Spring2010

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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Phone:240-895-4795
Anne Arundel 100

As a Freshman, I was Clueless -- Navigating the First-Year Fog

Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

Photo by Sean T. McHugh (www.Cambridgeincolour.com)


Located in the urban triangle defined by Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown, Kent State University was a world away from the soybeans and cornfields that surrounded my hometown. After my parents dropped me off at the 20,000-student campus, along with a suitcase of clothes, an alarm clock, and a Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, I felt lost. As a first-generation college student, I didn't know the ropes. My roommates, first-generation students from southern Ohio and northern New Jersey, felt lost, too. We were expected to figure out college on our own.

For me, feeling lost was not entirely unpleasant. My hometown was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone's business. Now that I had escaped the rituals of high school and the routines of small-town life, I felt free. But as principals and counselors never tire of saying, "With freedom comes responsibility." This has become a cliché, of course, because freedom so often prompts irresponsibility. My roommates bore ample witness to this by spending most of that Fall term in a fog of partying. I spent it in a fog, too - not from drugs or alcohol, but from a pervasive sense of cluelessness.

I don't remember much from those first few months. Indeed, my most vivid memory is not a campus scene or episode, but a song. My high school friends and I had just spent the summer driving the "circuit" from one end of our town to the other in my 1959 Rambler. We kept its tinny AM radio tuned to CKLW Detroit/Windsor, which played what was then called "R&B," including lots of Motown. Just hearing the station's song intro - "C-K-L-W...the Motor Citeeeeeeeee" - lent an edgy excitement to our endless runs up and down Main Street.

The big hit that summer was James Brown's "Cold Sweat." Though I had been a drummer in several bands, the funky beat of "Cold Sweat" was unlike anything I had ever played or even heard. Whenever the song came on, I pulled over to listen. It sounded like change - and I wanted change in the worst way.

Maybe that's why "Cold Sweat" became a looping soundtrack for my first term at college. The song constantly played in my head through a blur of nondescript meals, aimless wanderings around campus, and latenight conversations in the dorm. I spent two or three Saturday nights at the bar where Joe Walsh was playing in his first group, "The James Gang." I went to see Johnny Carson at Homecoming with the girl whom I would date, off and on, throughout college. I have an especially vivid memory of the cafeteria breakfasts, with steamtable bins filled with milk-stretched scrambled eggs. The clarity of this last mental picture is odd, because I usually skipped breakfast. My Western Civ class began at the insane hour of 7:45, and the rush to get there prompted me to grow the beard that I still wear.

I vividly recall those first-term classes. In Western Civ, Professor Goldthwaite chided us one day for misspelling "deity" in our papers on ancient Egypt. In Intro to Geology, Professor Frank kept holding up rock samples that I couldn't see from my seat in the auditorium balcony. In Intro to Philosophy, Professor Hoffman exposed logical fallacies in argument papers that I considered air-tight. And in my Freshman English class, Professor Null focused on existentialism. "Existence precedes essence" summed up my situation nicely: though I existed, I didn't yet have an essence or identity. I was just there.

Through it all, "Cold Sweat" provided a constant background in mental stereo: it coursed through my head during lectures, class discussions, and sessions at the library. Whenever I walked in step with its tempo, it buoyed me up. The song reminded me that I was changing, though I had no idea what I was changing into. "I don't care...UNH!...about the past; I  just want...UNH!....our love to last." The lyrics might not be Shakespeare or Yeats, but they bear witness to the chief lesson of my first college term: when you're lost, a funky beat can hold everything together. James Brown's drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, kept me moving brightly through a fog of campus cluelessness.

I wasted lots of time, usually in search of peace and quiet. I sought refuge from my party-animal roommates by hanging out in the student union, shooting pool in the rec center, and wandering the stacks at the library. I must have studied, though I have no memory of doing so except for pulling an all-nighter for the geology final. And although my grades - two As and two Bs - didn't exactly set the world on fire, I got through that first term in one piece. My friends weren't so lucky. The New Jersey roommate ended up on academic probation and would soon flunk out; mediocre grades forced the southern Ohio roommate to switch majors from pre-med to business. Clearly, we all could have used a little help.

Most colleges and universities have abandoned the "sink or swim" philosophy that prevailed in my day. More and more schools, including St. Mary's, are paying close attention to the "first-year experience" and how to improve it. It's about time, given the risks of leaving anyone's college start to chance. As my roommates learned, the consequences of a poor start can prove insurmountable.

The chief beneficiaries of this new approach are first-generation students, some of whom might be feeling as clueless and fog-bound as I once did. Although guidance at the beginning of college results in fewer chances to fi gure things out on one's own, it also creates fewer chances to mess up. This matters a great deal, because there are a lot more enticements to messing up nowadays than there were in 1967. Powerful and almost irresistible distractions issue from pop culture, consumer culture, and the electronic media, not to mention the laid-back mindset that my generation helped foster. A little help in getting a good start has become not just valuable, but indispensable.

However, today's students face an additional disadvantage: they were born too late to receive a kick in the butt from Clyde Stubblefield.