talking about. This thin level of cultural depth, matched by a healthy dose of post-adolescent callowness, followed me overseas, where I made most of my plans at the last minute and often tagged along with others who were more informed about what to see and do….
…As in tagged along, went along, or sometimes practically dragged along! On group tours to places like Warwick Castle, York, and Stonehenge, I went because they were on the schedule. During spring break stops in Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, and other parts of Scotland, I went because five of us rented a car and drove north. (My own choices led to questionable decisions, such as heading over to Belfast, Northern Ireland, during a tumultuous and violent time there.)
I was hardly more intentional during my post-semester trip to the European continent. I explored the Left Bank of Paris, hiked in the Swiss Alps, and went on “The Sound of Music” guided bus tour in Salzburg mostly because that’s what my friends wanted to do. (I did take a memorable solo trip to Berlin, with the Wall still intact.)
But it all stuck and left deep impressions. I will give my young self credit for understanding this as the semester went on. I knew that I was very, very fortunate to be having that experience.
Of course, I realize that in waxing nostalgic about my semester abroad, I am something of a cliché. The world is full of American collegians who hopped on a plane bound for Europe and returned with a boatload of breathless stories about visits to “amazing,” “incredible,” and “fascinating” sites that, umm, countless millions of others have seen as well.
But I can’t help it. That semester had a fundamental impact on me, and I cannot imagine what my life would be like had the opportunity passed me by. I know that others in our cohort feel the same way, though perhaps with a bit less intensity.
Which leads me to a final, very important point: I had no idea that I would stay in touch with so many people from this group, yet lifetime friendships emerged from our semester together. In fact, every five years we gather for a group reunion, which typically includes sharing many of the same old stories, accompanied by lots of laughter. We’re now planning our next reunion for this summer.
And so, I plead guilty to being among those who look back at such times with great fondness and gratitude. Amazing, incredible, and fascinating, indeed.
Those who ask me about the potential value of extracurricular activities for college students risk being on the receiving end of a verbal serenade about The Torch. Allow me to explain….
My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University in Indiana, recently announced the creation of an online archive of past issues of The Torch, the school’s long-running weekly student newspaper. As a former Torch department editor and reporter (1979-81), the notice catapulted me into a nostalgic state. I even dug out the bound volume from my first year on the paper, photos of which you may peruse here.
I quickly lapse into soggy memories over The Torch because it was the most important extracurricular activity of my college career. The experience of writing and editing articles for publication has paid professional dividends throughout my career, and many of the friendships formed with fellow staffers have endured to this day.
I joined The Torch in my junior year, and I pored myself into working for it. I wrote dozens of articles and columns, mostly on academic affairs topics within the university. I also assigned stories to reporters in my department and edited their work.
It was a heady experience to write pieces for publication with a byline appended. Many members of the VU community read the paper, as our lively letters-to-the-editor section often reflected. (I learned that if you’re going to put your words out there for public consumption, you’d better have or grow a thick skin.)
Some articles demanded special attention to detail, thoroughness, and accuracy. For example, I wrote an investigative piece in which I was able to elicit admissions from campus administrators that a popular political science professor had been denied tenure on grounds beyond the official criteria for tenure evaluation. This meant many hours interviewing university faculty members and deans; our reporting had to be airtight on such an important matter.
I also did a series of articles covering the aftermath of a tragic student-on-student slaying that had racial overtones. Those pieces thrust me well beyond the comfort zone of reporting everyday campus events and activities. For several weeks I was regularly on the phone with sources from police departments, the county prosecutor’s office, and the local hospital, among others.
The Torch quickly became the social and intellectual hub that I didn’t previously have at Valparaiso. A former Torch colleague once wrote that it became our own college of sorts, where we wrote and edited our articles and debated issues related to academic and campus life. We spent a lot of time simply hanging out at The Torch offices, even when we didn’t have to be there. Looking back, I now realize that it was an exceptional extracurricular experience.
Our little newspaper was not free of sophomoric writings (some penned by yours truly), and at times we took ourselves too earnestly (ditto). But we produced some quality reporting and thoughtful commentary about collegiate life and academic institutions, as evidenced by multiple awards we earned from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association during those years.
The university’s Greek system was a regular focus for us, and we often took to task the behavioral excesses emerging from fraternity events. This was the age of Animal House, and along with toga parties inspired by the movie came some pretty egregious conduct. In retrospect, it’s clear that we were fully warranted in addressing these issues, many of which anticipated today’s concerns about student conduct at fraternity events.
However, we largely dismissed the positive social bonds facilitated by fraternities and sororities. Our office conversations were laced with regular putdowns of Greek organizations, to the dismay of Torch staffers who belonged to them. At a school with a largely conservative student body that embraced the Greek system, our newspaper was a liberal-ish, independent enclave, sometimes fueled by healthy doses of self-righteousness.
As a group of (mostly) liberal arts majors, we closely reported campus deliberations relating to the place of the social sciences, humanities, and general education in the university curriculum. These topics were frequently invoked in editorials and opinion columns as well. The more callow among us were guided by the work of three senior editors with strong intellectual orientations. Many of us were unaware that we were participating in an emerging national debate on the value of instruction in the liberal arts, but this troika was already marking academic trends by reading The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Only a handful of Torch staffers would build careers in journalism. One of them, Jim Hale (author of the “Insights gleaned” column pictured above), is currently a reporter for the Gettysburg Times in Pennsylvania. Previously Jim was a writer for the Gettysburg College communications office and a reporter for the Chesterton Tribune in Indiana.
As for me, I did some part-time reporting for a couple of local newspapers in northwest Indiana, and later I served as an editor of the law school newspaper at New York University. Though I did not pursue a journalism career, The Torch served as an ongoing tutorial on the importance of tight, clear, well organized writing. In terms of aspirations, at least, these qualities have manifested themselves in virtually everything I write: Scholarly articles, essays, reports, op-ed pieces, and, yes, blog posts.
In fact, I know that my affinity for the blogging medium traces back to my days at The Torch. Writing this blog is an engaging pastime for me, like being a newspaper columnist, albeit with a much smaller readership! Writing my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, requires more analytical smarts, but it, too, has roots in my collegiate newspaper experience.
The old chestnut about understanding your present by comprehending your past certainly applies here. I did not have an academic career in mind when I was a collegian. My intention was to go to law school and eventually to start a career in politics. (I also was active in student government and in political campaigns as a college student.) However, as I flipped through the pages of The Torch, I understood how reporting on the ups and downs of academe planted seeds that keep sprouting in my life today.
Equally important, I remain good friends with everyone whose byline appears in these photographs, as well as others who were part of the mix. Our paths cross regularly through periodic get-togethers, e-mails, phone calls, and social media. Many of these friendships have matured and deepened over the years. This only reinforces my belief that something good was happening at that campus newspaper office some 35 years ago.
Portions of this post were adapted from a previous piece on the importance of extracurricular activities, written for Minding the Workplace.