Tuesday, August 24, 2010

College Move-In: Tales from the Windstar

I was all ready for the mandatory pre-fall semester snarky posts, when someone sent me this New York Times article about how schools don't want parents hanging around for days/weeks/months. Fair enough, though I find myself hanging on, and utterly disagreeing, with one point: someone claims it takes several hours to move in a student.

This has most definitely not been my experience.

Shall we start at the beginning, then?

Picture it. 2004. A midwestern town. My mother, who swore her whole life she'd never drive a minivan, and I pack most of my belongings into a Windstar. We then drive eighteen hours east, during which time my mother manages to lose one of her shoes at a rest stop, the impulse-purchase IKEA chair bounces nonstop, and I consume an obscene number of Chicken McNuggets. By the time we arrive at the college we're exhausted, gross, stuffed full of fast food, and one of us is shoeless. A few hours, you say?

But of course that wouldn't be the end of it. My college had dreamed up a little pre-semester bonding for new students that involved 2.5 days of hiking. Which meant that while I geared up for the trek, my mother got to unload the van, set up my room, and try to recover before having to drive the van back. By the time I got back from the trip she was done, but it had taken days. We said our goodbyes and she drove the empty Windstar back for another eighteen hours.

My second year of college, we did manage to move in a couple of hours. But it nearly killed me. I was moving dorms and had a short amount of time to get my stuff out of the old dorm. My boyfriend was with me and he was moving like Speedy Gonzales on steroids, down the stairs, across the street, up the stairs, into the new room with a suitcase on his head and pulling three more behind him. We were tossing bedding down the stairs, carrying shoes in the hamper, dumping the contents of the dresser into garbage bags to carry Santa-style while we sprinted through campus. Then we slept for a few hours, unpacked, and used Icy-Hot for a couple of days. But I felt confident that my third year move-in could go something like that.

Third year would become known as the Year of the Broken Legs. Yes, two broken legs. At once. And of course, I was moving into a fourth-floor walk-up! In a bizarre twist of fate I managed to break my feet while I was at home, so my mother and I got to replicate our first-year drive, only she didn't lose a shoe and I was hopped up on painkillers. I don't think I even have to explain how long move-in took. And I don't remember exactly how most of it got done other than a steady stream of Good Samaritan friends.

Fourth year should have been a breeze after that. Wrong! My schedule was packed to high heaven with meetings and training and planning sessions for extracurricular activities. There was just no time to do anything. My "moving team" and I were just so glad it would be the last time that nothing else really mattered.

And then, of course, I decided to go to grad school. And we got movers.

Anyway, the point is that schools do need to recognize that this process is stressful. People are arriving after driving with a U-Haul trailer all night. People are emotional. People have to wait in line for an hour while trying to purchase towels at Target. People don't have to be "superinvolved" or "Velcro parents" to want more than a couple of hours to get their kid set up for the year. The helicopter parents will always find a way to sneak in through the gate as the rest of the crowd departs in a sea of Windstars.

Author's Note: I never realized how crazy this all was until I wrote it chronologically. I hope some of you have some college move-in horror stories, because now I'm concerned that it's just me...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Theme Vacations: Shamu versus Thomas Jefferson

Apparently as a small child I was borderline obsessed with Shamu and begged to go to SeaWorld for every single family vacation. Some may call that crazy, I prefer "focused on my interests". So it comes as no surprise to me that now, I'm packing in as many history-related trips as possible.

One summer I spent a week in Charlottesville, Va., doing research, and also convincing/coercing my friend into driving all over the state to see Monticello, Ashlawn-Highland, a handful of plantations, and Colonial Williamsburg. I've been known to pull off the road at the sight of a brown marker. So when the opportunity presented itself to visit Philadelphia, it was like the mothership calling me home.

Fortunately my friend was extremely dedicated to showing me every. single. historical thing. We literally raced around from church to grave to Liberty Bell to any historical house still standing. Once we'd exhausted the history of Philadelphia, we drove west, stopping at the Daniel Boone homestead and the Reading Pagoda. We picked up another friend and went to watch the Windham Mountain Ranch Great American Frontier Show, which was entertaining and mildly horrifying. We then proceeded to the Ephrata Cloister before our legs and minds gave out.

This has got me thinking: do other grad students do this, or is this specific to history? Some places preserve more than others, but there is often an abundance of historical sites in a given area. And there are a lot of "history attractions" and Ben Franklin impersonators and places where you can dress up in revolutionary garb and fire a musket or roast a grouse. I like all these things. Architecture students have a lot to work with and some science students must have a never-ending supply of museums. But what are math grad students doing? Do they never take vacations? Or are they the ones who are actually making it to the beach?

Oh, wait. We did do one thing that wasn't historical:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Molly and the Owlettes

Apparently I'm late to this party, but I was recently informed of an OwlCam placed inside an owl nest that will bring round-the-clock owl activities to you. The mother owl, Molly, has three owlettes, and allegedly the father occasionally makes an appearance. The best time to see them active is in the morning, making it perfect for those already pulling all-nighters. Take an owl-break!


Note: the owlettes have not yet reached fluffy-cute-baby-bird stage. My friend who passed this along claims they look like Gonzo; I think that's not fair to Gonzo and they look more like those things from The Dark Crystal. Consider yourself warned!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

College Graduation Rates. Where to Start?

I believe the only beneficial part of Facebook's NewsFeed is that I can steal content my friends find and post it here. And that's what is happening today. Grad school survivor Jack posted this article about Obama's take on graduation rates. As with most things, I reacted with a mixture of excitement and fear.

Where this might go right: If financial aid reform increases access to universities by students who under the current system can't afford to enroll or finish a degree.

Where this might go wrong: If the burden falls onto the schools and professors to graduate out any and all students accepted and enrolled.

"The nation's education system", as the article calls it, does encompass a huge number of programs for preschool-age kiddies all the way to college and post-grad ed. I'm always shocked at the number of people who don't think that secondary and higher education are intertwined. Students gain acceptance to college based on their performance as reported by their secondary educational institution. If students aren't finishing degrees because they don't possess the necessary skills, it isn't enough to overhaul the college system.

Speaking very generally, I think a lot of college educators are tempted (even if they don't actually) to brush deficiencies in high school curricula off as not their problem. But when students enroll in your class, their problems are also your problems. I admit that I'm probably quite out of touch with what junior high and high school classes are like today. I was forced to admit this after learning that students in our classes might have been paddled by teachers. (The first quote in this article is fantastic, by the way, but the rest of it makes me sad.) What the heck else is going on in schools that I don't know about?

The bottom line is that I hope this call to increase graduation rates results in real changes and not quick fixes. Only time will tell. Also, I don't know whether to be concerned or relieved that my degree didn't make this list of college degrees that don't pay...

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It's Baaaaaack

The other day, it came.

The letter which says, "Hellooooo, I am Dean, and school is starting again!".


I'm not so far gone that I can't remember the days of parents opening that letter. From the table you'd hear some exclamation (or expletive), followed by, "Tempera paints, again???". Then it was off to the store to stock up on: purple gym shorts, Crayolas, wide-ruled lined paper, 8 different colored folders, protractors, compasses, safety scissors, oil cloth, glue you can't sniff and die, smock, mandatory box of Kleenex as a donation to the classroom, 200-pencil pack and Lisa Frank erasers that look like Unicorns.

Nowadays "school supplies" are pretty limited to a 200-red pen pack and maybe some Excedrin. It's less about the stuff and more about the mental preparation. That's why we get the letter way ahead of time, so we can emotionally and intellectually buck up.

For this:

And this:

There's also going to be this:

We're back to school in three weeks!