College visits produce anxiety, nostalgia

The joke about campus tours is that they’re all the same.

This short video from College Humor captures it nicely.

After taking two such tours this week with my middle son, Harris, I’ve concluded that, yes, touring campuses starts to feel like deja vu after a while, but if you’re paying attention, there’s a lot you can learn about your children… and yourself.

I never took a campus tour at what was then Troy State University before deciding to matriculate there in May of 1988. I took them up on their scholarship offer late in my senior year of high school. It was a practical decision made for purely financial reasons. The first time I set foot on the Troy campus was for pre-college orientation that summer.

Lance and Harris pose with the bronze statue of the Mercer Bear in front of the University Center building.
Harris and I pose for a selfie with the ferocious Mercer Bear outside of the University Center.

I have taken a few campus tours since, and now that I work in higher education, I’ve given a few. Carla and I did a round of college visits with our oldest when he was making his college selection. Visits to University of Georgia, Clemson, and Kennesaw State along with an informal, football-centric trip to Auburn (thanks to our friends, the Hursts!), rounded out his explorations. He ultimately landed at KSU for a year and a half before transferring to Georgia where he is now happily ensconced.

Barron was all about the college experience, particularly the marching band experience. He was coming off two years as drum major of his high school marching band, and he wanted to march in a big-time college band that played big-time games on big-time television and gave him big-time memories. At the time of those tours, he didn’t really know what he wanted to major in, vacillating between communications and music education.

Fast forward three years and he’s now a furnishings and interiors major with a concentration in historic preservation and played his trumpet on the field at the national championship game in Indianapolis back in January. So things worked out just fine. The campus tour did not make or break his future.

Harris Wallace listens to a tour guide outside of the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building on the historic quad of Mercer University's campus.
When we think of Mercer, we think of the historic quad, including the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building.

Our second son, Harris, is different in just about every way possible. While he has loved his marching band experience in high school, he is not seeking that from college. He is already working his 30-year plan, which includes a run for public office concluding with the White House. The two visits he took this week were to Mercer and UGA where one of the chief features the two have in common is a law school. (Emory is on the list to visit as well.)

The rah-rah portions of the tour didn’t appeal to him as much. He did soak up the vibe, which was a hot one this week, but his interests were more about academics, application processes, scholarships, honors programs and dual degrees that allow a student to complete a bachelor’s and master’s in an abbreviated time. His goals are more academic and profession-based than his brother’s. 

As the parents on these tours, Carla and I try to be present and offer advice without taking over. That was easier at UGA than at Mercer from which both of us have a degree. Carla particularly wanted to go into every building to see how it was different from when she went there back in the ‘90s. Spoiler alert: the campus has changed quite a bit.

Harris Wallace poses in front of the University of Georgia School of Law.
Harris can envision himself attending classes here at the University of Georgia School of Law one day.

I think our nostalgia annoyed Harris more than it helped, but our personal connections to the institution made that inevitable. Those connections did lead to Harris getting to meet Mercer President Bill Underwood, something no one else on our tour with Kelli was able to do. I don’t think Harris minded our Mercerian status then.

Here’s what I have learned from the college visit process from two cycles:

Separate emotion from data. Start with your child’s career interests and work backward. It’s not criminal if they don’t know what they want to do, but if they have an idea, it’s a good starting point. Then look at the academic degrees offered. Faculty matter in those fields, too, but don’t get hung up on rankings and reputational stuff. Good students succeed no matter where they are planted. And if you, like us, have some alma maters in the running, try not to let your glory days have too much influence. Our children need to blaze their own trails. If they do choose your school, know that their experience will be different from yours.

Your child’s future is not at stake. Try to relax and help your child enjoy the tour. It may feel like getting into the right school and making the right college choice is a life-or-death decision, but it’s not. Transferring is a reality. There are many paths to success. If you feel your anxiety level rising during the campus tour, take a time out and try not to let your issues infect your child. They will make better decisions without all the extra emotional baggage.

