Twenty years ago this week, I started my undergraduate program. At the time, I would’ve just called it college. In a word, I’d say my college experience was detached. I’m not certain anything that could be called a typical college experience exists any longer. I know mine wasn’t typical.
I enrolled reluctantly. All through high school, I had vowed I wouldn’t go to college. I had all sorts of impractical ideas about what to do instead. None were anything close to tangible by the time graduation arrived. I ended up enrolling, largely because I was in a band and had a girlfriend. These were anchors that kept me from doing something like hitchhiking around the country or joining the Peace Corps. Also, college was going to be free thanks to a grant and a scholarship. This made me feel an obligation to go.
My choice of school was based on its proximity to my parent’s home. I knew I wanted to commute, partly to cut costs, but also because I figured I’d hate living in a dorm. I tried to skip orientation because I assumed campus life would be irrelevant for me. Wow, did I resent having to actually attend orientation. It convinced me I wanted to stay far away from campus.
I had no idea what I would study. I entered undeclared. My plan (if one could call it a plan) was to take classes until I had enough credits to apply for a supervisory position with the agency that employed me part time. At no point during my first or even during most of my second year did I think, “Hey, I’ll become a teacher.” I wasn’t even taking the idea of finishing seriously.
I didn’t really go to college. I took classes during the day. I drove from home every day, took my classes, and then went to my part time job. I spent little time on campus. I met few people. To my annoyance, I had to linger around campus on days when I had large gaps between my classes. Some days I passed this time sleeping in my car rather than engaging anything or anyone. It was a lonely time, by my design.
The detached feeling lasted throughout my time in college. I only continued attending because classes continued to be free (or at least cheap). I thought I should take advantage of that. Eventually, I reached a crossroads at which I had to select a major. This seemed like a juncture at which I could quit, but I figured I had invested enough time that I might as well finish. My choice of education as a major reflected my desire to pick something marketable that would validate the time I’d spent. I ended up strongly disliking my coursework. I wandered through the program, but felt tempted to quit even as I approached graduation. I didn’t bother attending the ceremony, choosing to work that day instead.
I guess my poor attitude shaped my experience. At no point was I working towards something I felt driven to do. If I exerted an effort, it was because the free money I received made me feel obligated to try. My parents were never particularly interested. I slept in their house during college, but I didn’t see them often. They were distracted with their lives and paid little mind to mine. Throughout my experience, college remained this intrusive chore I dealt with during the day.
This attitude continued in my Master’s program. I resented having to do it. I only went through with it because of the state requirement for certification (and the pay bump). Going to school while working full time wore at my patience. Sometime midway through the program, I began calculating the most minimal amount of work I needed to do to maintain a high enough GPA to get the degree and certification.
What I see now is lots of students have detached experiences like mine. I think these experiences result in part from the proliferation of online course, satellite campuses, and non-traditional graduation paths. With decentralized experiences, I wonder how connected students feel and how this affects the value they get from their education. They might feel their education is a service for which they’re paying rather than an opportunity to be part of a school community. What will this mean for those seeking professional licensure of some kind?
I might be overthinking the matter. My lousy attitude didn’t stop me. Maybe their detachment won’t be a problem for them. Twenty years from now, they might be just fine (or in debt with nothing to show for their educational odyssey).