This past Friday, I participated in a community fair for incoming freshmen at the college I allegedly attended 31 years ago, Georgia Southwestern. (I’m told I have a record there, though I’m not sure if it’s in the administration building or with campus police.) I was there to promote The Fuller Center for Housing, where these new students could put in some volunteer hours or just serve their community — here at home or around the world. I was advertising hard work for no pay, not exactly an easy sell.
I got to speak with dozens of articulate, smart, seemingly good-hearted kids, although I didn’t get to speak with nearly as many as the folks at the table to my right. That’s where an HIV/AIDS awareness group was handing out candy and condoms. My brochures and rack cards weren’t going to compete with that.
The college was nothing like the one I knew three decades ago. I know the HOPE Scholarship goes only to academics, but it sure seems like Georgia colleges got much nicer facilities when that scholarship kicked in. I’m sure that’s pure coincidence and not some sort of shell game with funds.
Also, when I went to the college, it was a college. Now it’s a state university. It used to be quite the convoluted process to rise from college to university, then Georgia decided to make nearly everything a state university. This morning I had a cheese omelet from Waffle House State University. I even got a diploma. Wait a minute! This is a bill! Dang, and I already updated my LinkedIn profile with this degree in Omeletry.
In my mind, it seems like I was just in college like a decade ago, but one glance at these freshmen provides a stark reminder that it was much longer ago. These kids all look 12 years old. When I was a college freshman, most of us looked about 27. Again, in my mind anyway.
If I needed another reminder that it’s been a long time, I recognized the fellow to my left who was representing a hospital — I guess in case they threw a back out or got diabetes from the stuff the lady was handing out on my right. When I got my first full-time newspaper job as a sports writer in Valdosta, Ga., back in 1991, he was a free safety on the Valdosta State football team — and a very good one at that. We chatted about those old days in between visits from the college kids. He didn’t look 19 anymore. He looked my age. Poor guy.
I didn’t speak long enough with any of the kids to find out what they are really like and if they are truly different than we were three decades ago. I hope they are at least more focused than I was. At a glance, though, I could spot some differences.
A lot of the kids were wearing “retro” shirts. A guy would walk by in an Iron Maiden t-shirt, and then a girl would follow in a “Star Wars” shirt. And so on. In my day, the kinds of shirts they considered “retro”, we simply considered “shirts”. Then came a slightly goth-looking girl in a t-shirt with the iconic image of Johnny Cash giving the finger. She was a little scary, and I let her pass by peacefully. Then I asked an administrator for one of those college safe spaces where I could go gather myself, and he told me they had no such thing and to quit listening to Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
The most striking difference, though, was the diversity. When I went to college, we probably had the same ratio of white folks, black folks, Hispanics, Asians, gays and other, but we spent too much time with people who were just like us. Whenever four or more of these kids stopped and talked as a group of friends, the group was mixed. It wasn’t forced. It’s just the way things are, and that’s promising. I have a feeling that smart kids get even smarter when they have a diverse set of influences and views.
Wisdom rarely happens in a vacuum or in a bubble. People who hang around only folks who look like themselves, worship (or not) like themselves or share the same political views in their social media echo chambers strike me as the opposite, mirror images of these kids — passionately marching backward and getting dumber day by day. Let’s hope these young folks keep marching forward and keep getting smarter. Let’s also hope they study more than I did — meaning at least once.