education, personal

Did I waste my college opportunity?

In two months, if all goes well and schedule permits, I will attend my 25-year reunion at Duke.

I never really wanted to go anywhere else for college. In high school, I had a list of schools that mildly interested me. But my junior year, the Athens Academy college tour swung through Duke, and I fell in love. (With the school. And maybe the tour guide.) I only applied to two schools — Duke and Virginia. For the latter, my “alumni son” status put me in the in-state pool at the time, and at the time, I had no need to sweat admissions in Charlottesville. (Today might be a different story. Don’t let your kids apply to just two schools, especially if they’re both about as good as schools get.)

A few days after this photo, four people in this photo returned to college, and three left to start their freshman years. The dude in the Duke shirt was in the latter group.

Thirty years after that first impression, I still love my school. But it’s not without reservation. Duke, to me, is a bit like a family member who’s sometimes a little embarrassing, sometimes a little arrogant. And I know I didn’t fully live up to my part of the relationship.

I met people I treasure to this day. I knew talented athletes. Brilliant musicians. People who opened my eyes to a wider world than I saw in my wonderful but not particularly diverse high school.

Academically, I could’ve done better. And Duke could’ve done better — better advice, better teaching. Yes, I said better teaching.

So take this as a cautionary tale of sorts. Students have to be better than I was at taking charge. You can’t count on advisors to get you where you should be, next semester or after graduation.

18th birthday. GPA at the time: 2.75. Still have the shirt, but it’s safe to say it doesn’t fit.

Let’s take a look …

Freshman year, first semester

The University Writing Course was required. It was a joke. I had a history grad student as a teacher, and when I misread the instructions on an early assignment, she clearly marked me as an idiot. She gave contradictory criticisms of my next several assignments, then let me off the hook with a C-minus. I’m still tempted to dedicate a book to her.

Aside from that, I took a buffet approach to picking classes:

  • Astronomy was a good science class you can’t take in high school.
  • Intro to Art History wasn’t one of my first choices, and I stunk at it. Literally — I signed up for a P.E. course, Racquetball/Badminton/Squash, and had to immediately race to catch a bus from the West Campus athletic facilities to East Campus, where we sat in a dark room looking at slides.

The class that changed the trajectory of the next four years was Fundamentals of Music Theory. I had no intention of majoring in music, and in those days, Duke didn’t have “minors.” But I’d always had an interest in music theory, and I wasn’t scared off by the realization that it had “lab” sessions — in addition to the three theory-related meetings each week, we had two musicianship sessions, where we did a lot of ear training. (Another freshman turned up to the first class and admitted he signed up thinking it would be easy. He dropped it.) I loved all of it. I loved the people in my class. I loved the professor, Rodney Wynkoop, who is still at Duke conducting the Chorale and the Chapel Choir. I decided I would stick with it next semester. Getting my lone A of the semester didn’t hurt.

I also got a quarter-credit for Jazz Ensemble, which wasn’t a fun experience. I quickly realized I knew nothing about actual jazz, and I was attempting to play tenor sax parts on a bass clarinet. While auditioning for Jazz Ensemble, I asked an aging man where I could find a string bass. Turns out he was Paul Bryan, the Wind Symphony conductor, and I was immediately recruited into the group, though I didn’t sign up for course credit.

I had stretched myself too thinly. I resolved not to do that the next semester. I had four AP credits — one English, two American history, one calculus — so there was no need to pile on the classes.

Freshman year, second semester

I flushed everything from my writing course out of my head and went back to my high school writing style for a freshman seminar, Comedy: Theory and Performance, taught by a professor emeritus in the drama department. It worked. I got an A-minus.

I also sailed through Tonal Harmony, the next class in the music sequence. A B-plus in Intro to Philosophy wasn’t too discouraging, so I had a pretty good sense of the two majors I’d aim to complete.

My Calculus teacher barely spoke English and didn’t fully prepare us for the exam. I was a calculus wizard in high school and got a 5 on the AP test. This class? C.

I’d also settled on my extracurricular activities. Jazz Ensemble was out, but I happily stayed in Wind Symphony. I was also drafted into the pit orchestra for a couple of Hoof n Horn musicals, playing woodwinds and bass. Second semester, I also bounded up the steps in the Flowers building to The Chronicle’s office for the first time. I had no idea how much that would change my life.

