I landed at the University of Minnesota in September 1960, and stuck around through the spring of 1969, except for the year I dropped out to try to write a great American novel. (It set out to be anguished and introspective and got lost in the dark.) I was an English major and hung out in Vincent Hall, and the basement of Walter, in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I spent a few years in the basement of Murphy, at the Ivory Tower, imitating E.B. White, and in Eddy Hall, imitating Edward R. Murrow.
I’m not nostalgic for those years, but when I think back, I realize what a privilege it was for a kid from Anoka to be at the U and take his sweet time trying on various personas – inscrutable aesthete, cool dude, prairie radical, billiards ace, worldly sophisticate, dangerous intellectual, Gopher hockey fan, mysterious loner, serious heartthrob, and making his way across the high plateau of education and into the gullies of adult life.
I wish for the current generation to have the same rousing time I had.
Some students then and now feel lost at the U, which is understandable, and some of them lose momentum due to bad habits, confusion, lack of sleep, poor choice of friends, poor choice of beverages, but the old alumnus knows that college is supposed to be an exhilarating time for a young man or young woman, a time of awakening and epiphany, the discovery of one’s unique capabilities and mission in life, a gathering-up of energy and ambition, a foretaste of sweet success.
College years are meant to be happy
“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” says Scripture, “but time and chance happeneth to them all” – yes, yes, and some shining stars flame out and some promises are never kept, but the college years are meant to be happy – the slog through high school is done, the sharp elbows of professional rivalry are off in the distance – and that was why I went over to the Kafé 421 in Dinkytown to talk to six CLA students, high achievers all: to see if they are having as good a time as they should, and if not, why not.
Most stories you read about higher education have to do with funding cutbacks and budget cuts and tuition hikes and the dumbing down of the coursework, especially in the humanities — but this story isn’t about that. It’s about academic happiness. Young people divining the future.
(Click on each name for their stories)
- DUSTIN CHACÓN: Linguistics, Beinecke scholar, Bangladesh
- AARON MARKS: Music education, leadership, drum major
- ANGELA MERRITT: Child psychology, Max Planck Institute, Germany
- THUY NGUYEN-TRAN: Physiology, DNA research
- JASMINE OMOROGBE: Communication studies, Hip hop, Shakespeare, singer
- DAVE RAILE: Spanish studies, med-school bound, Ecuador
Working toward the long-term reward
I talked to the six students individually for an hour or so, asked open-ended questions, scribbled down their answers as best I could. Each of them struck me as straightforward, unabashed, unselfconscious, talking to me as equals, making eye contact – none of that eye-rolling and smirking and mumbling and slouchiness that you see in some young people and that drives the old alumnus nuts. And each of them is capable of self-discipline, turning off the immediate gratification in favor of working toward the long-term reward.
And then there was the energy. The surge of energy when they sat down next to me and got to talking. It was inspiring to meet them. It’s good to talk to people in their early twenties. You learn that weariness and disillusionment and despair are luxuries. You’ve got to keep going back to basics. I left Dinkytown and drove home to Saint Paul, resolved to quit fruiting around and try to focus and work harder and make my time count for something. I’m hopeful about that.
Garrison Keillor, the creator and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” is the author of several books and a syndicated column. He is also a CLA alumnus. This article is reprinted with permission from the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts’ Reach magazine.