Sunday, November 22, 2009

Swimming: its just like riding a bike

A few weeks ago, I swam laps for the first time in about 6 years. I was on swim team for a few years in middle school, but other than splashing around a little bit now and then I haven’t really swam seriously since then. However, last week I was working out in the room in Dixon that looks out over the pool, and I felt a wave of longing. I remembered what gliding through the water felt like, and I knew I had to go for a swim. A few days and a trip to buy a pair of goggles later, I was in the pool.

The reason I’m talking about this is that getting in the water took me back. For that split second every time my head was under water, nothing else exited. I felt like I could be 15 years old or 23, there was no difference as I slipped through the water. For me, swimming is one of those skill sets I think I will never lose, I feel like it was yesterday, not 6 years ago that I last swam. So I started thinking about other things in my life that are automatic. What are the things I can do so well, that I never doubt them? Well my list is surprisingly small. I count swimming, singing, reading aloud, writing and acting among them. I think at different points in my life this list will change and grow. And its different now than it was at 18.

Not unlike taking a 30 minute walk, swimming was 30 minutes in the water alone with my thoughts. So while I was in the pool, I thought about the things I knew and didn’t know at the age of 18. When I decided to go to a private school I took out loans to do so. At the age of 18, I didn’t really understand what this meant. I got that I would have to pay them back. I understood money. I’d had a summer job for several years, and had a little money in the bank. But I did not understand the enormous consequences of taking out a total of 30 thousand dollars in loans. In fact, it was really not until this last year that I truly comprehended it. And I haven’t even had to make any payments yet.

Only this week I found out that I have a credit card associated with the bank account I opened my freshman year of college. I had no idea. I’m not sure how this slipped by me. I think that we need to be aware of this, that while they are on their way to being competent young adults, a lot of freshmen have absolutely no experience in a lot of real life matters. I’m not suggesting that they are babies, or that we should treat them that way, but instead that we simply need to be aware that many college students may need a little extra guidance.

I wonder how this happens at a big school. I have been fixating over the last few weeks about the differences between different types of schools, but in particular, large public school versus small liberal arts school. In Programs and Functions, we have had a number of guests from different school from around the area come to speak to us about their job and their school. Finally this week we had someone come from a small private school: Linfield. As he spoke about his college, I thought “this could literally be Puget Sound he is talking about.” And it was both affirming for me to hear it, and educational for the rest of my cohort to think about the differences. There are only three of us out of 20 from school like Puget Sound or Linfield. Those numbers are reasonably surprising to me.

I talked to my sister this week about this. She went to a small private school in Ohio, Wittenberg University. I really wasn’t aware of this until now, but Wittenberg is very similar in mission and demographic to Puget Sound right down to the size, just over 2000. It literally knocks me off balance every time that I remember that OSU is ten times as large. My sister I and talked about the pros and cons of little schools and big schools. Large schools may have more resources, but small school can pay more individual attention. Large schools offer more subjects, but at small schools you can get one on one interaction with professors in your classes. The list goes on and on. For me, I think it’s important to remember that just because a small school was right for me, doesn’t mean it is the right choice for everyone.

So now I will go back to my train of thought when I was in the swimming pool. What are the things that freshman know? What are the automatic things they know how to do? How far out of their comfort zone are they willing to go? What are the things that they don’t know? I think these things are different for every single person. Making choices in live is always a combination of doing what you are good at, and talking the plunge into something more difficult.

Once I got in the pool, the strokes came back to me, and I was immediately kicking up and down my lane (the “slow” lane). But getting back in the pool after so long was not an easy decision. I wondered if the skill would still be there. And this time it was.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sickness and Health

One of the things on my mind recently has been health. I had a terrible cold two weeks ago and had to miss Monday’s class. I am the first person in the cohort to get this sick, and there was a huge discussion about it in my absence. While I know for an undergrad, missing one class is not usually an international incident it still gets me thinking.

In college attendance is a tricky thing. In high school, attendance is clearly mandatory but in college its often not. There may be participation points associated with being present, or the class is structured in such a way that presence is necessary. But I think a lot of first year students are totally baffled by the idea that they are actually paying to be in class, but no one can force you to attend.

