Tradition and Change at Transylvania

Every so often, I hear of a big change at my alma mater. A newspaper article, the alumni magazine, or a piece of gossip from a friend clues me in to something new and different at the old school. Sometimes it's interesting and exciting. Sometimes, it's perplexing. And, more often than not, it just feels a little unsettling. That just isn't how things are supposed to be.

via Transylvania University.
These days, many new and exciting things are happening at the school.  Last spring, Transylvania University welcomed its 25th President, R. Owen Williams, amidst much fanfare. This year's incoming class, the first who'll matriculate fully under the Williams Administration, were recently welcomed (three weeks earlier than we began the school year in the '90s!) with a formal induction ceremony and a commemorative coin.  It's a far cry from our orientation weekend dances and move-in days, that's for sure. Every time I hear of a change, I immediately rehash my findings with my beau with a little disbelief: Can you believe they're doing things that way? It certainly isn't how it was done when we were in school.  

Sometimes, I'm elated to hear of fun little changes to The Transy Way; the UK-TU basketball series is fast becoming a tradition among my friends.  Sometimes, my reaction to the changes comes out of a true desire to learn more. I'm interested to hear the mechanics of the new "August term": How does it impact GPA and tuition rate? How will three weeks of freshman-only classes impact the campus socially and academically? I approached the dramatically abbreviated recruitment plan with trepidation, for some of my fondest college memories involve late-night voting sessions and long hours of planning and practicing those over-the-top rush skits.   And, I suppose, some of my reactions are simply a by-product of my own era. When I heard of the school's quidditch team, I imagine my reaction came across a lot like Dame Maggie Smith's famous Dowager Countess line: "What ... is ... a week-end?" It was simply something so far out of my field of experience that I didn't know what to make of it. The truth is, I just want to believe that things will always be exactly the way I left them. 

I like to believe this is the last moment that Transy made any changes.
 Most of us have built a lot of our self-image around our school years. "I majored in Political Science", "I was a Phi Mu"; these choices stick with us for a lifetime. Our school years were momentous and filled with hope and unlimited potential. For most of us, the worst thing that happened in college was a grad school rejection letter or a bad breakup. We didn't yet know the banal realities of mortgage applications and entry-level jobs. We hadn't yet dealt with true disappointment and loss. We were young and perfect and unformed. High school had been about preparing ourselves to study, and professional school would be about preparing ourselves for real life, but college was about learning how to think and how to be. There's something magical about that, and it's only natural to want to preserve those years in amber, pulling out lovely memories on special occasions.
I spent four years locked in this basement.

From the moment you enter Transylvania's campus, you're immersed in over two centuries of culture and history and tradition.  Everywhere you turn, there's a reminder of famous names of Lexington's past -- the troublesome architect Shryock brothers, the mad genius Constantine Rafinesque, the infamous Belle Brezing.  It's easy to lose yourself in the idea that things have always been the same at old TU.  But, it's simply not true.  My Transy experience is undoubtedly different than John Marshall Harlan's was in the 1850s, or Ned Beatty's in the 1950s.  And, as a friend and fellow alumna recently reminded me, my experience is a good bit different than the current students'.  To be fair, I suppose most Transy kids aren't listening to Nirvana and wearing plaid Abercrombie shirts these days.  And that's a very good thing.

A couple of years ago, I found myself at a wedding reception at Graham Cottage, Transy's alumni house. As the festivities drew to a close, I jokingly texted some Transy girlfriends that I was thinking of crashing some fraternity parties while I was on campus. It was Saturday night, after all. Now, of course I knew that none of the guys on the halls wanted to deal with a thirty-something retired sorority girl busting up in one of their parties. Nor did I think that my palate was exactly up to the bitter, hoppy notes of Natural Light or Milwaukee's Best. (An anthropology thesis could be written on the complexities of each fraternity's choice of crappy beer, but that's another story for another time...) Sitting in Graham Cottage, looking out the window at the dorm-dwellers gearing up for Saturday night, I felt like I was 21 again -- young and carefree and pretty. (OK, probably not as pretty as I thought. See, e.g., Natural Light.) I didn't want to think about the fact that some classmates' dreams came true, while others' didn't. I didn't want to recall that a few folks aren't still with us. It was a convenient fiction to tell myself that the parties were going on just as I remembered. It's simply nicer to believe that things are exactly as I left them.