There was a time, believe it or not, when I was a bright young man with potential.
Like 20 years ago this month, when I graduated college.
Or (gack) 25 years ago around this time, when I was a high-achieving high school junior (good grades, high SAT scores, extracurriculars, clean rap sheet, you name it) trying to decide where to spend the next four years.
I don’t remember actively soliciting much college mail … but I remember getting lots of viewbooks and letters, which I stored in my room in a paper grocery bag. For a lad of generally modest demeanor, it was an ego stroke to look at the bag and feel sought-after.
Back to the present, anyway. Today was something called #CollegeSigningDay, presumably a day for high-schoolers across the nation to commit to colleges. (You might have seen our president and first lady sporting the gear of their alma maters.)
It brought me back a quarter-century to my own college search, which was rather haphazardly conducted given the magnitude of the decision.
Much of it centered around a big computer in the high-school guidance office that would, with a little coaxing, spit out a sheet of paper listing all the colleges on the East Coast with journalism programs.
From there … well, sometimes I look back, and I think I fell out of a tree and landed on my feet … and sometimes I think I just fell out of a tree.
Just to empty out the memory banks, here’s a list of the major players in my college search, and what happened to them:
Syracuse University – A well-regarded journalism school was maybe 90 minutes down the Thruway from my house. But I was dead set on getting not just out of Rochester, but completely out of New York state. So, I had no use for the ‘Cuse.
(Ironically, given my destination to ditch New York, I ended up at the destination college for hundreds of Long Islanders. But more about that later.)
Cornell University – I also could have attended an Ivy League school within two hours of home; I’m confident I had the grades to get in. I would have worked a lot harder than I did at my chosen school, and probably felt more accomplished. But, anything New York was out. Also, a bunch of kids from my high school class chose Cornell; and while I liked them all pretty well, I wanted to see different people.
University of Pittsburgh – Now, this was stupid. My dad took me to visit Pitt and I dug the look and feel of the place. (I still remember that we stopped for lunch in the student union and they were playing Funkadelic on the PA system. I was impressed.)
And then, on our way out of the student union, my dad and I ran into a kid who was two years ahead of me in high school … and that screwed the whole deal; the entire campus fell under a dark cloud of Hometown Stink.
If the kid in question had stayed two more minutes after class to talk to the teacher, I might be a Pitt alumnus today. As it was, I didn’t even apply.
Just about the only positive of this decision was that it kept me out of Pennsylvania for 20 more years. Three cheers for that much, anyway.
Duquesne University – We were in Pittsburgh; we decided to tour two campuses for the price of one. (Maybe the computer told me Duquesne had a J-school.)
Hit the campus; saw a big statue of Jesus; turned tail and headed home. It was damn near as quick as that.
Carnegie Mellon University – Engineering college with a journalism school on the side. I have no memory of visiting while in Pittsburgh, but made it one of my backup schools on a whim. They admitted me. I did not accept.
Lehigh University – Another engineering college with a small pocket of word-nerds. I made a campus visit here too. I was a Deadhead then — long hair and sandals — and every single young man I saw was dressed like a J. Crew catalog. “I’m not gonna fit in here,” I said, and crossed Lehigh off the list. Didn’t occur to me until later that I toured campus in the morning, when all my kindred spirits were probably sleeping off the previous night.
University of Alaska-Anchorage – Nestled in my college bag was a note from the University of Alaska-Anchorage, which tried to seduce students from the lower 48 by offering them in-state tuition rates if they held a B average.
I thought about the offer for about 30 seconds and rejected it. I’ve probably thought about it for 30 hours in the years since.
I wouldn’t have gotten a great education there, I’m pretty sure, and I don’t regret not going. But I think sometimes that maybe I should have chucked it all in, given in to the spirit of adventure (I was not much for adventure in those days, to my detriment) and bought myself a parka and an airline ticket. There would have been stories, anyway.
University of Connecticut – Skipped a chance to tour it on the way home from somewhere else. Knew nothing about it. Decided to make it my safety school anyway, based entirely on the fact that I had family ties to a different region of the state (you might have read about them.) They accepted me too but I didn’t go there either.
Boston University – My mom went there and suggested I check it out. It had (and has) a good J-school and it’s in the middle of a delightful city, plus she went there so I’d be a legacy, though I didn’t really need that to get in. And it wasn’t in New York, even if it occasionally seemed like an exclave of the Tri-State Region.
I fell in love with the city, and to enough extent, with the school as well. In September 1991, off I went; in May 1995, I took two diplomas off the table and checked out for the Big Room.
In between, I spent a semester in Australia, basically lived at the student paper for a while, did some professional journalism stringing, rode the T, got engaged, drank some beer, pissed in an alley, played some racquetball, and did a bunch of other stuff.
(A few of my HS classmates ended up there too; two of them went into student government, and I covered them for the student newspaper. Somehow this did not deeply offend my soul’s quest for interstate exile.)
In retrospect, it does not seem like I worked very hard. Both of my degrees had Latin on them, and I couldn’t have done everything I did outside the classroom and still succeeded inside if I’d been really taxed. Something must have given.
No matter. I did OK at the time, and it’s done now.
I hope the fresh-faced kids wearing their university gear for #CollegeSigningDay get whatever it is they’re after from college.