I enjoyed lunch the other day with a longtime friend and his son. The father I’ve known for going on 30 years, the son for at least 10.
We’ve fished together in the lake at the farm, and even as a youngster the boy was adept with rod and reel. We were pleased last year to attend his high school graduation. He was home a couple of weeks ago on break after his first semester as a college freshman.
It’s been a big adjustment, his dad said — the time away from friends and family, the academic pressures, the different pace of college life.
Just hearing that carried me back in memory to my own experience at that age — getting off the bus in a strange town and sleeping those first nights on a cot in a gymnasium with 80 or 100 other fellows, all of them strangers.
“I think it might be helpful for him to hear how it was for you,” my friend said on the phone. So we met at a little midtown cafe we both knew.
There had been some challenges in the lad’s initial term. Though not a disaster, the academic results hadn’t been up to expectations. As in any new setting, there were new rules, new temptations.
But loneliness was not an issue.
Mine was an all-male college, with a student body of 400 young men. A short four-block walk away was what then was called a “finishing school,” with an equal population of young females.
Though the numbers are quite different, my young friend finds himself in a similar situation. Enrollment at his college is 2,100. Nearby is a sister institution — a women’s college, also with a student body of 2,100.
That kind of proximity and gender availability tends to divert the focus from scholarship to social opportunities.
My friend’s son will find his footing. I have no doubt of it. He’s bright and motivated.
What’s more, he embarks on higher education with a much clearer sense of his career intentions than I had of mine.
Zoology is his chosen field. From early boyhood he has been interested in wildlife and the natural world. These first months have been mainly orientation and settling in. But in the second semester he’ll begin study in his preferred discipline.
The little of use I had to offer in the way of advice concerned my own experience.
The first hour of my first college day, the class — 8 a.m. freshman English — was met by a young professor, no more than 30 years old, not long out of the University of Minnesota with his Ph.D. Bill Bleifuss was his name. His passion for the subject was obvious. In his readings, and in the discussions he led, literature came wonderfully alive. I knew before that hour ended that this was a teacher from whose guidance I would profit.
For every semester of the ensuing four years, his was the instruction I most valued. And his were the assignments on which I was determined to do my very best. By my last year, he was more than an instructor. He was a priceless friend.
He married, and a few years later so did I. As decades passed, our families saw much of each other at their home in mid-Missouri and ours in Kansas City.
They came to visit us in a year we lived abroad. And when my wife had to fly home on business and I traveled on assignment to report on catastrophic famine in Ethiopia and Sudan, they stayed to care for our two young daughters in our Paris apartment.
In acknowledgment of all his guidance had meant to me in my grounding as a writer, three of my books are dedicated and inscribed to him.
So the best counsel I could offer to the son of my friend was this:
“As early as possible in your college years, establish a connection with a professor in your field of study — one whose wisdom you respect and who understands your passion for the career you intend to pursue.
“Give him the very best work that you can find the time and strength to do. Accept his criticism and value greatly his honest praise. And above all, as you find your way in your calling, remember who it was upon whose shoulders you learned to stand.”