Wednesday morning started very early. I did not have to wake up all that much earlier than I normally do, but somehow between the pressure of needing to keep a schedule, and having to miss my usual leisurely wake-up routine that can take up to three hours I spent the previous night restlessly waking up frequently. I managed to make it out the door shortly after 7:00 and arrived at my niece’s place, my co-pilot for my trip, an easy 17 minutes later. We were embarking on her first college visitation tour. I’ve been active in college access for some twenty years, but this was a personal project.
It was not much effort to get my niece’s things packed in the car and get back on the road heading north. I had been looking forward to the road time so my niece and I could have some real adult conversations without other influences or distractions. When she was born I started telling her, “you’re college material,” and, “when you get to college . . .” I never once said, “when you have a child of your own one day. . .” When I was a child I often heard less positive words, like “you were never ready for school.” I even had to repeat eighth grade math (which I first took in the seventh grade), even though I earned a B in it the first time. It was so painfully boring the second year I probably earned a C. I hated walking into that humiliating classroom the second year. I hated school. When I was in high school college meant nothing more to me than my ticket out of that miserable life.
My niece came from the same blue collar family as me. I read the research and I even conduct some of the research. In as much as the whole notion of a college experience and degree lacks context for her I should be able to help her find her way. Her mother has been her advocate while she was in school, even during trying teenage times. Still, my niece is a fairly typical lazy teenager who acknowledges she procrastinates on everything. This is the kind of behavior that makes me wonder whether I have been the mentor she really needs.
After two hours of the Beatles and slow early morning jabbering we arrived at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. The grand parkway entrance just outside of town was flanked on both sides by a forest of tall cedar and fir trees. Visitor parking for the day was a mere two dollars, possibly the least expensive campus parking in the nation. We found our way to the main campus entry through the red brick plaza known as Red Square, which seemed appropriately named in the context of the institution’s reputation as a place for liberal activism and mother-earth communalism. The architecture had the look of nearly any campus building that was erected in the 1960s, reminiscent of functional Soviet-style construction used in film imagery. As drab as concrete buildings with exterior staircases can be, it seemed an appropriate backdrop for the innovative, interdisciplinary and independent curriculum that is a product of 1960s ideals. There was also something satisfying about the built environment contrasted with the glorious brilliant green Pacific Northwest rainforest.
Our tour guide, who had recently returned from a study abroad in Turkey, was loyal and enthusiastic about his Evergreen experience, as any campus tour guide should be. He pointed out all the standard campus features (health clinic, rec center, theatre building, library and media services, radio station, etc.) and a number of unique features as well, such as the beach (where actual geoducks reside), the farm (Evergreen is not a land grant institution), and the indigenous Long House constructed in partnership with the local First Nations, featuring artwork and cultural events, and is part of the facilities that houses a First Nation artist-in-residence every year. I could have had a lot of fun at Evergreen as an undergraduate.
After the tour we took a break to have lunch in the cafeteria and browse the bookstore before heading into downtown Olympia. It was a warm sunny day to stroll the boardwalk along the harbor. As the afternoon sun heated the boardwalk we changed directions and made our way to visit a friend and colleague from the Washington Student Achievement Council. Our visit lasted until the next morning when we hit the road again northbound.
We arrived in Bellingham, parked in downtown and walked to Western Washington University. The university website made it clear it was best to park in town or in the neighborhoods and walk to campus, and a colleague there also indicated it might be easier to park in town. It was only a little over a mile to campus, but the whole route was up a steep hill. I could tell from the placement of the greenspace on the map and the diagonally oriented grid that campus probably sat atop a hill, but my niece especially – who lives in a relatively flat area of town – was not prepared for the degree of the incline on such a warm summer day. She predicted that students at Western probably have great legs. I agreed that she might not be as likely to gain the freshman 15 at Western as she might be at other campuses. On our way up the hill to campus we walked passed dozens of vacant, free parking spaces. Of course, if we had parked near campus we would have missed an opportunity to work on developing a Bellingham Bum.
Campus was predominantly built of classic red brick construction, including a central plaza of red brick that was dubbed Red Square. The name did not seem quite as suitable on this campus that emerged from the normal school above an old fishing town. The classic architecture here, too, bespoke the age of the campus and the traditional university curriculum that is carefully segregated into discrete academic departments.