Don’t bring that helicopter. A colleague at another university recently told me that at their college orientation, the student life staff purposely have multiple options for free T-shirts just so they can force students to make a decision. It’s part of their preparation for college. She said all too often parents will step in, or, even worse, the student will turn to the parent and ask them which shirt they should pick. Staff are trained to then redirect the question to the student: “Which shirt do YOU want?” If you haven’t already built the habit of letting your child make some decisions for themselves, the campus tour is a good place to start.

As we wait for test scores and applications to open, I’m working on being present with Harris as he contemplates his future. It’s both a help and a hindrance that I work in higher education. You don’t have to be an expert to help your child navigate this decision, and your child’s choice will not determine the course of their entire life. Their future is still very much in their hands.

We’re on our second of three times through this journey of campus tours and college selection. Harris’ experience is different from Barron’s, and I’m sure Carlton’s will be unique from his older brothers’. 

Harris Wallace talks with a female UGA tour guide on the Million Dollar Staircase on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens.
Harris gets to know “Lou” our UGA tour guide from Greensboro, NC, as they walk down the “Million Dollar Staircase.”

Carla likes to talk about seasons of life. This is one of those seasons that I’m learning to enjoy. It’s fun to reminisce, but I’m trying to let Harris make his own memories.

Hey, let me tell you about that time my roommate Scott skulled a possum in the parking lot of our dorm…

What was your campus tour like? How has it been different with your children? Did you find it stressful? Let’s process this together. Leave a comment and contribute to the conversation.

Thank a teacher

We’ve reached the season of commencement ceremonies, high school graduations, end-of-year awards banquets and last-day-of-school parties. As another exhausting academic year comes to a close, remember to thank your teachers.

I graduated from Troy University 30 years ago next month. Here’s a heartfelt note of appreciation to my primary journalism professor:

We arrived at Troy State University’s Hall School of Journalism at the same time in September of 1988.

Gordon “Mac” McKerral was an assistant professor of journalism, and I was a freshman journalism and political science major.

A cliched mix of hubris and insecurity, I resembled the stereotypical immature college freshman. Because I had worked at my hometown newspaper since the summer of 1987, recognized the MicroTek typesetting computer system the journalism department used to produce the student paper, knew a little Associated Press (AP) style, and had front-page stories with my byline, I believed I already knew a lot about journalism.

But I was also a college freshman. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It was my first time out on my own, and though I lived in a dorm with 500 other guys, I suddenly had a level of self-determination and freedom I had never experienced. I wanted to be true to my faith, my upbringing, my values, and myself, but I also wanted to make friends, fit in, and achieve goals. I wanted to become the editor of the student newspaper, The Tropolitan, and I wanted to graduate with top honors. I had my eye set on landing a good job at a big paper, making a name for myself in the process. In contrast to my veneer of self confidence, I questioned my abilities and intelligence. I wondered if I had what it took to become a respected journalist.

Enter Mr. McKerral.

A male teacher in blue shirt and red tie points standing with hand on his hip in a newspaper office.
Leaning on a paste-up board in “The Tropolitan” office, Mr. McKerral displays his default expression: Mild annoyance mixed with an instructive impulse and maybe a hint of compassion.

We first crossed paths in Reporting I the winter quarter of my freshman year. After only one quarter at Troy, Mr. McKerral had earned a reputation for being tough but fair, a good lecturer drawing on his varied real-life experiences and a challenging mentor who pushed students to achieve more than they thought they were capable of. As I had with every adult I had met since adolescence, I tried to win his approval, impressing him with my journalistic background and talent. I was the only freshman in the Reporting class that quarter, and Mr. McKerral seemed to cater to the upperclassmen, making jokes and building an easy rapport with them. I wasn’t offended. I vowed to earn his academic AND social affirmations.