However, illness is a big issue, especially with the paranoia surrounding H1N1. When I was sick, I would blow my nose in public, and get a combination looks of fear and sympathy from people. When I had to go to the store to buy soup and cold medicine, the cashier assumed it was for someone else sick in my home, and I let her believe that, because I didn’t want her to treat me differently. In fact, I actually think she thought I had a sick child at home, but that is maybe beyond the point, while it does feed into my earlier musings about assumptions.

But what are we telling/doing for sick students? The OSU health center website suggests that an ill student living in a residence hall should leave and go home until they are well, if possible. While I understand that the majority of OSU students are from the state of Oregon, I wonder how many are within comfortable distance to go home to their parent’s house if they are ill? And if you are more than maybe 20 minutes away, would you really want to drive? Or even travel? While I understand that residence halls are incubation for sick students this seems unreasonable.

Another interesting thing that has come to my attention is the biology department’s policy about missing lab. Beginning this year, no makeup labs are allowed: unless the student is sick. This raises an interesting problem. Clearly if a student is seriously ill and needs to rest, we don’t want them in class. If they are this sick, we also probably don’t want their germs in class either. However, this leaves us with a trust system. A cold is not something you need a doctors note for, but how do we determine if students are really “sick enough” to miss lab? We just have to trust student’s judgment, I suppose. But there is an element of mistrust surrounding this issue still for some reason.

All this talking about illness has me thinking about an incident my freshman year of college. Someone in my residence hall had scarlet fever, which is something I thought people only got in “Little House on the Prairie.” At the same time, I was sick in my dorm room bed for a few days with just a regular garden variety fever and missed class. And a miscommunication with a friend led to my entire math class thinking I also had scarlet fever. The culmination of this was my RA knocking on my door and telling me she was the worst RA ever for not knowing one of her residents had scarlet fever. This was the first I had heard of it. And I was effectively Typhoid Mary for a few days until it got around that I had never in fact had scarlet fever. Now it’s a funny anecdote that comes up with my college friends from time to time, “Hey, Char, remember when the whole school thought you had scarlet fever?” But really it is a representation of the negatives effects assumptions about illness can have on people.

So how should a campus respond to sickness? Overreacting clearly is not helpful, but keeping students informed and healthy is important, and necessary. Yet striking the right balance between the two is difficult. My big sister is teaching in Bulgaria currently and the school she teaches at is closed for a week because of the number of H1N1 cases in Sofia. So I do understand that this flu season is clearly not a laughing matter, yet people are also overreacting. I’m not sure what I think the administration at OSU should be doing to keep people calm and informed. I’m just not sure its happening currently.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"My Name is Rachel Corrie"

Last week, I went to see “My Name is Rachel Corrie” produced by the OSU theatre department. Again, like the Laramie Project, this is a play with a strong tie to student affairs. “My Name is Rachel Corrie” is a one woman show complied from the emails, journals, and letters of Rachel Corrie. She was a student at Evergreen State Collge who went to Palestine to do peaceful protesting, and was killed by a bulldozer in 2003 in Gaza.

I can see exactly why OSU chose to do these two plays, “The Laramie Project,” and “My name is Rachel Corrie” in addition to their regular season. Both plays deal with subject matter that is very important for any college campus. Both Rachel Corrie and Matthew Shepherd were university students at the time of their deaths, and this kind of tragedy hugely affects campuses, and in their cases, the world. While the circumstances of their lives and their tragic deaths are very different, both called attention to a world wide issue, and each of them left an unexpected legacy.

The structure of these two plays is in some ways opposite. “The Laramie Project” is taken from the words of everyone except Matthew Shepard, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” is taken entirely from Rachel’s own words. Additionally, “The Laramie Project” begins with Matthew’s death, and “My Name is Rachel Corrie” ends with Rachel’s death. Because "My name is Rachel Corries" ends with Rachel’s death, the play itself does not explore the reaction of Evergreen students, or the reaction of the world. Yet her death must have had a profound impact. Instead, the play shows how a young woman like Rachel felt compelled to put herself in a dangerous situation: to help others.

Through the play, in her own words, the character of Rachel speaks of feeling lost in life, until she took a class at Evergreen that encouraged her to get involved in the community. From there the path to the Gaza strip seemed to clearly open itself up to her. This is the piece of her story that caused me to want to write about the play for my journal this week. I think so many college students are constantly looking for this moment, when their world simply lines itself up, and the path is clear.

