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.
If you’re wondering whether we’re still in a Golden Age of television drama, then look no further than “The Americans” on FX. The show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-planted Soviet spies, fronting as parents of an All-American family living outside of Washington D.C. during the early 1980s.
During its first three years, I’ve regarded it as an excellent drama, though perhaps a step below iconic classics such as “The Wire.” In the current season four, however, “The Americans” has moved to the next level. It is delivering other-worldly acting, morally complex storylines, and the look-and-feel of 1980s America and the last decade of the Cold War. It is riveting entertainment.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re a regular viewer but haven’t caught the recent episodes, you might want to come back to this later!)
In the last episode, many of the major characters find themselves gathered around their television screens, watching the November 1983 airing of “The Day After,” an ABC made-for-TV movie depicting the devastating effects of a Russian nuclear attack on America, centering on the small city of Lawrence, Kansas. Here’s how reviewer Hank Stuever described the episode for the Washington Post:
On “The Americans,” the characters all watch in stunned silence, including secret Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and their friendly next-door FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his son, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty). Even the Russians who work at the Rezidentura in Washington tune in – Oleg Burov and Tatiana Ruslanova (Costa Ronin and Vera Cherny) watched it curled up on the bed.
In real life, watching “The Day After” was a very similar experience. The Post‘s Stuever writes:
As seen on . . . “The Americans,” people really did set everything aside on the night of Sunday, Nov. 20, 1983, to watch ABC’s depressingly sober TV movie “The Day After.” It told the story of a handful of people in and around Lawrence, Kan., who had the misfortune of surviving an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Please understand: This was a television event in a way that we’ll probably never see again. You see, when it comes to watching stuff on screens, we’ve become increasingly atomized (pun intended). A century ago, a theater would bring together hundreds of people to watch movies and newsreels. Fifty years ago, folks watched programs with family and friends in front of television sets. Today, we often watch TV programs and movies in different rooms of the house or stream them on our various devices.
Americans viewed “The Day After” huddled together in front of our television sets. I was in my second year of law school at NYU, and a big group of us gathered to watch it in one of our dorm rooms. Today, with so many actual horrors captured on video and posted to social media, it may be difficult to grasp that this fictional movie was jarring and upsetting to many. But such was the case. We talked about it for days.
The threat of nuclear annihilation was very real during this final decade of the Cold War. That same academic year, I was on the staff of NYU’s international law journal, one of several student-edited law reviews published at the law school. A few weeks before the airing of “The Day After,” our journal hosted a panel discussion on nuclear arms control, moderated by McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor to President Kennedy) and featuring a prominent group of diplomatic and military policy experts.
The subject matter of the panel extended way beyond mere academic speculation, and I recall a tone of seriousness in the dialogue among the speakers. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game around the world. “The Day After” would show us what that meant with more dramatic effect. This episode of “The Americans” brilliantly brought back those memories.
A personal note: At NYU Law, I volunteered to help out with that nuclear arms program. By doing so, I got to join the pre-panel dinner with the speakers in the faculty dining room. I mostly kept my mouth shut out of fear of saying something stupid. Nevertheless, I was thrilled — I was sharing a meal with some heavy hitters — this was cool stuff for me!
In return for this perk, however, I was handed a lot of grunt work by the senior editors, for our main post-panel task was to transcribe and edit the proceedings for publication. I was assigned to proofread the transcript and to generate dozens of footnotes documenting facts and events described by the panelists, a hefty pre-Internet research project that ate up countless hours in the dungeon level of the law library.
Working on this journal was my introduction to graduate-level scholarly work. I can’t say that the experience of developing footnotes from scratch to verify the accuracy of the panelists’ remarks was all that enjoyable! In fact, it persuaded me to pass up an opportunity to serve as a senior editor during my third and final year of law school. I didn’t want to spend my last year at NYU editing more manuscripts and chasing down more sources in the library.
Now, of course, I’m writing hundreds of footnotes for my own scholarly articles. What a twist! Let’s just say that this was not a foreseeable development during my more anti-authoritarian law school days.
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.
As President of Goucher College in Maryland, Sanford Ungar spearheaded internationalization initiatives that included requiring every undergraduate to enroll in a study abroad program. The school backed up those efforts with travel stipends to make such participation more affordable. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Ungar offers a thoughtful essay positing that a major expansion of study abroad enrollments will help to create a more informed and worldly American citizenry:
In the Internet age, the world feels far smaller than it used to. But many Americans still know little about the rest of the world and may be more detached from it than ever.
. . . One symptom of Americans’ new isolation is a sharp contrast between the positive, even zealous views they hold of the United States and its role in the world and the anti-Americanism and negative perceptions of U.S. foreign policy that flourish almost everywhere else. This gap persists in part because relatively few Americans look beyond, or step outside, their own borders for a reality check.
. . . Luckily, there exists a disarmingly simple way to help address this problem and to produce future generations of Americans who will know more and care more about the rest of the world: massively increase the number of U.S. college and university students who go abroad for some part of their education and bring home essential knowledge and new perspectives.
Of course this is music to my ears. As I have written several times on this blog (most recently here), my own undergraduate semester abroad in England was transformative. I cannot imagine my life today without that experience as part of it.
Study abroad is not the only way to see the world and become a more globally informed individual. Military and volunteer service, jobs with international travel components (e.g., working for an airline), and extended trips abroad can all be world expanding experiences.
On this note I turn to travel writer, educator, and entrepreneur Rick Steves, who long has touted European travel on a middle-range budget and strongly believes in the transformative power of international travel. Here’s a snippet from his statement describing his global travel philosophy:
Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character.
“Travel changes people.” Indeed.
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.