Rosalind Russell said it best in the movie Auntie Mame. She played an eccentric, flamboyant lady who truly loved life and lived it as she wished. Her most famous line? “Oh, darling — life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” So are too many of my students. Oh, they’re well fed. Dining hall food has vastly improved since I was in school. But they are starving – or at least malnourished – when it comes to partaking of all that life during the college years has to offer.
Talking to some of my students — good students — I wonder how it is they don’t know what they’re missing. Yes, they are attending a good university. Yes, they are going to classes and doing homework and checking off requirements. But somehow their lives outside the classroom revolve around weekend parties, hanging out with friends watching The Bachelor on TV, or making trips to the local mall. Most don’t venture out to the lectures and concerts and exhibits and programs that are happening almost every night. Many seem to have dropped into the U from a spaceship; they know so little about the surrounding area. They are accepting the norm of classes during the week and beer on the weekends when a full banquet of opportunity is right in front of their noses. The college years are passing in a blur of academic assignments and social drama when they could be having the intellectual, creative, and travel adventures of a lifetime.
Samplings from the banquet table at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst during a recent week included Temple Grandin — who overcame an autism diagnosis to earn a doctorate and a university professorship — giving a lecture on autism and the Irish band, The Chieftains, performing at the Fine Arts Center. Roderic Grupen of the Computer Science Department presented “Programming Robots to Live Among Us.” Health Services presented a Sex Pictionary workshop – whatever that is. A multicultural film festival was in full swing. And Metropolitan Opera tenor Raul Melo led a free master class in voice. For students who wished to consider a semester to a year somewhere else in the world, the International Programs Office offered information sessions and guidance.
Meanwhile in town, the Emily Dickinson Museum presented a benefit performance of the play The Belle of Amherst and the Renaissance Center offered an evening of Elizabethan-era games. Smith College opened its annual flower show, a sensory feast for those of us who are sick of winter. The same school was showing The Birth of RMB by Beijing-based artist Cao Fei who has created an animated video that is on the cutting edge of art associated with the Internet.
Not to be outdone, Mt. Holyoke, another school in the area, staged a production of the Moliere comedy The Rediculous Precleuses. Amherst College offered a lecture by psychiatrist Miriam Grossman with the attention-grabbing title of “How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student.”
That’s just for starters. I can’t begin to list all the choices on the menu of events, activities, and gatherings. With 4 private colleges, the university, and 2 community colleges within 10 miles of each other (and a free bus service circulating pretty regularly among them), the possibilities for feeding the mind, the spirit, and the body are plentiful indeed. To top it off, most of this daily feast is free or at radically reduced cost for students.
Were any of my students at the banquet? Maybe a few. There are those who were part of the student fundraiser for Haiti or who are regularly involved in Best Buddies or the service fraternity’s projects. There are some who love music or art or their chosen field so much that they satisfy their hunger to know more by getting out to events. But I won’t be surprised if when I ask my class on Monday what they did over the weekend, most of the students will say “just chillin.’”
Yeah, I know. For those who aren’t used to participating in things artistic and intellectual, it’s hard to be the one to break the pattern. It’s tough to be the one to say, “Let’s go to a poetry reading or to see what’s in the galleries instead of going to the frat party tonight.” It’s easier to get along with everyone by going along with the same old same old. But doing so means these young adults have put themselves on a deprivation diet. Doing so often means they’re feeling vaguely unsatisfied, even depressed, but aren’t able to say why.
If you’re a college student, please take notice. What I want to say to all of you is this: “This is your time.” It’s a time to be selfish in the most positive sense of the word. The years as an undergrad are years when you can and should be doing all you can to develop yourself. Most of you don’t have to dash home after class to clean house or care for children or manage a full-time job. (And hats off to those who do. That’s a huge challenge!) For most of you, single and with a timeout from full adult responsibilities – this is a time when your primary responsibility is to take full advantage of the educational and cultural opportunities spread out before you. It’s a time for experiencing novel situations and strange tastes; for expanding your sense of what’s possible.
So many of you don’t know what you want to be or do when you graduate. Partaking at the table of events outside of class can give you new ideas and new directions. Sample as much as you can as often as you can. Feast to bursting on the pleasures of the arts and science and literature. There are activities and events suited to every preference. Get a passport and go – go anywhere that takes you out of your comfort zone and into new experiences. Enriching your life will increase your sophistication, develop your tastes, and even build your resume.
The menu is on every bulletin board and college website if you’ll only look. This is one meal where you can take all you want without gaining a pound. Why starve when you can get your fill of what might well be life-changing experiences?