Friday, September 25, 2009

“I am not a number, I am a free man…”

I read in the sports section today an article about Jon Richt, son of Mark Richt, storied coach of the hated University of Georgia Bulldogs football team. According to the article, after completing his freshmen year at Clemson Jon transferred to a small Div1AA college, Mars Hill College in Western North Carolina, where he now starts as quarterback. As I read the piece, I recalled reading an article last year about him and his dad’s trip up to Clemson where Jon had been recruited to play football. Jon’s stated reasons for wanting to make such a move were attributed to what he says were self discovery and realization, mostly that he just felt that the big school environment and lifestyle was just not to his fitting. Some will say that he just chickened out when faced with the monster that is a Div 1A football program, but having been down that road myself, I don’t think so. I’d say 19 year old Jon Richt seems to have the maturity and knowledge of himself that I lacked at that age.

Perhaps my folks knew what I didn’t, but let me figure it out on my own anyway. After getting my feet wet and doing pretty well with the whole college thing, I couldn’t wait to transfer to a big university. I had visited a few friends who were attending colleges of various sizes and simply figured that as far class went, they were all the same and no different than what I was experiencing at the community college level. My time at the University of Maryland certainly changed my mind in a hurry.

I’m sure there were many who did their best to brace me for the change, certainly my folks, but I must have closed my ears to it all. I was used to attending classes in which discussion was par for the course and integral part of every session, dialog that was encouraged by virtually all my professors at the community college level no matter what subject. Those who know me are familiar with my zeal for conversation (i.e. I talk a LOT), but at that point without any other point of reference I just thought that this was how it worked everywhere. I always sensed that my instructors used conversational engagement as a tool to simply keep us students awake during class.

At Maryland I was thrown for a loop. Gone was ANY dialog with ANY of my professors unless I wanted to make an office appointment to see them (impossible since grad students chewed up most of their published office hours). Impossible since lectures were in classrooms with hundreds of other students. No, section meetings with auxiliary grad students was what was supposed to replaced the interaction I must have taken for granted at my community college. Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of grad assistants who took a real interest in the teaching aspect of their duties (History and English specifically since teachers are what these folks were more than likely going to be doing for a living), but it was easy to see that most were doing the job as a way to pay their tuition and simply dialed it in. Despite all this, thousands of kids get their undergrad degree in this environment. They adapt and by reading and teaching themselves the subject matter they succeed.

Following my exit from that behemoth institution, I finished my degree at a small liberal arts school about twenty minutes North of Manhattan. Campus life wasn’t really any different than Maryland (girls, beer, music, sports, etc…), but I was back in classrooms where I was able to converse with the teachers and my grades reflected the change for the better. That’s just the way I learn: I talk it out (much to the dismay of some of my classmates on occasion). I LOVED debating my journalism professors openly in class (especially when they’d spout partisan invective which they did a lot). I’m pretty sure they enjoyed it too given the number of disinterested floaters who shared the classroom pretending to be students. Perhaps some would rather listen and take notes, me I’ll take engagement any day of the week.

I look back on my short tenure at a big university and remember the better of those times, televised football and basketball games, thousands visiting the campus for these events and other things, but from a student perspective I also remember feeling like a number too. It took a year and a decent amount of my dad’s hard earned capital to discover this reality and what worked best for me.

I hope my kid is as smart as Jon Richt was and makes a decision on where to attend school based on what works best for her (cough, cough West Point, cough, cough). Given that a degree will probably cost as much as a mortgage on a moderately sized home, she may not have the luxury self discovery like I did.


At 10:45 PM, September 26, 2009, Blogger Nelly said...

I'm not sure when you went to UMD, but I'm there now and I both agree with you and disagree with you about your assessment of big-campus life. As a freshman, I think you're spot on. Most of my freshman classes were big lectures with little to no discussion (luckily I had AP credits so I could skip some of them), however I was also in the Business school where class sizes were smaller for some of my classes (usually my fav classes). Part of me feel that depends on you major and what year you are in. If your a political science major -you will have large classes since so many people are in your major, however for the business school the numbers are smaller. Also if your class sizes get smaller as you move from year to year. Most of my mandatory core classes are big lecture but my major specific classes are not. However a big school has so many more opportunities and so many resources. I feel that during your first year at a big college, you have to find yourself because you are somewhat of a number but it also gives you so many avenues to do that. I just know that I go around every day saying how happy I am that I chose UMD over my other options.


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