Mr. McKerral’s curriculum for Reporting I included weekly quizzes on entries from the AP Stylebook. A firm believer that journalists should know the book inside and out, he gave us sections to study each week. After only a few weeks, he gave us the assignment of creating our own AP Stylebook quiz. His educational goal was for students to become familiar with the entries by drafting their own 10 questions. I scoured my Stylebook, building my quiz around the most obscure entries that no one would possibly know off the top of their head and would almost never use. To my horror, the next week Mr. McKerral passed out my assignment as the weekly quiz. He did not cover my name which appeared in the upper righthand corner. As we all struggled through the quiz, I heard grumbling around the room as my classmates cursed the sadistic questions. If I had been an anonymous freshman before that ended with the authorship of the impossible Stylebook quiz. My reputation plunged further the next day when Mr. McKerral handed back the graded quizzes while offering a derisive commentary to each student. If looks could kill, I wouldn’t have made it to Spring Break. Mocking everyone’s performance with a quip, Mr. McKerral saved my quiz for last. He relished pointing out my own poor performance to the class.

“As you all know, Young Wallace here wrote this quiz,” he said holding my paper aloft and fluttering his eyelids. “What you probably don’t know is that he missed three on his own test.”

Mr. McKerral’s laughter relieved the tension, and my classmates released their frustrations by following suit. Standing at the lectern with his foot propped on the base, he dismissed all of our fears with a wave of his hand. He declared the quiz would not count in the grade book, but it was by far the hardest Stylebook test he had ever seen. Though he prided himself on his Stylebook acumen, he confessed that even he had to look up many of the answers. He said he had to make us take that quiz on principle.

“Let that be a lesson for you: You can never know the AP Stylebook too well.”

I no longer had to wonder if I had captured his or my peers’ attention. From that moment on, I was the wunderkind, the Doogie Howser of Reporting, the freshman phenom, the journalism nerd.

Soon we moved on from AP Stylebook quizzes to actual writing assignments. Mr. McKerral served as our editor, treating the campus as our coverage area. He assigned stories that required us to contact administrators, faculty, staff and students for interviews, and in some cases, dig up information from public records or the library. Each week, Mr. McKerral handed out the juiciest stories to my classmates and stuck me with the most mundane topics. After several weeks, I worked up the courage to confront Mr. McKerral during his office hours.

“You’ve written plenty of those kinds of stories before,” he said about the more exciting topics given to my classmates. “If you are going to improve and grow as a reporter, you’ve got to learn to make something out of these stories that don’t have much appeal on the surface.”

He could have told me that up front, but Mr. McKerral understood that I would learn better if I grappled with it on my own. He was right, and I attacked each subsequent story with vigor, embracing the challenge, determined to draw readers in with my writing. I didn’t always succeed, but the struggle made me better.

At the end of the spring quarter, I applied for the vacant editor position of the student newspaper, “The Tropolitan.” Mr. McKerral served as the Trop’s adviser and was a member of the search committee. It was rare for a sophomore to be named editor, and the committee looked for evidence that I could handle the responsibility. My resume and reporting experience spoke for itself. What they needed to see in the interviews was how I handled pressure and conflict. Other than being asked arcane grammar questions and probing about my experiences at The Daily Highlander, the committee didn’t focus on journalistic skills as much as I anticipated. Led by a cross examination from Mr. McKerral, I left the interview having learned more about myself than the committee learned about me.

I don’t remember who else competed for the position, but I got the job, which I would hold for two years. This journalism lab exposed me to such challenges as deciding when to run and when to hold a story, getting the paper to the printer on time, how to handle corrections and managing a staff. College students were not always reliable. I couldn’t always count on a student reporter to submit his or her assignment on time, and section editors had a habit of disappearing as the quarter wore on. I recruited a good team of section editors and found myself spending more and more time in The Trop’s offices. It became my life and my obsession. My friends never saw me. They even started calling me by a new nickname: Trop. The paper was my identity.

The Tropolitan went to press on Thursday nights. We had to deliver the pages to the printer in a nearby town for printing by 10 p.m. Mr. McKerral accepted no excuses for being late, and without fail, he would check on us each week around 7 p.m. uttering his unique brand of sarcastic encouragement.

“Is this the Tropolitan or the Palladium?” he would yell out, comparing our weekly newspaper to the university’s annually printed yearbook.

