Take a Break from “Real” Life, Go to College

What’s better than Gold?
word "senior"
Photo by Jen Thelodore

“Better than Golden.”  That’s my official designation in the eyes of the St. Mary’s College alumnae office. My fifty-year reunion has come and gone. With all the other members of the noble class of 1964, my alma mater now declares that I am welcome to celebrate every year – not just every five years!

The intriguing twist for me is that I officially belong to the class of 1964, the year, which would mark the end of four years of college study.  The class designation remained unchanged even though I received my B.A. in 1967.

I strongly suspect that this tradition stems from the fact that many young women left college before graduating. As an all-women college, St. Mary’s could not afford to lose the support of its alumnae simply because they didn’t graduate.  Thus, every “Belle,” the nickname for a St. Mary’s girl, remained forever a member of her traditional graduating class no matter when, or even if, she achieved that honor.

Dormitory Bubble
dorm room
Photo by Marcus Loke

Going to college was a bifurcated experience for me. The September following my high school graduation, I moved into a dormitory and began not just another level of academic study, but an interim level of independent living.  No longer under my parents’ thumb, I was nonetheless bound by the strict rules that governed dorm life at a Catholic Women’s college. Rules, which had held sway for decades but would seem laughable to students in ten years, bound every aspect of our life.

Bible w daisies
Photo by Anuja Mary

We signed in and out of our dorms when we left campus. Our lights had to be turned off by ten-thirty every evening. We ate all three meals formal style in the dining hall with each table headed by a nun of the Holy Cross order, which ran the school. Almost our entire course schedule was predetermined. Theology and Philosophy were a part of every student’s curriculum whether they major in Chemistry or Education. Course work was rigorous and difficult.

Where the Boys Are
ND library
Photo by Cong Wong

This rather bleak picture isn’t, of course, the whole story.  We were, after all, twentieth-century American girls, and across the highway was Notre Dame – 6,000 college guys, mixers, football, and parties. We decisively manipulated the rules and carved out enough freedom to take full advantage of this extraordinary opportunity.  Indeed, one of the major reasons so many St. Mary’s women didn’t finish college was they left school to marry a Notre Dame guy when he graduated.

I was among those that left before completing my degree work. Because I had worked thirty hours a week on campus, I wasn’t allowed to carry a full load of courses and couldn’t graduate in 1964.  Nonetheless, I followed Jay to Chicago certain I could earn the remaining credits at Chicago area schools and have them transferred back to St. Mary’s.

So-Called Real Life

In one way, I was right. It could be done.  But it wasn’t easy.  I entered a wholly different mode of “going to college” when I became a “day” rather than a “dorm” student. Every year, thousands of students manage to get to classes, do research, study for exams and gain college credits that lead to degrees while at the same time “carrying on with life.” But, as a scholar who lived four years in a dorm and multiple years as a student outside that protective bubble, I’m willing to put my money on dorm life anytime.

College lecture room
Photo by Mikael Kristenson

One of the first disadvantages I discovered when I switched to being a day student at Roosevelt University was the disappearance of the easy comradery of dorm life. Sleeping, showering, dressing, eating and recreating in the same place with the students who were my classmates solidified our bonds quickly.  This meant friends to share your studies with at times that were convenient to arrange and with people you trusted and whose trust you had earned.

As a day student, I seldom ran into the same student more than once.  We moved quickly from class to class.  They, like me, had other obligations that pulled them off campus after classes were over.  That other world that we all were hurrying off to was our “real” world.

Man running
Photo by Andy Beales

When I lived at St. Mary’s, the college was my real life. It was everything and nothing was more important.  Now that I’d left that behind, going to school was only a part of life, one of the many things taking up space in my daily/weekly schedule.  Much more exciting was planning my wedding in the first year and the joy of being married after that.  Much more involving was my work.  As a caseworker for Cook County Department of Child and Family Services, I spent my weekdays trying to help families survive financial and emotional crises.  The urgency of these not only drained my energies, they made my school work seem inconsequential.

Finally, I truly missed the easy access to faculty. It takes times to build a working partnership with a professor who can mentor you through the difficult projects required to earn your degree. It had definitely been easier to get to know my teachers when so many of them shared three meals a day with the students.  That particular perk was unique to a place and time and isn’t necessarily endemic to dorm life.  What is common, however, is that students who have the opportunity to live in the dorms generally are full-time students.  This gives them more chances to seek out advisors and build the relationships that are a cornerstone of successful academic careers.

Since this take on dorm versus day student life comes from my own memories and experiences, I’d very much like to hear from readers what they think.  What are some of the awful things about dorm life?  What are some the advantages of being a day student?

Let me know.

“Wisdom is nothing more than confirmed imagination: just because one did not study for his exam does not mean that he should leave it blank.”
― Criss Jami, Killosophy