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.

Bad Decisions and Good Conseqences


We've been talking a lot about school recently here at HerKentucky.  We've discussed selecting the right schools for our kids and for ourselves.  We've talked about making the right decision during sorority rush.  In a way, we've focused on the best decisions of our school experiences.

Holly's book is great. Even Oprah thinks so.
But, for every really good decision, there's a really bad one.  Today, on Salon.com, Kentucky-born author Holly Goddard Jones talks about her decision to get married as a nineteen year-old University of Kentucky sophomore.  There were no shotguns involved, nor rebellion.  Instead, Ms. Jones tells us, she was following her boyfriend to Lexington and she didn't want to let her daddy down by "living in sin."  It was a tough decision, she notes, and one which left her socially isolated on campus. Now, Ms. Jones argues on her thirteenth wedding anniversary, it ultimately turned out to be a great decision both personally and professionally.  Her "biggest mistake" didn't turn out so bad.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Jones for Ace Weekly.  From that experience, I can tell you that her commitment to hard work, good storytelling, and generally being a lovely person shines through, as does her adoration of her husband.  To hear that her "bad decision" turned out to be a blessing certainly warms my heart.  It's certainly a story that resonates with a lot of small-town Southern girls: making the difficult choice in order to fulfill family expectations. 

In her Salon piece, Ms. Jones wistfully notes:

I would be lying, of course, if I claimed that I have not had moments of
depression and doubt over the years, wondering about the course of that
parallel me, the one who did not get married. I wonder who I would have
become if my roots weren’t planted so closely to my husband’s, so that
the two of us have grown not just up but together, into an
interdependent being with the same home and habits, many of the same
memories and broad life goals, the same jokes and turns of phrase.

I question this undergrad hairstyle.
I think we've all been there.  Every decision we make from the ages of 18-25 holds consequences for every subsequent day of our lives.  Most of us have wondered if things would have been a little different if we'd chosen a different path, yet we don't want to negate the good consequences of the paths we took.  What if I'd finished that application to Yale? I often ask myself, then realize that I wouldn't have met my beau or many of my besties.  What if I'd chosen a different field of study or moved to New York, like I always dreamed? Like Ms. Jones, I ultimately decide that, had I done any of these things, I just wouldn't be me. 

We'd love to hear from y'all.  Have you ever made "bad decisions" that turned out to be great ones?

I (Heart) School

My year begins with the school year. Even when I lived in D.C. and no one in my home went to school, the school year was how I organized time. The beginning of school represents a fresh start. The beginning of school means new clothes and unopened packages of pencils and crisp stacks of paper. The beginning of school represents opportunity - the opportunity to learn something life-changing, to succeed at something new, to finally do things right. 

I love everything about it because I love everything about school. Elementary school was fun. Middle school was hilarious. High school was dramatic, but COLLEGE was the best four years of my life.
That girl on the left has NOT a care in the world.
The guy on the right is now a PROFESSOR,
which makes the girl on the left feel very old indeed.

I know I shouldn’t say that. I truly do love my life now. I have the most amazing husband and the most adorable children and the coolest jobs. But you know what husbands and children and jobs are most of the time? WORK. You know what isn’t WORK? 

COLLEGE.

College is just enough structure and just enough freedom to be the best. thing. EVER. Even the start of school at college is better. My favorite day in the world is Syllabus Day - the first day of class when the professor hands out the syllabus, goes over it quickly, and lets every one go. No homework. No preparation. Just a crisp sheet of paper that tells you everything you’re going to learn over the next few months. Nothing is late yet. You haven’t procrastinated. Everything seems so achievable.  

I celebrated many a Syllabus Day during my four years at Transylvania. I decided to go to Transy because my high school boyfriend was in Lexington and I didn’t want to go to UK. The worst decision-making that luckily led to the best decision of my life. When I look back on my life, my four years at Transylvania were the most transformative.

I learned how to be a good friend. I learned how to be a good liberal. I learned how to write and think and debate. I met my husband, my dearest friends, and mentors that single-handedly changed the course of my life

The best part? All that changing and learning and transforming was so much dang fun. Sure, there was drama. That high school boyfriend cheated on me with a sorority sister. I did not graduate with all the dear friends I had made freshman year due to conflicts and miscommunications. I still vividly remember the torture of writing ONE MORE political philosophy essay for Dr. Dugi after Spring Break. At the time, it seemed like the most difficult task in the entire world. 

Of course, it wasn’t. I knew deep down it wasn’t. By graduation, I already knew how special my time at Transylvania had been. Others whined and complained. They couldn’t graduate fast enough. Not me. I knew this time was special and I didn’t want it to end. 

At graduation, underneath those seemingly perfect cherry trees, I cried like a baby. Sure, I cried for the friends I was leaving and the mentors I was hugging one last time. However, I knew I’d see and talk to all of them again. I cried the hardest for Transylvania and those incredibly special four years I knew I would never get back.

I cried that May because come September I knew another school year would start at Transylvania ... and I would not be there. 

~ Sarah Stewart Holland