05 March 2009

How I chose my college

I went to a private high school, but it’s maybe not what you’re picturing. There were 48 seniors in the Central Catholic class of 1987, and we all had to do something because the school was perpetually broke and required student labor to run. I had a key to the building and would occasionally go in at night to work on the yearbook, to let in a friend who forgot an assignment, to place the drip buckets after a heavy rain or surprising thaw, or to pick up equipment for the basketball team which found itself halfway to Clinton Prairie HS without road unis. We wore gloves in class in winter, and while we couldn’t smoke inside we were allowed to chew tobacco as long as we were “tidy.” If you were nice, occasionally funny, showed up with your homework done most of the time, made an effort and demonstrated concern about performance, then that was enough for an A from many teachers.

While “college” was a given for most of us at CC, “college” was pretty limited: it meant Purdue if you were a math person, IU if you were a lit/humanities person, and Ball State if you weren’t real bright. Notre Dame got about one kid a year, and in my year that wasn’t going to be me. We had no AP classes, no one talked about or had even heard of the ACT, and there were no SAT prep classes – if you broke a thousand you were done. I took the SAT the morning between two Junior/Senior proms. I was done.

It was understood that I wasn’t going to Purdue because I wasn’t a math or science kind of guy. It was understood that I wasn’t going to IU because, well, I was different. I wanted school spirit and somewhere with a good journalism program, and while that sounds a bit like IU I didn’t even consider it. And anyway, I couldn’t have picked a good journalism program out of a burlap sack with nothing in it but good journalism programs. I picked the three colleges I applied to one day in early October, sitting in English class with a stack of college stuff, when I asked aloud to anyone in earshot: “Guys, where I should apply?” My friend Dave said, “You’re asking us? Start with the ones that don’t make you write essays.”

I completed the Marquette app that day and mailed it in. I’d first heard of MU from the sweatshirt my cross country coach would wear sometimes, and I had seen the men’s basketball team play once on TV in the window at Montgomery Ward in the mall (losing in overtime to Notre Dame). I asked my dad about it and he said, “Yeah, it’s a good school. It’s not Catholic, though, it’s Jesuit.” I didn’t get that at the time. I applied to three colleges – Catholic U., where my Dad had gone (’52), Saint Louis U., and Marquette. My acceptance letter to MU arrived just after Thanksgiving – I’ve kept it – and it was dated on my birthday, 1986.

My ma had a cousin in Milwaukee and I had one excused-absence college visit day left from CC, so she said to me “Why don’t we go see Sr. Mary Calvin in Milwaukee and you can tour Marquette?” I liked road trips, so even though I was pretty set on Catholic U. I made the appointment and we went. My interview was with the Admissions Office intern, a current MU senior from Cincinnati who seemed impossibly polished and professional to me. He met with me solo for 20 minutes and then my mom joined us for the last half. Walking out from the interview she said “I could see you doing that,” which was a prescient comment if ever there was one: my office years later would be the one in which we’d met our student interviewer. Our personal tour guide was from Vermont and he wore Birkenstocks, which I’d never seen, and his mellow, neo-hippie vibe was wholly new and wholly seductive, and surprising given the gritty, urban feel of campus. We loved him. I loved the city feel, I loved the Marquette gear on the students, I loved the mix of students and their friendliness – I loved it all. The Joan of Arc Chapel in the middle of campus – built in France in the 1500’s and reassembled in Milwaukee with no pews and a heated flagstone floor on which kids sat for Mass – was a beautiful, peaceful space, and then you walked outside to the rumble of busses and one way streets and the skyscraper 12th floor dorm that I’d likely be living in. This was the downtown of a major American city, even bigger than Indianapolis, and I could be going to school here!

Back in the car pointed south, with the late afternoon sun making Lake Michigan that impossible cerulean blue on our left, the sky punctured by church steeples stretching out for what seemed like forever on our right, and the skyline of Milwaukee in our rearview mirror, Catholic U. didn’t stand a chance. Ma asked “What’d ya think?” and I answered “I want to go to Marquette.”

