Press "Enter" to skip to content

Ebb and Flow of a College Town

Today marks a noticeable change in seasons in the life of a college town: graduation day.  Thousands of (mostly) young, fresh-faced adults will fill the basketball arena and do their best to pay attention to the commencement speaker and ignore their hangover, the muttering people around them, and their nagging hopes/fears for the future.

I guess they’ll be texting and twittering, something we couldn’t conceive of when I was in college
It was 25 years ago this week that I was in the same place.  Yes, I’m really that old.  A quarter of a century ago, (ouch!) I sat there, just wishing all the talking would stop, they’d hand me my diploma, and I could find my family, who would then take me to eat at a nice restaurant.

That restaurant isn’t there anymore.  Fayetteville has changed as much as I have.  The enrollment at the U of A is up about 50% from what it was then.  More importantly, Arkansas—especially this corner of it—has much more to offer a recent college grad.  In the 80s it was an often-repeated joke that Arkansas’ biggest export was college graduates.  That sheepskin doubled as a passport—or exile—depending on how someone felt about the Land Beyond the Border.

The class of 2011 is entering a national economy much worse than when I did, but a much healthier one locally.  Many of them will have the option of sticking around and working in a field using their degree.  For decades, their predecessors have stayed (or returned) here to work as the state’s most overqualified waiters, cashiers, and delivery drivers. 

This place can be addictive.  I wonder how many of today’s graduates will take flight to distant opportunities, only to return years from now—like homing pigeons.  I’ve seen it happen dozens of times and did it myself.  If that Bohemian college town bug bites you, there’s no getting rid of it.  But why would you want to? 

Sure, the money may be better in some big city.  But, even in the big city, it isn’t as easy to remake oneself as it is in Fayetteville.  This is where people come here to get an education—to improve themselves and expand their horizons.  There is a certain energy and vitality in a town dedicated to helping people do that.  The air is alive with all that youthful optimism and curiosity.  Over the years, the students and college town have shaped each other, to their mutual benefit.

Having grown up here and lived here on and off after college, I’ve seen the cycle repeat itself many times.  Each fall, the tide brings in thousands of naïve, cocky, ambitious freshmen experiencing the first sweet taste of freedom.  Each spring the tide carries away thousands of weary, hopeful, ambitious seniors with brains jammed full of book smarts and fond memories.  They don’t believe us when we tell them these are the best days of their lives.  I know I didn’t buy it.

When I was in my teens, I thought 22 would be the perfect age to stop at, if that was possible.  I would be old enough to drink, but finished with college.  Young enough to still be attractive, but old and experienced enough to be responsible and level-headed.  I was more or less right.  Even now, 22 is the only year I’d do over again even if it meant not knowing any more than I did then.

For the next three months, Fayetteville will breathe a sigh of relief and move at a slower pace.  It will quietly rest and replenish the energy it needs to survive the other nine months of the year.  It will belong to us “civilians” again—the future, former, and non-students.

At this time of year, I want to play the part of wise old sage.  It’s tempting to remind these hatchlings that life doesn’t always go exactly as planned, that “a totally awesome job/car/house” won’t fall in your lap the day after graduation.  There was a song that was played for a very brief time in the late 90s.  It was kind of hokey, but I’ve included a link because it’s full of advice to graduates.  It’s the kind of advice most of us ignore when we’re still young enough for it to do the most good.