I have a clear memory of starting college and feeling as if I had been waiting my whole life for that experience. My first night in the dorms was specifically memorable because I had a near death experience. I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin and there is a sizable homeless population there. The homeless people are known in the community and at times are not so happy with the college population. Our first night of college we had left piles of boxes outside the dorm and it is unclear if it was on purpose (hopefully not) or maybe just a stray cigarette, but all of the sudden there was a small fire that spread to the dorm. In my first night in my dorm I woke up to my new friend down the hall opening our door and telling my roommate and I, “You have to get up! There is a fire.” Then we realized that an alarm had been going off (I think in our sleep we tried to ignore it initially and hoped it would go away). We all ran to the stairs in our PJs and slippers and could already smell the smoke (even though we were ten floors up). I remember trailing behind someone and just hoping as we made it down a level that we weren’t going to encounter the fire on the next stairwell. We made it out safely and all stood outside laughing to ourselves (and maybe half searching for some adult supervision that was not there). However, the scars of that night have stayed with me as I always think I can smell smoke and don’t like living in an apartment on the top floor. That is the thing about college, even though its not your most “formative years” developmentally, my college years had probably the biggest influence on who I am today.
I am thinking about college so frequently because I basically live in it everyday. For the past few years while getting my master’s and now getting my PhD, I have taught yoga to undergraduates and been a teaching assistant in undergraduate political science courses. On the first day of class when I sit in the lecture waiting for the professor to arrive I like to think to that I blend in and that they can’t tell I am the teaching assistant. I enjoy eavesdropping to their conversations and wondering what I would be thinking and feeling in their position when I was in college. From the outside these students seem so much more knowledgeable and self-confident than I was in college.
Part of me still feels like a college student, from that excitement for learning, doubt about one’s path, the desire to succeed mixed with insecurity, and the earnestness. When my young girl students come talk to me about classes or want my advice on career path I see myself in their questions and hope to guide or inspire them in some way. When I teach undergraduate students about international relations, I call on the quieter ones and force them to share their opinion or encourage the type A over-achievers to relax a bit. It is like talking to past versions of myself, but at the same time I realize that I am no longer that person. I now somehow the person these students ask for advice and who potentially looks from the outside like I have it together.
Recently, a professor I had in college came to speak at my grad school. When I took his class I remember I sat in the front row and never said a word. I think I once forced myself to attend his office hours, but neither of us really knew why I was there (now I am an office hours pros always coming with questions and knowing how to guide the conversation). I sat in the first row listening to his talk and tried to take myself back to being that 20-year old girl in his class at college and never knowing I would end up in a PhD program studying what he was talking about. I remember one time after his class I told a friend his career path looked appealing and that maybe I should be a professor and he said, “Well it’s really hard…” At the time I accepted this and thought that meant I couldn’t do it.
After this talk at my grad school I purchased his book and dutifully stood in line feeling to get it signed, feeling more confident and adult than last time I saw him speak. He gave me a look of recognition and when I shook his hand I told him I was in his class he said he knew I looked familiar. He seemed delighted that now I was in grad school pursuing my PhD. I left feeling as if I had won some sort of award. I am not sure why it meant so much for me to be recognized. I think I had felt I was invisible in classes in college, even though the classes had an enormous impact on my life. I also realized that this professor’s excitement at seeing how I had progressed after his class was the same gratification I feel after advising a student.
At times it is hard being on college campus all the time and feeling so on the outside of things. There are days when I look at the students and think how lucky they are to be in the midst of what was such an exciting time for me. Is my desire to be a college professor a form of Peter Pan syndrome? Is it just that I never want to leave the place that made me so happy – where for the first time I felt excited to learn, where I could learn whatever I wanted, and had the independence and freedom I was ready for since I was 10 years old? Hopefully it is the better alternative and I am just hoping that after taking my class, some young girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself and thinks it might be too hard to be a professor, takes the risk.
*Not what I am writing about, but always thought this was a catchy song.