What I remember best about my first days on campus in September 1967 was how many of us there were, and how thrilling and frightening it felt to be a part of it all.
UND started later back then, and my memory is of an early fall landscape of green just hinting at the treetop scenes of red, brown, green and gold to come, followed by the scrunch and earthy scents of sidewalk leaves as we trooped to class. They were warm, sunny days and cool sweater evenings … football weather … and never before had I seen so many people my age.
Uncertainty was a part of those days, too. Could I handle this? Would I make good? Would some of these young men and women swarming about me find me worthy of friendship? Would my instructors judge me a worthy student?
Today, new uncertainties grip my campus. As I write, the university plans to welcome students back in a few weeks, but it will be a campus much changed. Students and professors will have to wear masks, and classrooms will have a colder, more clinical look: plastic dividers, sanitation stations, spaced-out seating, staggered arrival and departure times so students don’t … mingle.
I certainly understand the need for safety precautions. I am old, after all, with underlying medical conditions. Even before COVID-19, I pleaded with students at the start of each semester: If you are sick, please don’t come to class.
I understand the concern my fellow teachers feel, knowing that some students, thinking themselves immortal, will comport themselves as if there were no plague waiting. Many faculty members would prefer that we continue with remote classes.
But I understand, too, the hunger that many students have to start or resume the collegiate experience they’ve always imagined and looked forward to, one of fellowship and association: in classes, in dorms and Greek houses, in the bars and restaurants, on soccer fields and inside the packed hockey arena. They want to attend theater, appreciate art and listen to music – together.
I don’t blame them. In fact, I’ve often lamented one of the consequences of the growth of online classes: even in nice weather, pre-COVID-19, the campus sometimes seemed almost deserted. I hope students this fall still will get together, appropriately masked and distanced, in the alcoves of Merrifield Hall or in the commons area of their dorm, to talk about books and ideas and differences.
“Where are you from?”
“Kenmare, North Dakota. And you?”
My first “suitemates” at UND were fellows from India, Canada and an Indian reservation in North Dakota. We had rooms in the basement of a house on Columbia Road. I think we each learned something from the others, though my clearest memory of Chandrakant B. Shah was the day he discovered hot dogs that apparently met his religious dietary restrictions. He slathered them not with mustard but with jelly. Grape, I think.
Then I lived in a fraternity and made friendships that have lasted a lifetime. We partied too much, argued about Vietnam and occasionally studied together. A cook named Rosie swore at me, a busboy, in French, but I know she liked me. One day a young woman in my political science class asked if she could come over and study with me for a test. Her name was Gloria, she was smart, and she was beautiful. I’m pretty sure she had no interest in me beyond an exaggerated sense of my poly sci knowhow, but her presence in my room (door open) seemed to briefly raise my status among the brothers.
I came to know and admire several professors who gave me time and attention. When I hear the word “university,” I see their faces. I hope students this fall get to know a professor well enough to drop by and spend an hour talking and listening and learning – not just for a grade but because knowing is better than not knowing.
And for the professors, the many good ones, nothing beats seeing honest interest and understanding in a student’s face. Yes, that can happen on Zoom. I just don’t think it’s the same as in person – just as back-and-forth texting on whether “The Great Gatsby” is a great novel isn’t the same as if you’re huddled in someone’s dorm room or around a fire pit outside the frat house.
Should UND bring students back or move everything online, or try to find a middle ground that satisfies most people? Are the safety preparations enough? Too much?
These are tough decisions. Somebody has to make them. People will be disappointed, even angry, either way. There will be much second-guessing, but I hope not too much screaming.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.