“What’s this comma doing here?” he would say, leaning over an already completed page on the paste-up board.

“That’s not how you spell ‘fiduciary!’” he would chide.

And his staple: “Start a page, finish a page!”

On one particularly tense Thursday production night, he made the rounds in the newsroom and paste-up room barking orders and offering “encouragement.” When I heard his office door close, I began to mimic him, yelling out editorial admonishments in his Chicago accent. I ranted and raved, waving my arms in imitation of Mr. McKerral’s signature gestures. A minute into my performance, I noticed the staff had stopped laughing. Their eyes shifted from me, so I turned to see what had stolen their attention. Mr. McKerral had quietly opened his office door and re-emerged into the Trop’s offices. He stood behind me with his hands on his hips and his eyebrows raised.

“I do not talk like that!” he said before dramatically exiting through his office and slamming the door.

Always able to come up with the perfect quip, my all-time-favorite McKerralism came during one of our staff meetings at the beginning of the term. My use of the slogan “Get a Staff Infection!” on recruitment signs throughout the journalism building had invoked a raised eyebrow and a head shake. I was leading a Q&A after my presentation about the glory of working on the student newspaper. The Trop’s office was about two-thirds full with a mix of new and familiar faces. An artsy, very earnest Bohemian-type in the back raised his hand. I pointed to him.

“Do you publish fiction?” he asked sincerely.

Before I could even process what he was asking, Mr. McKerral called out from behind me, “Not on purpose!”

In his role as adviser to The Tropolitan, Mr. McKerral met with me each Friday after the latest edition hit the streets. We discussed grammar and punctuation mistakes, poor wording choices, pushed deadlines, personnel issues and even AP Stylebook errors. He would offer his critique, sometimes gentle and other times more personal. He helped with personnel management of the newspaper staff and even had to point out how disruptive it was when my girlfriend, who was the business manager, and I argued. He illuminated my blind spots and made me a better journalist, editor and leader. Those weekly one-on-ones proved to be some of the most beneficial learning experiences of my time at Troy.

He was also my academic adviser, and two of the best pieces of advice he gave me were about my internship and how to round out my course load my senior year.

I had worked at newspapers every summer since my junior year of high school, but I wanted my for-credit internship to be at a big-city paper that would open doors for my future career. The Indianapolis Star’s conservative former editorial page editor and frequent cable news show pundit M. Stanton Evans taught an editorial writing class once a year at Troy. Mr. McKerral advised me to take the class, telling me I wouldn’t have another opportunity to learn from someone so accomplished, skilled and connected. Of course, Mr. McKerral was correct, and I found the class one of the most challenging and beneficial during my major course of study.

Having Mr. Evans as an instructor also gave me a leg up in applying for the internship program he ran in Washington, D.C., called the National Journalism Center (NJC). I was aiming for an internship at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, or one of the big daily newspapers that was part of the Knight Ridder chain. Mr. McKerral told me to go study in D.C. with Stan for a quarter. It turned out to be sound advice, and I had a life-changing and career-building experience in Washington.

The program was formatted to have six weeks at NJC covering hearings and press conferences for practice while writing an in-depth project. The second six weeks required a placement at a D.C.-area media outlet. I ended up covering Senate hearings on a retiring ambassador to Russia and wrote my project on the growth of the federal budget during the Reagan administration, pouring over the gigantic volumes at the Library of Congress for hours at a time. Then I spent my outside assignment at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, gaining invaluable experience and clips for my portfolio with bylined front-page stories in The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The St. Paul Pioneer-Press, among others. Mr. McKerral’s advice had been right, and that internship helped me land my first job at the Knight Ridder-owned Macon Telegraph the summer after I graduated.

When I returned to Troy for my last two quarters, Mr. McKerral advised me to fill out my schedule with business classes. Advanced Placement courses from high school had given me a head start on my credits, so I finished both my journalism and political science majors by the end of the fall quarter of my senior year. Wisely, Mr. McKerral said I would never regret taking the business classes, and they would help me with management jobs as my career progressed. I took economics, marketing and management, all of which came in handy when I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in business administration in 2000.