Of course, I understand that the play is taken from only some of Rachel Corries words, and of course, only those thoughts, experiences and feeling she was willing to put down on paper. But even when she was in Palestine, she didn’t seem to feel any fear for herself, or for her own life. Instead, she wanted to know how she was ever supposed to find any meaning in life after she left Palestine. She talked of going to France, or going home to Olympia, but imagined she would be racked by guilt. I think this is a reasonably common feeling. I think that most young people who have some kind of life changing event such as serving in the Peace Corps have survivor’s guilt, or readjustment shock. It seems immeasurably sad to me that she didn’t ever get to leave; she never got the chance to see how this experience would affect the rest of her life.

In some ways I am stuck on Rachel Corrie’s story because I feel that it could have been mine. I could have made the choices she made. But I felt that my calling was working with the homeless through AmeriCorps, not peaceful protesting in Palestine. I feel aligned with Rachel Corrie, with all young people who feel a need to change the world in their own small way.

I find myself having to keep using the terminology of “being called.” When I was in high school I read Barbra Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” and was fascinated with the tragedies it told of Africa. It was my first experience with these horrors, they had never occurred to me before. In some ways it is a miracle that I’ve never signed up to go do work in Africa. I think that’s fine. I don’t regret my choices. I’m not placing any value judgment on any of these things. I don’t think every one who wants to make a difference need to go the Gaza strip. And I don’t think that is the message of “My Name is Rachel Corrie.” I don’t think Rachel Corrie herself would pass any judgment in this way either, I just think this happened to be her calling.

Now I have to come back to student affairs. All of this is great you may say, but what does it have to do with observations of student experiences? I think that every thoughtful student addresses this issue at some point, wanting to know how they are called to make a difference in the world. So what are universities doing to help students with these moments? How are we encouraging our youth to be global citizens? Who in my life helped me pursue volunteerism? Who in Rachel Corrie’s life helped her decide that activism was her life’s purpose?

While Rachel Corrie’s life was sadly cut short, she lived according to her values, which has to be respected. Yet, she was just a girl, and I’m not idealizing her, nor is the play. However, she has become an example of what following your heart can look like. Yes, it’s sad that she was killed by a bulldozer, it’s a huge tragedy. But the way she lived her life should be an inspiration to anyone, college students and beyond. And if we don’t learn something form this, that would be the real tragedy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Campus Climate: I need a thermometer

This week, I have a lot of questions about how to gauge a campus climate. OSU is now my school, but I don’t feel very connected to it. I feel connected to the CSSA program, and to my job, but I don’t have a lot of contact with students in general. I really have no idea what is going on with the undergraduates. I don’t spend a lot of time on campus. I don’t really have reason to.

This week I specifically spent some time on campus, both in the library and in a coffee shop, Java II. I was surprised to find how loud the library was on a Sunday afternoon. I went with a two hour window of time, hoping to get a lot of work done, but was seriously distracted by a group of exceedingly loud young men in the quiet section. I was surprised by this level of disrespect.

You can see a lot of different things in the library, people studying alone, in pairs, in small groups. But it occurs to me that anything I observe on campus is just a tiny window into someone’s life. Students are involved in a huge number of things, and observing them in one activity sheds no light into the rest of their lives. I see students working out at Dixon, but what else are they doing? What clubs are they in? What classes are they taking? I have no idea.

So this leads me to the issue of balance. How do we know what kind of balance students have in their lives, when we don’t know what they are doing? Even the biology TA’s I work with, I only see a tiny portion. I spend an hour with them once a week, and know what issues they are facing with their labs, but what do I really know?

Something I was discussing this week with my mentor in the CSSA program is this issue of accountability. Student affairs as a profession is pushing students to live balanced lives, with a healthy level of all activities. Yet we are student affairs professionals are not always setting a good example. As grad students, especially, we are expected to do a lot. Part time or full time jobs, part time or full time classes, and we are still expected to live “balanced” lives. I’m not entirely sure how to do this, and in that case how do we encourage students do the same?

I think that I need to continue to purposefully spend more time on campus to observe, but that creates an imbalance in my own life. I still think that no matter how much observing I do, I will only be seeing a small part of student experience. I’m really not sure how to see more than a small sliver of the whole. I do have a game plan. I will start reading the Barometer, going to events, and have my powers of observation turned on whenever I am on campus. But will this be enough? It will have to be a good start,I guess, but it won't solve the whole problem of me feeling disconnected from the pulse of OSU.