John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

This is the Best Time of Year

John N. Gardner

This is the best time of year to gin up your empathy quotient and recall your own beginning college experience. I am suggesting this because of the natural coincidence with the annual rite of passage that is soon upon us of first-year college students arriving at our institutions. If you have any direct contact with these students, or supervise people who do, I think this is an ideal time to use your capacity for empathy to insure that these new students are getting the best treatment possible.

When I started my own career as a college student, or 6 years later as a beginning academic, first-year students were not the objects of institutional focus they are today. We have come a long way. And, as the creator of the so-called “first-year experience” concept in higher education, I have played a role in that improved treatment. My own empathy for the needs of entering college students was definitely shaped by my own experiences beginning college. I am aware of those experiences at all times of the year. They are a major part of who I am, because they were all about who I was, and thankfully was able to overcome and to become.

My father drove me 600 miles from my home in Connecticut to my new home at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. He didn’t drop me off immediately and actually stayed a day and a half or so and two nights. I can remember him driving off and my waving him goodbye. I was not a happy camper and would have liked to have been in the car with him. Anticipatory homesickness (that’s a new concept and phrase which I have just coined) had become actual homesickness.

My father had wanted me to go to another college, his alma mater, Dartmouth; and he had told me that if Dartmouth didn’t work out, that Williams College would be an acceptable substitute. So, as a counter-dependent adolescent I didn’t apply to either! I was lucky he would even send me to college at all. But he really couldn’t conceive of any alternative for me. I could and had. Landscape gardening had been my calling. As a teenager I had six other teenage boys working for me on a landscaping, yard-work, crew. I was the entrepreneur who went out and got the jobs, schmoozed the customers, and supervised my friends, while working with them too. And I thought I would like to do this for the rest of my life. It was very gratifying and enjoyable work. I could see the fruits of my labor at the end of each day. I could work outdoors in the beautiful New England upper class suburbs outside New York City. The money was amazingly good for a 17 year old high school kid. And I would have been able to stay home with the girl with whom I was “going steady.”

But my father crafted a skillful intervention, a deal I couldn’t refuse. The older I get, the smarter he gets. The deal was I go to college, any college, for a year and “try college.” If I didn’t like it, fine, I could quit. But if I tried it then he would get off my back and we would both move on. He was, of course, hoping that college experience would “take” and I would not quit.

So if I went, bound and determined to make this a one-year tour. My father asked me to do two things for him: 1) join a fraternity (like he had and thought was one of the best things he ever did); and 2) go out for the crew team. He had been a very successful varsity athlete, lettering in 3 sports—football, basketball and track—and setting a New Jersey record for the 440. This was a heavy legacy. I had never participated in any sports. Had disdain for them in fact. He thought crew would be the perfect fit because it was outdoors, non body contact, and my serious nearsightedness would not be a hindrance.

So I gave him 50% of what he asked for. I went out for the crew team and made a junior varsity team. Crew became one of the most powerful experiences I had in college. But that’s another story.

I declined to join a fraternity. When I saw the “brothers” providing fellow “frosh” like me with huge amounts of beer it was a turn off for me. I aspired never to consume alcohol. But what finally did it for me was when I was invited to participate in an annual rite of passage the brothers offered new-to-college kids like me, the chance of a lifetime to loose my virginity—an all expenses paid trip to one of the whorehouses up the Ohio River in wide open Wheeling, West Virginia. This was in 1961, before the Bobby Kennedy Justice Department came in and cleaned up the historic vice of the river towns in the Ohio River Valley. I was repelled by the idea that an introduction to brotherhood would include an introduction to prostitution and concluded that such groups were not worthy of me. So I never became a frat boy, until I was a professor at the University of South Carolina when I became a faculty advisor to one of the fraternities that had rushed me at Marietta College!

My father gave me three pieces of advice as he left me standing out in front of my “dorm” that warm late summer day in September of 1961:

  1. “Don’t smoke funny looking cigarettes”
  2. “Don’t gamble your allowance away in card games”
  3. “Use condoms”

So much for parental guidance…

I remember seeing at many of the freshman orientation events a guy who was a so-called “proctor.” This was not a urological term. This was the Marietta College jargon for what today would be called an RA. This guy was about six feet three, and very handsome—suave and debonair. He was so cool looking and dressing. Nothing seemed to phase or rile him. I noticed all the freshman girls who couldn’t take their eyes off of him. And I wanted to grow up at college and be just as cool as he was. In retrospect, although I have been a high achiever, I never achieved that.

During the first week of the term, the freshmen, including me, were hazed. We had to wear “the freshman beanie.” One of my few regrets now about college was that I destroyed that beanie after the end of what was called “rat week”—we freshmen were the new rats. Just think what I could have sold that for. I actually set mine on fire.  We could be stopped at any time during that week by upperclass students and interrogated. If we could not provide the correct answers we would be given a “summons” to appear at Kangeroo Court at the end of the week. That was the culminating event of Rat Week. Punishments were meted out in the form of publicly humiliating acts of contrition to be performed there on the spot to the jeers of the upperclass men and women.

I remember going to the “freshman picnic” and feeling so alone, not talking to a soul. This has to sound really pathetic. And it was. I was. It seemed to me that all the other students were having such a good time. And all I could think of was how much I missed my girlfriend back home.

I met with my academic advisor and he allowed me to make a number of mistakes in course selection. Instead of having me stick with subjects where I had some proven track record of strength, he allowed me to undertake a number of new areas—like Russian instead of French or Latin in which I had excelled in high school. I failed Russian. And instead of continuing with biology or chemistry in which I also had demonstrated competency in high school, I took Geology. And Geology took me. I failed it. Could just not memorize those damn rocks. Had to know 400 of them and I could never devise a mental scheme to make them interesting enough to differentiate one from the others. This same academic advisor some 6-8 weeks later at mid terms, when looking at my midterm grades, pronounced that “Gardner, you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised!” That prompted me to make one of the smartest moves of my college career: I got a new academic advisor. And my former advisor, what became of him? He became a college president in Texas (no kidding).

And these are just a few of my recollections. They have informed much of my thinking about: how to engage families in orientation; what to tell parents about effective communication strategies with their family members; the need for strategies to offset homesickness; the need for extended orientation and first-year seminars; the need for high quality academic advising, especially for undecided students like I was; the need to end all forms of institutional hazing; and much more.

Empathy is still the most important basis for my work. Most college students who end up becoming successful adults, build a life on their strengths. I built mine on my first-year college weaknesses! What is your empathy reminding you of as you think about the needs of this year’s incoming students?

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