The closer I got to graduation, Mr. McKerral evolved from teacher and adviser to mentor and friend. I was no longer enrolled in his classes and wasn’t editor of the school paper. He insisted I call him “Mac,” and enjoyed continuing our conversations about journalism and my career in more social settings. He even loaned me his car a few times, an older model Mazda stick shift that took some getting used to but ultimately helped me learn a new and important skill. He also gave me his father’s golf clubs. We played golf together a few times when I took golf for a physical education credit, and he proved to be as good a coach on the course as in the classroom.

Mac would do anything for his students, and I learned to trust and count on him no matter the circumstances. One quarter, the honor society I was a member of, Alpha Lambda Delta, needed a speaker for its induction ceremony. I asked Mac, and he reluctantly agreed. He said he didn’t see himself as a very good example for honors students.

“That’s not really my crowd,” he said.

His speech was one of the best and most inspiring I heard in college. He shared how he had gone to Arizona State University, partied too hard and flunked out after a semester. Returning to Chicago and working a number of manual labor jobs, including a stint as a grave digger, gave him the focus and clarity he needed to return to ASU. He not only completed his undergraduate degree in secondary education with good grades, he went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Illinois. He encouraged the inductees to seek out educational experiences beyond the classroom and not waste the opportunities they were given. I was moved.

As adviser to the collegiate chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at Troy, Mac chaperoned our group trips to regional and national conventions. He encouraged me to run for one of the two student positions on the national board, which proved to be another impactful experience.

Mac and I served on the national board of SPJ together for several years after I graduated. I was the representative for the southeast region on the board, and he represented the campus chapters. The mentoring continued, and we worked together to plan several regional conventions. He was truly a trusted adviser and friend.

We kept in touch in those early years of my career, and I frequently sought his advice. Unable to attend in person, Mac sent one of the most thoughtful and meaningful wedding gifts to Carla and me. It was a pewter cup made in the shape of a woman holding a bowl. The bowl was on a swivel. The cub was designed for the bride and groom’s first toast, with the bride drinking from the upturned dress and the groom drinking from her bowl on a swivel. We used it at our reception, and though he wasn’t there in person, Mac was with us in spirit.

When I had been at The Macon Telegraph for more than seven years, a job offer to go to Mercer University to work in public relations came my way. It would mean leaving newspaper journalism behind, so naturally, I consulted Mac. Looking back on it now, I think I needed his permission to give up on journalism as a career more than I needed guidance on taking the job. My identity was so intertwined with my profession, and I did not want to disappoint him as my journalism professor and mentor. As always, he had good advice.

“It’s a big change, but you can do that job. It’s really no different than reporting. You get the facts, you organize them and you tell them in a truthful, compelling way. You’re a strong writer, and you’re good with people. Journalism is changing. I don’t blame you for getting out. But by all means, get your master’s degree, especially if they’ll pay for it. You’ll never regret having that degree, and it will open doors for you down the road.”

I’m sure I’ve told Mac “thank you” dozens of times for all the kindnesses, gifts, opportunities and advice he’s given me over the years, but it seems insufficient for the degree to which he contributed to my growth and development. He helped shape the person I am today. His impact on my life went well beyond his role as my journalism professor.

Thank you, Mac, for everything. I am grateful for your generosity, patience, tough love, and wisdom. If you have made a fraction of the difference in your other students’ lives throughout your career as you have made in mine, you have a profound legacy of which you should be proud.

Winner, winner hamburger dinner

I attended what was then known as Troy State University from 1988 to 1992 on a full academic scholarship. The financial aid package, named for former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace (no relation), covered tuition, fees, room, and board.

The “board” part of my scholarship entitled me to 20 meals per week in Stewart Dining Hall, located conveniently adjacent to my dormitory, Alumni Hall. Stewart, or “Saga” as it was known by the students because of the former contracting company who ran the food service, was closed on Sunday nights. That supper was the only meal each week I had to come out of pocket for and fend for myself. That usually meant the TSU student deal at the Western Sizzlin’ steakhouse for about $5.

