College life now vs. then

Over the weekend, Kathy and I had dinner at the home of a granddaughter whose parents (our son and daughter-in-law) were helping her get ready to head for college out of state. Her older sister had gone through the same preparations the previous week, for graduate school at another out-of-state university.

The visit jogged our memories about how we prepared for our own college lives. The differences are significant.

When we arrived on our respective campuses 60 years earlier, we could each put all our clothes into a couple of suitcases. 

Kathy took a clock radio and a record player. I had a radio and a laundry box — Mom insisted that I send my laundry home for her to wash. 

That was all we hauled into our dorm rooms. 

No personal furniture, no TV, no mini-fridge. And, of course, no computer or cellphone — those appeared decades later.

Kathy enrolled in a large state university, and I started in a small liberal arts college. But our dorm room experiences were similar.

Dad stuck some note paper, envelopes and stamps into my luggage, with the request that I write Mom every week. I didn’t follow through, of course, and I’ve lived with that guilt ever since. 

The idea of writing letters home seems quaint today. Why would you do that when now you can call home on your cellphone, or do face time with the folks on your computer, or probably make contact in other ways with which I’m not familiar?

Back then, calling home long distance was a really big deal. 

Long-distance calls seemed expensive; on the rare occasion when you actually made one, you reversed the charges and you tried to cram everything you needed or wanted to say into as few minutes as possible.

And telephones inside the dorm rooms came only later. 

Visits home were even rarer. 

Most college students of my acquaintance did not have cars; a visit home would require a bus trip, or a hitched ride with someone who was going that direction. You went to school in the fall not expecting to see your family until Thanksgiving, about three months ahead.

The changes in communication and transportation in the past 60 years are phenomenal. But they pale, of course, compared to what life was like for emigrants to the United States back in the mid-19th century. People who left their home countries in the 1800s did so in the knowledge they would probably never see or speak with their families again.

The lifestyle change for a freshly minted college student in 1960 wasn’t as drastic as what 1860 emigrants experienced, of course. But it was still a strange feeling to unpack your few belongings in a college dorm room knowing that communications with your family would be few and far between for the next several months.

Bottom line: it was harder to alleviate college homesickness 60 years ago than it is today, and living conditions in campus housing were generally more spartan then than now. 

Life for most of today’s college students is more like what they left at home than it was for us old-timers back when we arrived on campus for the first time.

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