Western is home to many of the same standard features as most campuses, and its own unique features as well, such as the 100-year old row of time capsules in front of the administrative building, and the “interactive art” as described by one of our two hopelessly devoted tour guides. The interactive art pieces were essentially places just to hang out. There was a freestanding staircase that simply stepped up a flight and down and then back up and down again. There was an area of various small sculptures and chair-height planters placed on carefully patterned brickwork that replicated the San Juan Islands and the surrounding currents. Had I been a Washington resident as an undergraduate I may have felt at home on the campus above the fishing village on a hill.
After our tour and perusal of the bookstore we wandered back down the hill into town to meet a colleague from Washington Campus Compact. After refreshing iced tea and a comfortable visit we checked into our room to freshen up and went back into downtown for dinner at the seafood diner recommended by our colleague. The busy Bellingham central downtown core seemed very friendly to college students with a number of little restaurants that seemed like they were probably reasonably priced and open late.
The next morning, after a communal breakfast in the hotel living room with the other travelers who lodged for the night, we packed our things and changed course to head back south to the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Campus is not far from the freeway and finding the parking structure was no problem, but the $15 price tag to leave the car for four hours was a reality check after $6 all day in Bellingham, and $2 all day at Evergreen. We found our way to the admissions office where a large crowd was gathering. As we followed our cheery, enthusiastic tour guide out of the building and gathered at the first stopping spot I realized there could be as many as 80 or 100 other student prospects and their family members in out tour group. The group was so large that between the city traffic noise and the busy summer campus construction we could hear very little of what she said.
We did learn that the red brick central plaza on the traditional flagship campus is known as, you guessed it, Red Square. I wondered if there was an informal policy that public four-year institutions in Washington must refer to their central plaza as Red Square so they all have something in common. Three Red Squares certainly discredited the irony I initially detected at Evergreen.
Of course, no trip to UW would be complete without a stroll through the infamous reading room in the graduate library, and all 100 or so of us traipsed through like a heard of cattle. After the tour we took a short break for a snack and visit to the bookstore, which is located in the nearby business district and not actually on campus.
We returned to campus for a meeting with a faculty member in the Evans School of Public Affairs. We arrived back on campus via a different route than when we departed, so I thought it might be more direct to ask a student for directions to the building that houses the Evans School than to try to find our way unassisted. An alumnae scratched her head for a moment and pointed generally north. She walked with us part of the way to where she thought we would be going. We checked the area map that was posted and none of the surrounding buildings were correct. We parted ways and we continued walking north. At each successive area map (which are of no assistance if you standing among the wrong group of buildings), we could find no evidence that we were near the Evans School. Soon it appeared we were nearing the edge of campus. Finally, we put everything down and sifted through the various papers and publications we had collected until we found a complete campus map. We had been standing spitting distance from our destination when we first asked for direcions. With little chance of a Bellingham Bum at UW, why not take a long walk on an warm afternoon? The experience seemed to be an analogy for what the academic experience might be like for many undergraduates at such an enormous institution with a primary mission focused on research with undergraduate teaching and learning secondary to its mission.
We cooled from our escapade to the end of the campus and back again during our pleasant college and career planning advising meeting in our colleague’s office in the Evans School. By the time we left his office we were both done. My niece did not even want to go back to the reading room when there weren’t 100 people gently stampeding through it.
Before the end of our road trip we we stopped for a whole day off to visit a friend from my undergraduate days who works at the General Services Administration. We had a lazy day and a half, and talked about why we choose Southern Oregon and the most important parts of our educational experience. A lot of the reasons for selecting Southern, for both my friend and me, were not directly academic, but neither of us would have wanted to be anywhere else. Of course, the value a student gets out of an educational experience on any campus depends entirely on that which the student puts into it. My friend and I, both, put our hearts and souls into it.
It will be a while before I know how the next chapter in this story unfolds. My niece is enrolled full time at a community college ready to move full steam ahead, and already thinking about the next phase. I don’t think she will know how the next chapter will read until she is able to build an identity for herself as a college student. She is figuring it out and that is what counts. It has been pretty clear since the day she was born, this kid is college material. Aren’t they all?