Can you remember? Can you remember the day you arrived at college—how the campus looked to you then, your room, your roommates, the excitement? How did you imagine “the best years of your life,” as people often call them? What was that mixture of delight and fear, joy at independence on the one hand, and dread of being on your own on the other? Can you imagine it now?
I can’t, at least not very well, not after all these years. It’s been a long time since I was in college, or taught full time, for that matter. This is why Susan has been so important in my life.
I had been out of the classroom for some years when I took a job at a small foundation committed to strengthening liberal education. All of a sudden, I had to ask, “Are there points of intervention where the infusion of ideas, know-how, or relatively small amounts of money can really make a difference?” Like most academics, I had plenty of bright ideas and inspired hunches about how to make things better, but how did I know whether they met the needs of today’s students. I needed help and there it was right next to me.
The Day We Met I met Susan in a café one afternoon, as I was surfing the web on my not-so-shiny, but still reliable laptop, looking for statistics about student learning. I thought that if I got enough statistical material, I could bring back to mind what it was like to be a first-year student. She was sitting right next to me, sipping some chilled concoction through a straw. I asked her what it was.
Susan: “Mocha Frappuccino. What are you drinking?”
I had an ordinary decaf with skim milk. I wanted to lie, but had to tell her the truth because I didn’t know the names of any trendy coffee drinks. And quite honestly, even if I did, I wasn’t sure I could pronounce them!
She turned away—my boring drink said it all, I thought, but I figured it was worth a try to keep the conversation going.
“Where are you from?” was the best thing I could think of to ask.
She replied with enthusiasm, “Edgar Spring!”
I never heard of the place. “Where is Edgar Springs?”
“About 50 miles west of Springfield.”
“Massachusetts or Illinois?”
“Missouri, where else? The real Springfield.”
She leaned over and Googled “Edgar Springs” on my machine. There it was on a map half-covered in green and Route 63 going right through it. This place was smack in the middle of Missouri. Edgar Springs’ Wikipedia entry was right on top, so naturally I clicked on that link first. My eyes zeroed in on the figure “190.” Only 190 souls lived in this town according to the 2000 census. Surely there were more people living there now?
I turned to Susan and asked, “So…what’s Edgar Springs’ claim to fame?”
“It is the population center of the country. The center is right in my backyard, but it keeps moving slowly southwest.” She chuckled, “Sooner or later, we’ll have to move to keep up with it.”
Silence. I couldn’t think of anything good to say. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “population center of the country.”
I figured that was the end of our conversation, but a minute or two later she asked, “So what is it you’re looking for?”
I explained that I was interested in the experience of the typical American college student and was looking at survey and other data to help figure that out. It worked. Next thing I know, we were in a real conversation, interrupted only by a few text messages and a considerable amount of typing on a little gadget she carried with her.
It’s true that my project didn’t seem to excite her interest all that much. Instead she chatted on for a while, telling me that since Edgar Springs was so small that she had to go to Rolla High School 15 miles away. Rolla was a “pretty typical American high school” she said, and she had graduated right in the middle of her class last year.
I asked how many of Rolla’s graduates went on to a four-year college.
She said, “I dunno. Maybe about half?”
“So, were you one of the lucky 50%?”
“Yup, I’m now one of the Lion’s Pride!”
“The Lion’s Pride?”
She looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “You study higher education and you have never heard of the famous Lions of Southeast Missouri State? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I had to admit that these particular Lions were foreign to me, but that didn’t stop us from talking about how she chose to go to Southeast Missouri State. I’ll tell you about that—and much, much more—in the next installment of Susan Goes to College.