A quarter-century after college

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, May 13, 2020, 3:00 PM | comments: 0

I graduated from Ashland University 25 years ago today. Yikes. Of all the things that one can count in years, this one for some reason stings a lot. I've been thinking a lot about the general usefulness of college and how it relates to our culture and society, but that's probably a different post. What I want to capture here is what that experience meant to me.

It took a lot of years for me to realize that I spent a third of college depressed. I suspect that had a lot to do with my expectations about what college would do for me. I realized after high school that I hated that experience because I just didn't know where I fit in to the world. I thought college would change that. My freshman year, I definitely identified with a few people, but didn't really develop any deep friendships. My sophomore year that improved a bit, but even in the groups I was most connected to, particularly radio/TV and residence life, I wasn't sure what I was doing there. As time went on, I realized that a huge part of this was just the fact that the campus was a ghost town on the weekends. The number of people who went home was staggering. I did the 10 to 2 radio shift on Saturday nights because there wasn't anything socially going on anyway. Being lonely was a symptom of staying on campus. My junior year, something changed. I developed a strong friendship with a woman who would be my roommate the next year, I learned another friend was a compulsive liar, I had a series of interesting romantic encounters, and I came to realize that college was far too temporary to worry about where I fit. I was there for the outcome of getting a degree. By the time my senior year started, I looked at life from the angle of understanding where the world fit in to my life, instead of where I fit into the world. There's a freedom that comes from that change in perspective, because changing the world is a lot harder than changing you.

I had a bunch of missed romantic opportunities that I really kick myself for. The first one happened before the start of my sophomore year, during RA training. I met someone who was very interested in a long-term and very physical relationship, and I had no experience in what to do with that. All I really had to do was respond with "count me in" and I didn't do that, so it ended as quickly as it started. Over the next two years I had a bunch of false starts like that, or worse, year-end things that were obviously poorly timed. I started my senior year with the intention of being a dating machine, but met my first wife instead, and we had many adventures that year. I didn't really learn about dating until after we split a decade later.

Academically, I was mostly bored with school. I had most of my radio/TV courses done inside the first two and a half years, and then realized I could double major in journalism by adding two or three more classes over the minor requirement, so I did that. Having to take French was torture, and some of the other liberal arts check boxes like psychology and philosophy were brutally boring. I D-ed my way through many of those. Even some of the major classes I did the minimum and got C's. Surprisingly, I did better in the various literature and composition classes, probably with a B average, even though they came in the last few semesters, when I was really, really ready to be done with school. I also aced notoriously "hard" things like broadcast law, for reasons I don't entirely understand. As a grownup with a child who has ADHD, I think it's possible that I might have it too, now that I know what to look for, as it would explain a lot of my lack of productivity and focus.

When it was all said and done, I think I had a 2.7-ish GPA, which literally no one has ever asked me about in 25 years. And despite my mediocre grades, I did finish a double major. When I view the academic experience now, I sometimes contemplate the value of it. Most of the hands-on practical stuff from radio/TV is of little to no value now. It's not just because the technology changed, it's because most of it could have been easily learned on the job. My first commercial radio job came with the instruction to "forget what you think you know." The liberal arts courses were naturally all intro courses that amounted more to trivia recitation than anything else. The exception was the general physical science course, which taught the scientific method and the process of building experiments. All of the writing courses were extremely valuable, and as much as I didn't like them at the time, the literature courses were helpful because they forced you to think analytically about completely subjective art.

Was college for job training, or the often stated goal of teaching people to learn, be curious and engage in critical thinking? I have to answer that question to really figure out what the value of college was. The practical stuff in the broadcast program was not useful. On the radio side, I learned what I needed on the job, and on the TV side, I learned most of what I needed to know working part-time in high school and then on the job. I wish the broadcast curriculum would have been more purely academic, with more writing, more law and ethics, etc. Giving grades for the ability to thread 1/4" audio tape machines was a waste of time and money. Instructors who fancied themselves as station managers, instead of deferring that to students, wasn't great either.

Much of what I did learn happened between classes and in the dorms, and living on campus was essential to that. It would have been better if people were actually around on the weekend, but learning to live with others, and being an RA two years was valuable. Learning about the right and wrong ways to interact with instructors and administrators I didn't agree with (mostly the wrong way) was valuable. Included therapy sure was nice too.

Ultimately, I don't think the point of undergraduate college should be job training. There are trade schools, apprenticeships and other means to do that, and they're far less expensive. College should be about setting you up for a lifetime of learning and exercising your curiosity, teaching you how to think critically and move forward through the world. Most fields of expertise evolve and change, and college can't predict that. In my case I wholly changed careers, and while I still see value in learning about ethics and intellectual property law as subjects that require critical thinking, teaching me to vocally punch call letters was silly. I graduated with about $40k in student loans (2019 dollars) with an interest rate of 8%. (Interesting note about that... average undergrad left school with $30k of debt and rates of 4.5% in 2018, which makes me wonder how this became a "crisis.")

With all of that in mind, I think for me the value of college could be graded about the same as my grades, with a solid C+. I'm glad that I had the experience, and grateful for the virtual friendships that have endured from that brief period in my life. I don't regret any of it, but I sure would have been more thoughtful about what I expected to get out of school if I did it over again, and definitely would not have gone to a private school.

I still can't believe that it's been 25 years.

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