There is a certain magic on a college campus the first day of a new semester. Even as a teacher I still feel it.
I remember that initial rush the first time, when I was 21 and just off my Mormon mission. I had enrolled in a summer term at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. It was a little overwhelming, navigating through the buildings on the moderately sized campus as I tried to find my classrooms. There was a sea of young people, backpacks on shoulders and smiles on faces, as they looked at each other, treading new ground underneath their feet. Clubs had tables set out, looking for other students who might want to play chess or lacrosse, who might want to sing in the choir or play acoustic guitar, who might want to start a comedy club or engage in organized debates. There were organizations for Asian-American students, for Democratic students, for role play gamers, and roller derbies.
Everyone there, every new student, was looking for that sense of belonging as they stepped into an entirely new world of deadlines, syllabi, friend circles, and routines. Gym, this way, library, that way. I remember exploring campus, wondering where I would fit in. I stepped on to the theater stage for the first time, where I hoped I would get to perform in shows. I walked past park benches and gardens and open lawns where I would spread out a blanket and sit to study, shoeless.
Every semester, as I continued my education at Boise State University and Eastern Washington University, carried with it that same sense of newness, adventure, anxiety, apprehension, and wonder.
I can sense it again now, walking through the main campus of the University of Utah, where I’m beginning to teach a new semester in the College of Social Work. I’m ad junct here, teaching one day per week, and that has its own struggles and pitfalls. But I’d forgotten what it feels like to be present.
In the main building, there is a job fair, where students browse the tables looking for temporary employment at ski resorts or coffee shops or retail stores or computer labs, something they can wedge between their busy academic schedules to give them a bit of spending money. College is nothing if not expensive. Food vendors on the next floor sell off breakfast and lunch items to students who settle in at tables with open laptops or phones in hand, still too early in the semester for much studying or books. Most of the students are sitting solo, still working to make friends, still finding their places.
Outside are all the club tables. Two Muslim women sit at a table handing out literature about their religion. Two young men sit at a similar table, handing out flyers about atheism. There is a climbing club, a tennis club, a Pokémon club. There are handsome guys discussing mountain biking and gorgeous girls talking about yoga. There is chocolate and apples and taffy and pencils and bottled water being handed out to passersby. There is an Asian woman struggling to communicate with a Hispanic man, neither of them speaking English well and both trying hard.
I look around, remembering the feelings of outrage at overpriced new college text books and panic at the competing deadlines of class assignments. So much pressure, and so much freedom, and so much potential and opportunity. I watch the new students watching each other, looking for their place, and I find myself with dueling emotions of being so relieved that that part of my life is over, and being so jealous that they get to start now when I want the chance to do it all over again.