Here I sit, in the middle of a busy student union in the pre-eight a.m. hour, watching the campus slowly shake itself awake. Students are starting to trickle through the common areas, which have been buzzing with activity, anticipating them. The Starbucks line is still mercifully short, and most of the other food stations are still closed. I can hear the clanging sounds of meal preparation in the background and the thump of janitorial carts as they break up the blare of television that seems inescapable in this building. It wasn’t always like this. It was always busy, but never this fancy, and there was music instead of the incessant drone of morning tv. It’s too early for the staff members to be taking breaks, and too early for most of the students to be anywhere on campus but in class, if they’re unfortunate enough to have one scheduled at this hour. A crew of warmly dressed men takes up two tables, eating what appear to be their lunches out of foil and drinking brightly colored sports drinks. They talk and laugh loudly in Spanish.
I used to work here. For seven years this was my place of employment, this bustling, world class university. I was a drone. I wasn’t doing research, or earning a PhD, or changing the world. I was earning a paycheck, day in and day out. I worked primarily with other staff members, but I also dealt with faculty and students, and I enjoyed those interactions. I especially enjoyed the campus atmosphere. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s worlds away from a corporate atmosphere, with a lot of creativity and flexibility, but the budget was always an issue. Still, the work environment was usually pleasant and the benefits made the low salary somewhat acceptable.
Now I’m here as a visitor. I’ve had opportunities over the last few years to come back and participate in various projects and programs. Today is one such opportunity. My daily schedule dictated that I drop my son off at school at a certain hour, so I ended up on campus quite a bit before our scheduled meeting time. I figured I would put that found time to good use by coming over to the student union. It takes me back. I have eaten lunch here hundreds of times over the years. I’ve also done a lot of people watching. The people today are much the same as they were a decade ago. Styles change, and the students are far more worldly and tech savvy than they were ten years ago, but they are fundamentally the same.
I found the same phenomenon when I attended my college reunion last month. It had been 25 years since I spent any time at my alma mater, but I felt as though I never left. Granted there were several new buildings, and some of the old asphalt paths had been replaced by lovely brick roads, and there seemed to be new carpeting everywhere, but otherwise it was the same. In those day, instead of an ipod in my ears, I had a walkman in my pocket, but really, everything else seemed the same. I know that universities are on the cutting edge of change, and that many of those students were pursuing fields of study that hadn’t been imagined when I was an undergraduate, but in many ways universities are like time capsules.
Universities will always draw young people who don’t really know what they’re supposed to do next in their lives. Young people who have been programmed to accept that the automatic next step after high school is college. They will also draw those who have walked across fire to get there. Young people with passion and desire to learn and fuel their futures. And of course, don’t forget the not so young. The people with more age, wisdom, and experience who are hoping to expand their minds and their worlds through higher education. All of these students keep the universities running, so the business of research can continue and our world can keep evolving.
I’m proud to be affiliated with this university, and with the two universities from which I hold degrees. You don’t have to be a university student to benefit from the contributions of a university environment, but you may find yourself on the cutting edge of something great if you are. I hope I can help my son understand this as he moves through high school. I hope he is one of those engaged students bent on changing the world, and not one who is there to punch his ticket before moving on to the next life achievement checkpoint. I hope he sees what a wonderful opportunity he has in education. I hope he succeeds and is happy in whatever field he chooses. So many hopes. Do you think it’s selfish to have so many? It may be, but I offer no apology, I want him to learn from my shortcomings and make the most of his opportunities. Soon I’ll be looking at the university experience through a different lens, from that of a university parent. One who pays tuition. Gulp. One step at a time, though. For now I think I’ll head over to my meeting, and see if I can help change the world.