And I’d picked my home for the next three years — a selective (but not that selective) East Campus dorm called Brown House, where I would hang out with a laid-back group of people who leaned toward the “artsy” side and had a colorful mix of religions.

Added one more activity for sophomore year only. Wish I’d done it all four years, but …

Sophomore year, first semester

Why didn’t I major in history? Because Germany: 30 Years War-1871 killed me. I struggled to a B-minus.

I was also knocking out some graduation requirements with a solid B in Advanced Intermediate French and an easy A in Computer Science Fundamentals, where the professor was terrified because he was teaching Pascal to liberal arts majors, including a couple of basketball players in my lab. I remember no Pascal, though the thought processes probably helped me pick up other coding down the road, and very little French.

Modal Counterpoint is the organic chemistry of the music major. We hated it, but it was kind of a bonding experience. And I finally took the quarter-credit for Wind Symphony.

Sophomore year, second semester

What possessed me to take Endurance Swimming? The joy of diving into a frigid pool, where I felt icicles forming in my hair every time I stopped for breath? Yikes.

Everything else was geared toward setting me toward my majors. I doubled up in music, taking Tonal Counterpoint (blech) and Composition (humbling, though I met Philip Glass and wrote at least one piece worth saving) on top of Wind Symphony. I jumped into History of Ancient Philosophy. And I was calling myself pre-law, maybe, so I took the American Political System poli sci class, which was worthwhile if a little tedious.

The grades were all in the B/B-plus range, but they were OK given that I was still finding my way. And I was spending a lot of time at The Chronicle office and with an oboe player from Wind Symphony, who was coincidentally staying at Duke for the summer.

I also wanted a job for the summer, and it was tough to find one back home in Athens. So I walked into the library and met a nice woman who walked me down to the Newspapers and Periodicals room, where a charismatic 30-ish woman chatted with me and offered me a job. I called home and told them I could knock out a couple more classes, earn some money and get in the swing of things at The Chronicle. Good deal.

Summer between sophomore and junior years

Halcyon days. Walking from Central Campus apartments to my classes on Socialism and Communism (first session — and no, it wasn’t a how-to, just a basic history) and Logic (second session — easy A in my philosophy major), going to work in the library, then hanging around The Chronicle. A few Hoof n Horn folks also put on a production of Godspell in Duke Gardens and brought me in to play guitar, which was more fun than I could imagine. I liked the library job so much that I took a weekly shift for the next year as well.

One advantage of living on unfashionable East Campus — it was easy to get a single room by junior year. For Millennials: That thing on top of the shelves is a “stereo.” That’s how we listened to music in those days. Athenians, note the Rocky’s Pizza sticker.

Junior year, first semester

Poor planning on my part left me taking a strange collection of classes. I realized I needed to take a year of half-credit performance class for my music major. The Wind Symphony had converted me to Percussion, so I signed up for that. But I was a half-credit short of a full load. Some Chronicle people were in a program in which they took reduced loads, but it was too late for me to get into that. Rather than take an overload, I added a P.E. class — Racquetball — even though I had already taken two P.E. classes and couldn’t count another toward my graduation requirements. (Between AP and summer classes, I was way ahead, anyway.)

I knocked out another science requirement, and please don’t make fun of me for it. It was Chemistry and Society, the broad overview of chemistry rather than the intense class-and-lab course that most freshmen took. I enjoyed it, and I got a lot more out of it than I would’ve gotten out of a lab. And, yeah, I got an easy A.

Along with Music History I (lots of chanting, with Bach not yet on the horizon), I sailed to straight As … except in philosophy, where History of Modern Philosophy kicked my butt. I was fine with Descartes and Hume. I don’t understand Kant to this day.

Junior year, second semester

I somehow convinced a couple of people to form a percussion ensemble with me, which counted as a quarter-credit for Chamber Music. That, Wind Symphony and Percussion added up to a whole credit.

