Today many friends were heading off to school at McNeese State University for workshops, campus-wide convocation, and college/department meetings. For the third time now I haven’t joined them as a new academic year begins. Fall term begins on Monday. I watch them, talk to them, and remember what it felt like to return to another year of teaching. While I miss the classroom in many ways and the students and certainly seeing my friends every day, I do not miss the daily schedule, the ever-increasing demands upon the faculty, or the shifting expectations of a state university.
This fall, though, what I am caught by, is something I read a couple of days ago addressed to first-time freshmen. The exact advice wasn’t really what I was interested in. Instead, I found myself remembering what it was like to head off to college.
I graduated from high school in May 1969. Two weeks later, I was living in a dormitory at McNeese State University (Bel Dorm) and taking 9 hours of classes in summer school. I had my own mailbox at school. I had my first checking account.
The absolute excitement of that time has never left me. My various suitcases and boxes filled the back of the Chevy Bel Air station wagon. As my dad helped me move that into the dorm room on the second floor, I remember having to yell “Man in the hall!” to warn the other girls. Of course, they were yelling the same thing. Once my bags and boxes were in my new room, my parents and I went for lunch and then I watched them drive away. No regret, no loneliness. Just sheer soaring excitement.
Mind you, I had only moved about 45 miles away from home. But it was another world. From a small village of maybe 400 where everyone knew everyone else, I was now living in a city. Certainly now I know that it wasn’t a big city, but I was living in it. And I was on my own. Meeting a new roommate and having to get along was just part of the adventure.
There was never any question in our family that we kids would go to college. My mother had gone to business school after high school, and Dad had attended the University of Texas for a couple of semesters. He was an electrician for Sun Oil Company, and she was a stay-at-home mom. Yet they’d saved for this, planned for this, and wanted us to experience what was possible.
Many of my fellow Sun Oil kids didn’t go on. At least the kids of the “hands” or workers. If they did, it was often the girls, who might become teachers. Or the sons and daughters of the management, of course, would attend college.
For me, there was never any question that I wanted to get away — to go to school — to get out in the world. Just as books had always opened the world for me ever since I learned to read, now the college classroom offered me that same path to a future I dreamed of.
My parents always laughed that I was the one ready to hit the road running as soon as I was born. I was always eager to spend time with cousins and grandparents, not shy about going away from Mother and Dad for a week or two at a time. That’s me. Ready to jump in feet first.
I was no different then. I knew some older students from Egan and Iota who were attending MSU. Yet in the dorm? I knew no one. I had to meet new people and learn to get along. I had to meet people in classes. I had to join organizations.
I well remember registering for my first classes. And pushing myself to get up in time to make class, since Mother wasn’t there with my breakfast to wake me up. It wasn’t easy, but I did it.
It was a different world then for women students. We had curfews — and as a freshman, my curfew was 30 minutes before the library closed. We’d get an extra hour on Saturday night if no one on our dorm wing had received any demerits during the week. Otherwise, I think our Saturday night curfew was 11 p.m.
Having to be in at 9 p.m. at night meant there was a lot of time to hang around with the other girls. We had a communal television room on second floor, and a kitchen as well. Yet some of us had our own tiny television sets and stereos. Most of us knew how to cook various things. It was amazing what I could do with an iron and aluminum foil, or a hot-pot. I remember seeing the cost for that summer term: something like $85, I believe, paid for tuition and fees. With dorm fees and cafeteria plan, my first year (3 semesters) cost Dad something like $1000. Total.
I plunged into college life with glee. Late-night jam sessions with guitars (we didn’t demand a lot of actual talent). Ouija board sessions. Dance lessons down the hall. And yes, date nights where you had to stand outside the dorm doors to say goodnight and kiss your date — while everyone else watched.
Before too long, I’d joined the college newspaper staff and the yearbook staff.
I was an English major. That surprised me, frankly. I remember that when I first filled out the papers at registration that June I meant to write down “Biology” as a major — I’d been planning on that. In high school I had taken every science course available, including a second biology that was really a college course being piloted in some high schools. What my pen wrote, though, was “English.” Automatic writing? Destiny? Or just laziness because that was the easiest thing in the world for me? I have no clue. But that choice has threaded my life together. Reading and literature opened the world for me as a reader and then as a student and finally as a teacher, a professor.
Living on campus in a dorm was a huge adventure. I had curfews, yes, but I had a sort of self-determination, too. There were rules and regulations beyond the experiences of today’s freshmen women: no curlers in your hair outside the dorm; no jeans or slacks to class (at least for a year until rules changed). We wore sweater sets, skirts and blouses, dresses. And hose. Every day. Yet by the end of my college time (I graduated in December 1972), I was wearing jeans and t-shirts or peasant skirts and sandals.
My first fall semester was the first time that freshmen didn’t have to wear beanies or get hazed as freshmen. The “college life” I’d read about and anticipated had been a 1940s-50s culture, evident in television and movies. It was passing even as I entered college.
McNeese was then and is now basically a commuter school, yet it was possible for those of us who lived on campus to have a different experience, to be part of the campus life. That was challenging at times, but fun.
Lake Charles isn’t that big — maybe 73,000 people — though it certainly has changed in many ways, offering many more cultural outlets and places to go.
It was huge to me, though, and I was limited that first year by not having a car. I walked to K-Mart, to the drugstore near campus where I could cash a check, to Little Pigs or Taco Bell or maybe Burger Chef for a meal on weekends. By the second year, my parents had bought a new car and I was driving the Bel Air station wagon. I could haul lots of friends to the drive-in on nights when the charge was $1 for the entire carful of us.
We had dances. We went to football games. We entertained ourselves and, thank goodness, survived the stupid stunts of youth.
We laugh that the 60s finally hit Lake Charles and MSU — in the 1970s. That was true in many ways. There were controversies over the length of boys’ hair. Over dress regulations. Especially, though, over the hair issue. That was somehow symptomatic of the turmoil going on all over the U.S.
Somewhere buried in my many photographs are some from those years. I have some of the newspapers and yearbooks, and my photos are scattered in those as well. Mostly, though, I have the memories.
What did I expect? I didn’t know, not really. I just knew that the world was opening up, and that I was ready for it, for whatever would come.
That I ended up back in Lake Charles, teaching English at McNeese State University, was hardly something I planned. In my dream academe I thought I’d end up in New England — not that I’d ever been there at all, but it fit in with that ideal I’d derived from movies and television. Instead, I got a job right back here, and made a career on the campus that made it all possible.
That opportunity has been both profoundly satisfying and profoundly frustrating. To watch the college emerge as a university, with world-class faculty, and to be part of opening the world to other young people was without price. Yet to experience the state funding issues that continue to rip apart state-funded universities in Louisiana is painful and frustrating. This state has been slow to see people go to university; my generation was perhaps the first to do so in large numbers. It may take another generation to regain lost ground.
All in all, though, I have loved being part of McNeese, both as a student and as a faculty member.
My friends are going back to teaching, and I watch them and have no pangs of regret. Retirement came at the perfect time for me. And once more, my world has opened up. Retirement from McNeese was, I laugh, just another graduation.
And the first-time freshmen about to start their fall term? I hope they are excited. Their world is so much larger and fuller than mine was. Yet for them too, university will offer a world beyond.
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