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Why I Appreciate State School (Part 1)

Why I Appreciate State School (Part 1)

Next weekend is the 50th annual National Campus Ministry Seminar. I will be attending this event for the sixth time and am actually privileged to teach a class at this one. This event has had me thinking a lot lately about my undergraduate experience in college and about how those years dramatically changed and formed my life. I was thinking about that in a particular way the other day when a friend of mine shrugged off his college experience as nothing more than a waste of time in a place he didn't care about. I mourn for those who went through that period of life without the radical road of experiences, growth, and transformational people that I was somehow placed upon. So much of who I am right now has been a result of those four and a half years. And in my mind, so much of that is because of the nature of the kind of school I went to - the 27,000 student mega-institution of the University of Oklahoma.

I have been out of undergraduate school for two and a half years, and have subsequently worked in ministry at another school very similar in scope to OU and have done graduate work at two relatively small Christian colleges. This has begun to give me plenty to think about in retrospect regarding my college experience. I loved OU and everything about OU. But when I think back on what changed me so much during those years, it was a lot of things that are much bigger than OU itself. Universities of OU's ilk are often referred to as "state schools." The idea of the state school carries very different images and conotations, depending on who is considering the subject. Objectively, state universities are higher educational systems that are established by state governments and are at least partially funded by tax dollars. Therefore, these institutions are not controlled or governed by any particular interests or groups except for its founding governmental system.

What makes this interesting in my life is that as a senior in high school, I had narrowed my college choices down to a gigantic state-run school and a small, religious, conservative, private college run by Churches of Christ. In a move that defied even what I had come to expect, I chose the former. Suddenly I was faced with the reality of living in a place that was huge, didn't care what I did at any moment, and had no "rules" to speak of. A place where almost any and every kind of lifestyle was condoned, every kind of idea was fair game, and where the people came from every kind of place, background, and belief. When I moved into the seventh floor of Couch Center during the Fall of 1999, I became neighbors with atheists, Christians, homosexuals, prudes, drunkards, Bible-study leaders, frat boys, cowboys, Indians, Pentacostals, Jews, blacks, whites, and every kind of international student. Coming from a relatively homogenous social community (even at public high school), one of the first things I had to learn was to not assume anything about anyone. Life was sometimes loud, lonely, unpredictable, and completely unscheduled (except for classes, but even those are optional). Basically I didn't have to be anywhere or do anything that I didn't want. Nobody was there to enforce anything over me. That's glorious freedom, right? Well, freedom made me completely uncomfortable. I had never realized the freedom that this state school life brought until I was at the Freshmen orientation camp during the summer before school started. There was a large activity happening on the Thursday night of camp and one of the students in my group asked my counselor if we had to go. His reply: "I don't care what you do. You are adults." That was a watershed moment for me because for the first time I was part of something that put every decision squarely into my own lap. Suddenly I realized that whatever life I led in this place was going to happen only because I chose it.

This makes questions of identity become very sharp. Nobody in the university is telling you what to believe or do, nor has any expectations of any. But there are voices all around. Everyone has something to say, or something in which to participate. Looking at a typical dorm bulletin board will reveal ads and announcements for fraternity rush, Hillel Jewish group, a band party, an indie rock concert, a feminist lecture series, a Campus Crusade for Christ BBQ, a keg party, a College Republicans meeting, and a Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals Association event, among others.

In this place, life hands you a menu that contains every imaginable way of living and thinking. It cordially says "Look it over. I will be back momentarily to take your first course order."

To be continued...


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