Music History II was pleasant and easy. But my philosophy courses were problematic. Philosophy of Law beat my pre-law inclinations out of me, though I would’ve earned better than the B-minus I got if I hadn’t spent my entire “reading period” desperately trying to get through Symbolic Logic, which was a math class disguised as a philosophy class. I should’ve been suspicious when only one other philosophy major was in the class. I have no idea how I managed a C-plus. By all rights, I should’ve failed. I had no idea what I was doing, and I just wanted to race out of class and get to The Chronicle in time for the daily budget meeting.

By this point, The Chronicle was my life. I spent junior year as the arts editor, but I did much more — “CE2” shifts (the night editor who does the final checks), sports writing, Editorial Board, etc.

I certainly wasn’t a candidate to go to grad school in philosophy. I no longer had any interest in law school. The music department would’ve written me a reference to go to any grad school I wanted, but I just couldn’t see that path. Besides, I was best suited to be the next PDQ Bach (sort of the Weird Al of classical), and the world really didn’t need more than one. Journalism was going to be my career.

Summer between junior and senior years

First session: Breezed through Introductory Psychology, worked at The Chronicle and the library, roomed with my buddy Matt. We played guitars and talked about forming a band called Limbic System.

Second session: Struggled in Organismal/Environmental Biology. I can only imagine my biochemist father seeing that C-plus and shaking his head. Maybe I was just so focused on The Chronicle that nothing else mattered. Maybe the problem was that Matt went home, and in his place, I got a roommate who threw parties in our apartment for his stoner buddies and kids from the Precollege Program.

My desk at The Chronicle, with recruitment flyers for my precious magazine Currents hanging by my head. The business manager tried to kill the magazine at the end of the year, scheduling a meeting when he knew I’d be in class. I wrote a blistering letter. The magazine stayed, eventually morphing into Towerview. You’re welcome, Chronicle staffers today!

Senior year, first semester

I was editor of Currents, The Chronicle’s magazine, and I was approved for an underload this time. But all I needed to graduate was to finish my majors. I once again combined Percussion, Wind Symphony and Chamber Music into a full credit. Music History III covered the golden age of classical music — how’d I only get a B-plus? But I got through a senior-and-grad-student seminar on Plato with a good A-minus, shaking off the intimidation of grad students examining the original Greek.

Then things changed. Chronicle editor Matt Sclafani (not the Matt I roomed with in the summer) was diagnosed with leukemia. He would take a leave of absence. I ran for election to replace him for spring semester but wound up instead as the managing editor. That still qualified me to drop to part time. My parents were thrilled to learn their tuition bill for my last semester would be cut in half.

Senior year, second semester

It’s easy to forget from this historical vantage point, but the Class of 1991 spent its last semester legitimately worried about being sent to war. The Gulf War was ramping up, and we all thought this was our Korea or Vietnam. We compared notes on the draft (Matt Sclafani, who maintained a sense of humor even as leukemia took his life the next year, chortled that cancer made him exempt) and fretted for our futures.

That fear, along with my futility in finding a girlfriend or a job, added a lot of stress to what otherwise was a great time. I was thoroughly enjoying my last semester at The Chronicle — I was the CE2 the night Duke won its first national hoops championship. Academically, I just needed one class in each of my majors. The music major required yet another semester of music history — Music History IV (the weird 20th century stuff). Then I united my two majors in Philosophy of Music with the great professor Ben Ward, doing some terrific academic work to go out with a bang. A-minus in each class, nearly pulling me up to cum laude status.

Over the summer, I found a girlfriend and a job! I was thrilled to be a grown-up making $400 a week. And I was done with school.

Or so I thought. A few years later, I saw a couple of ads for a part-time grad program at Duke. I knew Duke had added some journalism classes to the 1-2 they had (neither of which I took) while I was an undergrad, and I still fancied myself an intellectual of sorts. So why not go back and get a masters in liberal studies?

The work was harder than I anticipated. But I loved it. And I filled in a few gaps in my academic background.

Grad school

Spring 1996: Ecology and Society, in a building that didn’t exist when I was an undergrad. Learned a lot about the environment and got an “E” (excellent, the top grade).

Summer 1996: Culture, Identity and Education. At long last, my first sociology-ish class. Different way of looking at things.

Fall 1996: Politics and the Media, an undergrad course populated by a whole lot of clueless seniors. I marveled at how much I’d grown since then.