I didn’t have a lot of expenses at the time. I had to pay for my books each semester, buy school supplies like notebooks and pens, any clothes to replace what was worn out or out of fashion, and entertainment. I worked at spending as little as I could. I had so much paid for by my scholarship that I did my best to stretch my dollar to the very last penny. I learned to be frugal from my father, who was always finding ways to spend less and get the best deal at restaurants and retail establishments.

During my matriculation at Troy, the student activity fee covered admission to many activities and campus events. Since that, too, was covered by my scholarship, I viewed these opportunities as added value to my college experience. I attended on-campus movies, sporting events, plays, and musical performances throughout my four years of college, all at no additional charge.

My buddies and I found the Trojans Men’s and Women’s basketball games to be a particularly good source of entertainment. Tom, Ross, Donavan, Trey, Troy, Mike, Dino, Eric, Harold, et al, made up a noisy student section intent on both cheering our Trojans on to victory and heckling the other team’s star player mercilessly. It was the best free entertainment to be had in Lower Alabama.

The men’s team in particular was very competitive at the time. Led by Coach Don Maestri, the Trojans ran an up-tempo style offense that relied on three-point field goals. This run-and-gun style of play led to Troy setting the NCAA scoring record in 1992, my senior year, when they beat DeVry 258-141. It was one of the most memorable sporting events I ever attended, and it was great fun to see our Division-II Trojans on the ESPN SportsCenter highlights.

But the game that meant the most to me came on a Saturday night during my freshman year. My bank account had dwindled to pennies, and I had almost no money to my name. Sunday night was coming, and I had no money for supper. But free admittance to the basketball game on Saturday helped put my financial woes out of my mind.

In those days, the athletic department ran a promotion in the second half of each men’s game. Fans were encouraged at halftime to fill out slips of paper with their name and student ID, and every time Troy hit a three-pointer in the second half, they would draw a name and award a prize from an athletics department sponsor.

This was a free lottery, so my friends and I availed ourselves of this opportunity every game. Troy was so prolific at three-point shooting, and we were such faithful attenders to the games, I almost always knew someone who won something from the three-point shot promotion. When one of our names was called, we celebrated like we just hit the game-winning shot. We extracted personal glory from sheer, blind luck.

At halftime on that night, we gathered around the table, filling out slips of paper like madmen, and raced back to our seats. It was our habit, our tradition. I had never won the drawing before and didn’t give it a second thought. As the Trojans came out of the tunnel and back onto the floor for warmups, the pep band fired up, and I was living in the moment, having a great time with my buddies. I was succeeding at forgetting that a hungry Sunday night was in my future.

I don’t remember who Troy played that night, but the score was close. A competitive game in the second half was good for the three-point contest because that meant Troy would keep shooting three pointers, increasing the odds one of us would win a drawing.

Most of the basketball players lived on the second floor of Alumni Hall in the wing where my roommate, Dave, was the resident assistant. We got to know many of them. Shooting guard Neal Murray lived on the first floor, next door to Tom and Donavan, two of my first and best friends. Neal was always gracious with us, tolerating our breaking down the games when we ran into him. We cheered a little harder for Neal because of our connection, and he often delivered with well-timed three-point shots. He still holds the Troy record for three-point shooting percentage for a season (46%).

1989 Troy State University Trojan men's basketball team pose for a team photo on the porch of a cabin.
Neal Murray, circled in red, is my all-time favorite Trojan Basketball player, for obvious reasons. Several of his three-point shooting records still stand.

And so it was on that winter night, destitute and trying my best to forget my problems, I clapped and cheered for Neal and his teammates. And then it happened. A few minutes into the second half, Neal delivered a signature three, and we celebrated.

Our cheers hit a new level, though, when a few seconds later they called my name as the next winner of the three-point drawing.

“Lance Wallace, you’ve just won a Wendy’s single combo!”

In that instant, Neal Murray had not only helped the Trojans close in on another win, he helped me secure my Sunday night supper.

