Semester Two Over a Coffee

What is the quintessential college experience? And does it have to take place on campus to count?


Today, I drove an hour through grueling Chicago traffic to get coffee at a hip cafe in Uptown with my old math tutor. In high school, she not only made calculus more bearable, but made my life more bearable. She’s one of the smartest, wittiest people I’ve ever known, and she never ceases to amaze me with her wisdom. As much as she coached me through integrals, she also coached me through the daily trials and tribulations of growing up, and I’m a better person for it. It was good to see her after not speaking face-to-face in approximately one whole pandemic.

She’s in her early 30s now, making ends meet through virtual tutoring, spending her free time playing Dungeons & Dragons, and fostering a lively, bustling garden on the back porch of her tight downtown apartment. In her triumphant, if slightly sardonic words, “This year, in the year of 2021, we’re making our own joy. Because sometimes that’s what you gotta do to get by.”

What was meant to be a quick coffee evolved into ordering dinner. As we caught up with each other’s lives, conversation veered in the direction of our respective college experiences.

“It’s kind of strange,” I told her through a mouthful of syrup-soaked chocolate chip pancakes. “I’ve been in college for a year now, but I’ve still yet to experience college, y’know? Everything is just colored by this damned pandemic.” Earlier, she had described some of the finals week traditions from her time in undergrad at the University of Chicago. Apparently, they sometimes played Riskopoly: a 20-30 hour beast of a game in which players used the money they earned in Monopoly to pay for their armies in Risk. 

“I’ve been on campus, but I haven’t had the chance to engage in any cool traditions like that. It’s just, everything about Kenyon’s culture was, I guess, muted? Maybe that’s the best word for it. Muted. And so it feels like I haven’t experienced college once, and I’m a year in.” She nodded along quietly, and affirmed that it was a strange thing to navigate.

“College now is so different from what it was like when I was there, in so many different ways,” she explained. She added, however, that those Riskopoly memories weren’t the ones that she tied most heavily to her college experience. “Some of the positive experiences I had in college have had negative impacts on my life in the long run, and some of the negative experiences have had positive impacts. The truth is, there’s really no correlation between how something feels in the moment and how much, or in what way, it impacts you later on. There were things I hated about the U of C. And there are things you’ll love and things you’ll hate anywhere you go, but I promise that the things that you think will matter, won’t matter nearly as much as you predict.” Our conversation was cut short when the waitress arrived with the check and explained that others were waiting for seats on the patio. I realized we’d been speaking for several hours already. We’ve always clicked like that.

“Shall we split it?” I asked, reaching for my wallet.

“I got it. You’re my kid,” she shrugged.

“I don’t know if I should feel patronized or grateful.”

“Both. Both is good.”

At that point, I drove us out to the lakefront, where we sat and watched the sun set over the water amidst the ambience of a city finally dipping its toes back into noise and livelihood. A thousand feet down the coast from us, the beach was swarming with families and groups of friends. The air was filled with the far away laughter of kids playing in the water. As we sat, I talked more about the experience of this past semester.

“I think the only thing I can really say is that it’s not what I expected. I’m not grateful for it exactly, but it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be, even if I felt like I was missing out on what I came to Kenyon for. Honestly, in a lot of ways, this past semester was way better than first semester. When I was sent home for second semester, I thought I was being kicked from the wide world of Kenyon to the strict confines of my home when, in reality, I was being kicked from the strict confines of Kenyon to the wide world. Y’know, I went on my first solo road trip this semester.” Her eyes lit up.

“Where to?!”

“Ohio, to visit friends. And then I did it again! And I explored my home in a way I’d never done before. I thought that since I’d lived in my hometown for as long as I can remember, there was nothing left to see. But the fact of the matter is, for the past 12 years or so, literally every single day had been occupied by school,” I laughed. “And that suddenly wasn’t the case. I went to the woods nearby my house for the first time and took some field notes. I tried restaurants I’d never been to. It was a level of absolute freedom I’d just never experienced.” She took a moment before breaking out into a wide grin and chuckling. “What?” I asked.

“That’s it, kid.” I stared at her blankly. “That’s college. You did it, kid. Congratulations. You did it. You experienced college.” I turned out toward the water and thought about it.

“The expansion of your world,” I responded. She nodded.

“The expansion of your world. Suddenly, you’ve got all the free time to do the things you couldn’t do before. Classes don’t occupy your whole day. You’ve got freedom and independence. You go on road trips and shit. That’s the quintessential college experience right there. So you have experienced college, kid, without even having to be on campus. Congrats,” she said, clapping me on the back.

We talked some more, but as the sun got lower and lower in the sky, we decided it was time to part ways. She said that we should check out a nearby bird sanctuary at some point soon. Her specialty is urban ecology, and ornithology is one of her passions.

“How comfortable are you driving in the dark?” she asked as we walked back to my car. “I’ll need a ride back to the apartment.”

“Perfectly comfortable. No need to worry. I’m 19, you know,” I laughed.

“See, now you may be old enough to drive me back to my apartment and maybe now I can swear in front of you,” she chuckled as she buckled in, “but you’re still my kid, and I still gotta take care of you.”