Spring 1997: Political Economy of Development. Econ! And sociology. I did some research comparing Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch. I gained a big fear of the latter.

Summer 1997: Voices from the Past, a class on oral history. Great experience for a journalist.

Fall 1997: Global Environmental Politics, taught by an actual Communist. I felt like Jesse Helms in that classroom, but I still learned a bit.

Spring 1998: American Culture and Public Policy. I think this was the class in which I wrote the paper on letters to the editor, which was a trip. Duke doesn’t officially record classes above “A” for undergrads or “E” for grad students, but my transcript here shows an “E+.”

Then it got tricky. I was engaged. I moved to Northern Virginia, a bit of a commute from Duke. But we had this thing called “the Internet” that made it slightly easier for me to communicate with people. Besides, I had made contact with a professor who had been teaching journalism classes in the public policy department — Susan Tifft — and she lived in New York. She was willing to do an independent study with me (History of Objectivity in American Journalism) and be my advisor for my thesis. I finished in 2000 with a couple more Es on my transcripts. And I miss Susan, who passed away a few years later, far too young.

The grad school didn’t compute an official GPA, but if you convert the “E” and “G” grades to A and B, I finished with a 3.7. Not bad.

So what would I do differently?

Academically, I got more from nine grad-school classes than I did from my 38.75 undergraduate credits. Part of that is my own self-confidence in figuring out how to choose classes and how to do research. I would not have been able to write what I’ve written in the past 15 years without my grad-school experience.

But what went wrong in my undergrad years?

My academic advising wasn’t great. I wish someone would’ve pointed out a few things — say, that Symbolic Logic required more of a math background than I had.

My career advising was a joke. They had no idea how to break into journalism. I discovered late in my senior year that a lot of information about applying to CNN and such places was kept at the poli sci department.

A Duke degree goes farther in journalism today than it did back then. The public policy department built up a journalism program that gives students a bit of academic substance and a few connections. Dukies have done well in the Internet age, landing jobs that didn’t exist when I graduated. And a Duke connection did help me once — a fellow Dukie mentioned my name when ESPN was looking for people to cover the Women’s World Cup in Germany, and I’m forever grateful.

I’m still not sure I’d recommend a journalism career to any college student today. But if you really want one, Duke isn’t a bad place to go.

A few things I wish I’d done differently:

  1. Picked ONE major. And probably neither philosophy nor music. Philosophy isn’t a bad major at all. It trains your brain to deal with complex thought. I’m better off for taking some of those classes. But I just wasn’t good enough at it to major in it.
    Maybe public policy? Maybe history, though I struggled to do the research in the German history class I took.
  2. Taken one more French class to try, once and for all, to master it.
  3. Taken a religion course or two.
  4. Taken some sort of econ/business class that grounded me in the basics of accounting, which would have helped for some of the boards on which I’ve served.

A few possibilities I wish my advisors had suggested:

  1. Take stats, not a second semester of calculus. Much broader application to anyone not going into engineering.
  2. A minor in music. As far as I remember, no such thing existed in the 80s and 90s.

What did I gain?

I use a “batting weights” analogy to justify a liberal arts major. A baseball player swings on deck with a weight on his bat, so when he steps up to the plate without the weight, the bat feels lighter and easier to swing. My classes dealt with topics far more complex than anything I encounter in work.

So my undergrad years weren’t a total waste. And sometimes, you have to fail. (Well, get a C.) You have to learn your limitations and weaknesses. I certainly did that.

But what I treasure about my undergrad days is the interaction with so many smart, talented people. I think if you gave The Chronicle’s staff from my day a couple of years of professional experience, then gathered them back together, you’d have a hell of a newspaper staff.

I had hallway discussions on religion in which a Muslim, an agnostic, an evangelical and an Anglican (me) found common ground. New Yorkers and Southerners dispelled their stereotypes about each other.

The Internet is great. It’s a giant library, sans the musty stacks with grad students of questionable hygiene roaming around. But it can’t replicate that experience.

I made bad decisions. I didn’t get everything out of the experience that I could have. It went by too quickly.

And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.


One thought on “Did I waste my college opportunity?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s