She didn’t argue. Reading my mind, she said “Tell your father when you get home and he’ll be proud of you. Don’t worry, he only wanted you to go to Catholic if that’s what you really wanted.” She liked that she had a cousin in Milwaukee – even if that cousin was an elderly nun who didn’t drive, she knew I’d have someone to be responsible to and occasionally for – and having endured something similar to this process nine times before she was pretty sanguine. She’d really only made three comments about my post-high school plans: “You’re not going to Chaminade,” when I’d talk about Hawai`i and the time she and dad spent there when he was drafted during the Korean War; “I’m not sure the Navy is going to be right for you,” after I’d had several long conversations with my Navy recruiter, had aced the ASVAB and had talked to my two older brothers who’d served; and “I’m not sure how you’d afford Notre Dame,” when I was told I’d be putting myself through college like all of my siblings before me. (Well, I had the money in my savings account from when Granpa sold a pig on my first birthday, like he had for all of us, but that didn’t cover a year of college like it used to.) She liked Marquette for me, I could tell; she was a go-with-your gut person, and her comfort with the decision gave me additional confidence in it.

So I made a great decision in a sloppy, ill-managed way. I loved Marquette, and still do; when I walk across campus now I still get goosebumps and I tell the students that I work with that I want that for them – that they find their “goosebump” school. Years later after I’d started work in the admissions office I learned that our tour guide from that day had been fired; he wasn’t particularly reliable. That skyscraper that I moved into with such enthusiasm and apprehension in August, 1987, now looks like a squat, dated example of 1970’s architecture, but from my room on the 12th floor I could see all the way to County Stadium, and down the hall from me were guys from Idaho and suburban Los Angeles and Rhode Island and Syracuse, and even one guy from Chicago who didn’t have a driver’s license and grew up above his family’s pub. (I was shocked – people with kids run pubs for a living? He was shocked that I'd help butcher a cow, so we were even, I guess.) I was in classes with a dairy famer’s son and a half Colombian kid from northern Minnesota with an almost impenetrable Min-uh-SOH-tan accent whose dual language was Spanish; there was a girl from Mauritius who spoke French as her first language and had brown skin which wasn’t the color either of the Mexicans I’d met or my sister’s Vietnamese classmate; there was a black guy with an Irish last name, which I hadn’t known was possible. My world was terrifically expanded.

It wasn’t perfect. Marquette was deeply, institutionally anti-gay then, and I learned the courage it took to be out and the changes that coming out could evince, and the gift of supportive allies, and how people will almost always do the right thing when given a chance. There were misogynist faculty members and also priests who would say a gender inclusive Mass in Joan of Arc. There were protests about divesting from South Africa and a new program to feed the hungry in Milwaukee, which is still going strong. It was a majority white, conservative, Catholic college in the Midwest at the end of the Reagan years. And somehow, it was exactly what I needed.

I learned there. I was expected to learn how to think, to study, to work, to be disciplined and to question at Marquette, and I did it; reluctantly at first but I did it. I learned how to ask questions. I learned that when a room number started with a “3” it was likely on the third floor. I learned that wealth and good manners were not correlative. I learned that I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was, or as smart as I’d been told I was, and that smarts didn’t matter that much anyway. I learned that academic excellence required work and tenacity, and that work and tenacity yielded results. I would sit in class some days and it would feel as though rivets were popping in my head as brain was cajoled into expanding to make connections and imagine things that had been until that instant unimaginable. I learned both how to read French and how to shoot pool, and both with flashes of brilliance and long stretches of plodding. I learned about the economic implications of the Bubonic Plague on Europe and of the occasional, unlooked-for $20 my ma would mail me on the Monday Night Club. I read Camus and for getting through it I felt sophisticated for about 15 seconds, and then I felt daunted when I realized I’d have to read it again to wring meaning from it. I learned to see the bottomless fissures of beauty in Shakespeare – fissures which I could not yet plumb, and which made me feel simultaneously vertiginous and humbled, and like I wasn’t learning anything at all. I learned that it was an awfully big world out there.

I had no idea of my potential when I hauled my stuff out of our 1979 Caprice Classic in front of McCormick Hall in 1987, socially, intellectually, or experientially. I learned how to love to learn, and how to be brave. I can’t test the null – what would have happened had I gone to IU or Catholic or Notre Dame? – but that’s not the point. I have some sense of who I was when I started at MU and who I was when I left, and I have no doubt that Marquette was where I needed to be. At different points in my life - riding the subway in Tokyo, or playing cards with Australian friends on a beach in Thailand, or sitting in my graduate class on indigenous politics at UH Mānoa - I’d wonder how a boy from Fowler, Indiana, could be doing this. I usually conclude that it’s because he ended up where he needed to be for college.

I try to remember this when I talk to families, and always to remember why my job is important to me.

3 comments:

Dietra said...

I'm bawling.

good sister said...

So well said, Brennan! Thanks for putting that all down on paper (or typing it all on your blog). It brought back lots of memories and helped me realize why I love Marquette too!

Ken said...

Brennan, you're a credit to your education. Thanks for adding value to my Marquette degree.
Peace