Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

In praise of an ordinary university

I didn’t go to a “name” college, a term I use for institutions of higher learning that can charge insane sums of money for education, requiring either that parents or their progeny go very deeply into debt so the president can drive a Mercedes.

No, I went to a community college, and then a university that is little known not only outside Florida, but within it as well. It has the usual assortment of sports teams, and several years ago it even acquired a football team, but on Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day, you won’t see it in the bowl games.

The college is called Florida Atlantic University, and its main campus is in Boca Raton, Fla. It has other campuses on the east coast, but my main experience was with the main place in Boca Raton.

During World War II, the site was part of an Army Air Forces training field, and on some of the streets you can see the old, faded markings of the field. The oldest dorms (mostly gone now, and not lamented) were once enlisted barracks. The college is next to Boca Raton Airport, where the corporate jets of the rich and well-connected plant rubber on its single runway.

Unlike the University of Florida and Florida State University, Florida Atlantic University, known as FAU, lacks the sense of history other college have. Indeed, FAU was often derided as a “commuter college,” where that breed known as “commuter students” drove on campus before or after their full-time jobs, took courses, maybe even graduated, and moved on in their lives and careers. Even when I was there, in the early to mid-1990s, the “traditional-age” students were chafing at the presence of so many “older” (read: mid-20s and up) students on campus and in classrooms.

“These are supposed to be the best years of my life, and I don’t want to spend them surrounded by old people,” one student complained to me one day during a debate over the presence of the Lifelong Learning Society in the Student Center. Retired folks from the community came on the campus for lectures by professors, and some students resented what they saw as the intrusion.

“They don’t belong here!” one student declared. “They should go back to Century Village, where they belong, instead of ruining my life.”

Maybe it was the reminder of their inevitable fate. Me, I liked having diversity on campus in terms of age, and the professors liked it, too.

One professor said he liked that the students from my generation showed up at class on time, ready to learn and eager to participate. When he talked, we stopped talking while a few of the just-out-of-high school students continued a low murmur of conversation in the lecture hall.

Like I said, FAU was not famous, and it was not an old college compared to many others. Its first buildings opened in 1964, and one of those at the opening was Lady Bird Johnson. One time, going through an old desk, I found a letter from her to a school official. That was a thrill.

In fact, walking around FAU you could tell which buildings were the original ones because they were paneled on the outside with shells embedded in concrete. Those old buildings, though, were falling apart by the mid- to late-1990s due to poor maintenance. People like to give money to colleges for new buildings, not to maintain old buildings.

Years of outsourcing of maintenance showed in buildings that leaked in the rain.

Still, I learned much in my time there. I had to drive 20 miles out of my way, but managed to finish the two-year bachelor’s degree course in three years, then stayed for a little graduate study, but then decided I really needed to work.

FAU’s symbol was the Owl, and while it lacked the cachet of the Gators or the Seminoles, I always believed that it symbolized something beyond cheering a football team or drinking oneself into insensibility and calling it a college memory. Owls are wise, and the commuter students of FAU may not have pledged Greek fraternities or burned down the administration building to protest some offense against a race or creed, but we went out into the community with our degrees and had an impact.

I suppose it’s the difference in experiences. Students just out of high school are just being let out from their parents’ supervision, and are dealing with freedom for the first time, while commuter students are beyond that first experience of freedom. For the commuter, college is a way to find oneself and find one’s way, but not through drinking and group activities but through learning.

My fellow commuter students and I found ourselves viewed differently by not only the younger students, but also the administration. Our presence seemed to be a sign that this was not a typical university and some found that degrading to their college experience.

I discovered so much at FAU and always feel grateful to the college and its professors for helping me to learn; the skills I acquired there, the people I met, the experiences I had have been relevant to me every day of my life.

Going to college in my late 20s and early 30s helped me appreciate the privilege more. Not bankrupting myself or my parents to get that education was a bonus that has repaid itself many times over.

So when someone derides your education because it was not from a “name” college, just remember that your learning and erudition are what counts, not the label.

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September 21, 2008 - Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Well said my fellow FAU Alumnus. I agree with most of your points in here. The school is moving towards a traditional-style campus now. We are expected to have 5,000 on-campus residents, roughly 20-percent of our student population, living in resident halls in 2012ish.

    With the addition of the football team, renovations of old buildings and the construction of new buildings, the addition of the Graduate College and other academic programs, and the improvement of our research-based initiatives, applications for admissions, our student-tradition and spirit, and our athletic teams are growing faster than we can keep up with!

    I love FAU and will be going back for Homecoming.

    I hope you become (if you aren’t already) involved with FAU through the mentoring program and the alumni association.

    -Rick “$mitty” Smith ’07

    Comment by Rick "$mitty" Smith '07 | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  2. Well said. You have articulated what I have thought is part of the original culture, and what should be the continuing tradition of our university. I am probably the same age as you, and we probably attended FAU during the same time- B.A. 1993, M.A. 01.

    I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The professors were outstanding, and were true mentors academically and professionally.
    I sincerely believe that these wonderful individuals (some have moved on, and some to that great reward) tried to get our best intellectual effort out of us.

    A great university can’t be packaged, marketed, or photo-shopped. A great university maintains a spirit and tradition that lives on in its faculty, students, and alumni.

    Comment by E. Geoghegan | December 30, 2008 | Reply


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