College Expectations

When I arrived at Dartmouth, I sensed a lot of expectation floating around in the air. My fellow students expected their lives to be taken to previously unknown levels of refinement and bliss. They were anxiously waiting to embark upon the time of their lives and relish every minute of their precious parent-funded college experience. Upon arrival, the euphoria (pushed aside brutally four days into our orientation week, on the fateful day of 9/11, 2001, to reemerge shyly a few weeks later, because we were young) surprised me. Of course, I was excited too. I was expecting great things too. But as soon as I had bought my kettle and set up a tea station in my dorm room – my conditio sine qua non of feeling at home, I rolled up my sleeves and was ready to do hard class work because this was the thing that needed to get done. When my classmates asked about any extracurricular activities, ensembles or theater groups I might be interested in joining, I got confused because I frankly had no idea that the college could be so much more than just the academics. I played it safe and responded (with my then-thick accent), “I came here to study” and my interlocutors chuckled, not knowing what to say, their hands full of leaflets. They were extracurricular activity pros, I wasn’t. Eventually I developed my own social network and became involved in a few initiatives, but the raison d’etre of my journey to the US, the academics, remained my top priority.

Back to the expectations. The narrative of “change” echoed throughout my college years.  We were all expected to change, not only to broaden our minds, but to form ourselves anew and leave parts of ourselves behind.  Some professors clearly wanted to walk us towards or even through such a transformation. I must admit I intuitively avoided those who were itching for the latter: I felt oppressed by their attempts, as noble as they sounded. Indeed, many of my classmates did change beyond recognition. To me, the very idea of “total change” was unsettling and still is. Why were those kids so eager to leave their old selves behind? Were their parents expecting radical change, now that they had sent that big check to the college? Can I blame this expectation of change on the particularity of the American spirit? Anyway, I embraced the opportunity to advance academically and make new friends from different backgrounds, but I felt that a college education should not change anything in my essence.

The paradigm of change is a tricky business. Admittedly, it is inevitable that we gradually grow out of our old selves to some extent in order to absorb and embrace something as we progress and strive  for erudition and (hopefully) character development. Yet, I’m convinced that it is wrong to assume that the youth who embark on their college journey have to un-learn a considerable amount of what they had learnt previously. The more I think about it, the more treacherous this type of expectation feels. It’s not our job as university teachers to dismantle whatever precious assets the youth had brought with them. It’s not our job to strip them of their sense of belonging, religion, and moral ideals that inform their decision-making. Students cannot be expected to roam the jungle of the world, dangerous as it is, barefoot and clueless, relying solely on our casual instructions. Our job is to teach them valuable things, give them tools to reason and inspire them, not to reinvent them.

This is why I feel somewhat relieved when I see that my students here in Krakow have come to my classroom expecting decent education. Period. They are not desperate to be shown some brave new world, completely different from their pre-university realm. Of course, their prudence or even indifference does represent another kind of challenge to us, the instructors. These students are a bit more wary, and a lot less enthusiastic and open to change than many of their American counterparts. They don’t want to lose sight of familiar ground. They don’t want to be projected far into outer space, out of their comfort zones. It is a challenge for anyone who wants to teach them something new, but their attitude in itself is not ‘wrong’. Forcing anything on them would be akin to forcing a bud to open up before its time.  We need to realize that the world is much more complex than our academic circles and evaluations. College students that they are, they are also still part of the living fabric of their families and communities and eventually, they will need to take their education into their hands and either back to those communities or into the great wide world where their learning shall continue. Hopefully we will inspire them to learn and explore. Hopefully, we will foster their curiosity so that they may eventually become the best versions of their current selves.

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