I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t won the drawing. I guess I just believed something would come up. Maybe I could sneak a few extra biscuits out of the cafeteria at lunch, or someone would graciously offer to share their Domino’s delivery. Neal Murray made all that moot. After the game I claimed my coupon, and on Sunday night, I enjoyed a Wendy’s single more than I had ever enjoyed a hamburger before.

Was it a miracle? I don’t use that term lightly. I don’t think so. Was it an answer to prayer? I can’t say for sure because I don’t remember making it an urgent matter of prayer.

I can say the one and only time I won the three-point shot drawing during my four years at Troy was at a time I needed it most. Neal Murray will forever be my favorite Troy basketball player.

When all the world was young

This June marked the 20th anniversary of my graduation from Troy University, and after spending this week with 140 college students at a conference in Alabama, I can’t help but reflect on how students are different in the New South.

Discussions in small groups at the SELAHvie conference in Alabama.
That’s me, the old guy on the left, leading a small group discussion at the SELAHvie conference for college students at Shocco Springs Conference Center in Alabama this week. Photo by Meggie Dant.

As a small group leader who did double duty as an interviewer and reporter covering the event, I spent the four-day conference studying these young adults, hearing their stories and processing my own journey along with them. Here are five characteristics of today’s students I observed from the week:

First, New South collegians are well travelled. I never left the confines of the United States until I was 29. Today’s college students most likely have several stamps in their passports before they reach graduation. They have shrunk the world as they experience new cultures and visit what would have been considered exotic and remote locales back in my day.

They are not only experienced travelers, they have a global worldview. They see how we are connected and how the actions of one country impact others. They understand intuitively that we are connected and cannot live in isolation. They have relationships with people in other countries and can personalize another cultural perspective.

Second, students today don’t expect much from the economy. Yes, they have career aspirations and a strong sense of calling, but because they have been matriculating during a global economic downturn, they don’t take good jobs for granted.

They also don’t base their identity on their careers. Of course, many of them are still sorting all that out, but in general, they don’t think of themselves as accountants, engineers, ministers, lawyers or physicians. They think of themselves as individuals first and people who have or need jobs second. They don’t define themselves by or invest too much ego in their future careers.

Third, their closets are much less crowded with shoes. In fact, a single pair of flip flops can accessorize any outfit in their wardrobes. There is no occasion that is not appropriate for flip flops. I understand that this conference was in August, but I think they would acknowledge that their flip flop habit extends well beyond summer.

When I was in college, the only flip flops I owned I wore in the community showers in the dorm. Now, students in the New South wear them everywhere.

Students at the SELAHvie conference
Students built community while at the SELAHvie conference. Photo by Meggie Dant.

Fourth, today’s students appreciate the small gesture. Twenty years ago when we talked of changing the world, we seemed invested in the idea of the big change – world peace, ending hunger, curing cancer. This generation of collegians keeps those larger goals in perspective and understands that big change happens incrementally.

They celebrate small victories and understand that something as minute and basic as a smile is a step toward world peace. This week they shared stories from their summers of how those little moments became powerful examples of larger changes in their lives and in the world around them.

Finally, I observed that today’s college students seek out and build community wherever they go. I don’t even think community was a word 20 years ago. Or at least it wasn’t applied conceptually the way it is today among young people. This sense of community goes beyond fraternities and sororities, athletic teams, music and theater performers, dorm neighbors, social cliques, religious groups or other formal configurations of relationships.

Community is a shared core value. They want to be able to share their lives with each other beyond one-on-one dating relationships, and they embrace shared experiences over rugged individualism. They appear to be less selfish, more giving and more open to living in a way that includes a larger network than we ever imagined 20 years ago.

Why these sociological trends are so is a topic for another day, and I understand that I’m being overly general in this analysis. But as colleges welcome back students all across the South, they are welcoming back a different kind of student than the one who stepped foot on campus 20 years ago.

But what do I know? I’m old school.

New South Essays leaves open the possibility that these observations could be completely wrong! Feel free to share your thoughts by commenting below.