And it was a strange fucking experience.
I don’t curse much here, but when the situation warrants…
A man stopped me outside Buddy Brew this weekend and questioned my license plate, which is a special NCF edition. It’s white with blue lettering and the school’s logo, which is “the four winds.”
He asked if I was a student or if I taught there. “Nope…I’m an alum.”
It still feels awkward to be an alumnus of anything…much less college, which was a four-year blur of growing up, of critical introspection. Of wanting for things and experiences and feeling powerless to find or create them. Of only being halfway committed to any class or academic rigor.
At the end of high school, I had no clue where I wanted to go for a degree. Or in what subject.
I just wanted to live in certain cities. I ended up applying to the University of Washington, which is like the University of Florida, only in Seattle. I got in, but it was going to cost $30,000/year.
New College, which my family liked for its progressive curriculum, was closer, free for me as an in-state student, and came with the promise of a preowned Volkswagen.
So there I was, “away at college” only an hour from Tampa, getting used to what would prove to be some of my most solitary, frustrating, and testing four years.
Like a scene out of an SNL skit, I was floored at the lack of anyone remotely cute. Boys especially. In a school of 65% women, they proved to beÂ a precious commodity…and none of them were “real-world hot.”Â Granola would be an understatement.
In the words of a friend: “I just remember thatÂ everyoneÂ looked like mangled, inbred, mountain ogres.”
Shallow, sure, but it’s the first thing you noticeÂ in a new environment. It was an ominous sign.
Looks aside, my classmates were all similarâ€”mostly from Florida and above average academically, but not enough to getÂ into an Ivy League. Mostly white, upper middle class, none from absurd wealth. Almost 95% had been raised in liberal households. It was rare to hear of a campus Republican at New College. That didn’t stop ultra-liberals at school from being equally polarizing and controversial.
Regular moderate-leftists, lacking strong convictions either way, like myself, were quickly seen as ignorant and lesser. The school-wide online discussion board raged with debates over all sorts of, IMO, trivial minutiae.
The academics, of course, were excellent. Mountains of reading, excessive writing, and plenty of lively class discussions that unfortunately favored the numerousÂ “prodigies.” And few professors saw past the loudest voices. So I coasted through, unnoticed.
The schoolÂ is also known for its friendliness to LGBTQ– populations. Its reputation is deserved, because I think I’d have a hard time remembering anyoneÂ who was 100% straight. I guess every collegeÂ stintÂ comes with experimentation, but New College took laissez-faire to a new high.
That attitude extended to recreational drug use, which was of course officially banned, but which happened in plain sight every day of the week. The only people who were ever arrested on campus were townies who came to act sketchy.
Oh, and in a school of 900, you know everyone very quickly. That means you can spot anyone who doesn’t belong. Most middle schools are larger than that.
Overall, the place was like a negative vision bubble, where society’s views are flipped. Staying inside the lines, being responsible, dare I say conservative…they were all oddly subversive there.
My main gripe with New CollegeÂ was its lack of exoticism. From an environmental frame, palm trees and beachesÂ weren’t anything new to me. I wanted quintessentialÂ collegiateÂ quads. I wanted drafty dorms, historic buildings, fall’s colorful leaves, and on some level, boys and scenes out of Abercrombie catalogs.
For socializing, it just seemed like a school full of kids from the sprawling Floridian suburbs, exploring their boundaries and abilities, but often to mediocre ends. I was surrounded by posers, without tasteÂ or polish.
Maybe it was for that reason that the student body held a collective insecurity. Imagine taking a bell curve population from a typical college, and separating out all of the eccentric characters. Then put them all together for four years; normal social customs no longer apply.
The “cool kids” were all of a sudden: that weirdo who plays the ukelele, the naked girl who skateboards, and the kid who can rave really well.
All of this is to point out that now, five years later, I am beginning to appreciate the experience.
You see, much of what I learned of value at New College was that everything is about perspective. Normal and mainstream are all relative to your cohort.
At the time, having just discovered Barney’s, I wanted to wear my Prada loafers, watch Bravo, and listen to top 40. And read Vanity Fair.
Many of my classmates, whom I mostly ignored, were ahead of the curve for being freethinkers.
At the time, I also felt like a completeÂ impostor, intellectually speaking. I guess because I didn’t dedicate time to studying intently, I didn’t participate in class more than was required. I wrote all of my papers with minimal research.
It wasn’t until my last two years, and mostly my last year, when I had to write my thesis, that I realized who I would continue to be close with, and what I wanted to learn about.
I wrote my thesis on consumption of luxury status goods, which at the time were in a fickleÂ market, thanks to the global recession of the 2007-2010 era. I actually read a ridiculous number of articles and books. I pumped out chapter after chapter, and ended up with a longer than average baccalaureate piece.
I also switched from French language to Spanish, which I loved too. It was easy to learn with French as an underpinning, and was so much more beautiful to speak. Too bad I only got a single semester in before I graduated.
Last August, I went to my first wedding of a peer from high school/college. My friend Tierney had a ceremony under the tall trees of coastal Maine, in the area’s most beautiful month.
It was the first complete regrouping of all our friends since school, and it was really a delight. Everyone seemed to have progressed in whichever way they intended to at graduationâ€”to New York to work in finance, as a social worker in Las Vegas, as a PhD candidate in the classics at Berkeley. Tierney had moved to Boston and was pursuing midwifery, which fits her personality perfectly.
An alumnus who wasn’t there, and who graduated two years ahead of us, is another close friend from school with whom I talk regularly. She has lived in DC since graduating, working PR of various forms. Through in-person debates and from what she posts on Facebook, which is always insightful and often hilarious, I consider her very cool, and take her opinion seriously. She freelance writes, which inspires me to continue.
The old adage that where you went to school doesn’t matter holds mostly true in real life. No one asks, and rarely does it spur some sort of forced networking.
I banked on that being true, since I mostly hated my time at New College, and left holding few nostalgic memories from my time there.
However, in reassessment, it’s clear that I did go to a pretty cool place for four of my formative years. Clearly random strangers think so enough to stop me and ask about my affiliation with such an institution.
It wasn’t steeped in tradition, or populated with the same archetypes you find in high school.
Instead, it was a petri dish of people asking “why” before asking “how.” It wasn’t a factory, and didn’t churn out robots. It made us question ourselves, and our beliefs.
Challenging all around, New College made me feel so awkward and uncomfortable, that I became intimately familiar with and less averse to such feelings.
After being in the real world for a time, it’s clear most people willfully avoid encountering awkwardness or failure. They aren’t pleasant, but they induce analysis, and critique.
Having lived them though, I can tell you they are as natural and normal as birth, and bowel movements. And they make you well-adjusted for life. They condition your interpersonal skills, and give you a better global picture of who you are, where you fit, and what is really important in life.
If nothing else, New College taught me how to write, and how to express myself. Purely for that, I am grateful.
Clearly much of its influence has a residual impact on me, as I have only recently begun to realize its value.
For such an eccentric school, the wider academic world is a tough place. On one hand, New College garners a healthy collection of accolades each year. See here.
On the other, it acts like a private liberal arts college on a shoestring state budget, overshadowed by behemoths like UCF.
The State of Florida, under guidance from Governor Rick Scott, recently gave New College a failing grade, based on a series of assessments aimed at divvying up new funding for state schools, and for keeping its existing budget. Here and here.
Though I see a need for schools to prepare students for the workforce, it isn’t always about accounting skills or starting salary. See where its graduates end up, longer-term.
New College’s relatively small group of alums count among them: a federal reserve bank CEO, prominent lawyers in Tampa Bay and around the world, a filmmaker, anÂ HR director for Coach, and a US Congressman. I personally know several PhDs or doctoral students, architects, doulas, yoga teachers, performance artists, a GRE teacher, and a manager at American Apparel.
Reflecting on all this, I proudly admit it as my alma mater. Maybe one day I can write the school a big check, and join the list of notable graduates with a stake in New College’s continued existence.