It is fall and I am back on an American university campus, which can mean only one thing: I am surrounded by undergraduates. It’s most obvious at 9:55 a.m., as I look out the window of my office to see hordes of dazed-looking late-teenagers staggering to class, clutching textbooks and coffee cups. The lampposts on campus have blossomed with fliers advertising everything from Taiko Drumming to public interest internships; if you missed those, you’ll hear about them from various aggressive leafletters if you mistakenly stray within 200 feet of the campus center. In the evenings, Memorial Glade is divided between intramural ultimate Frisbee teams and sunbathers enjoying the last few weeks where they can even pretend that their reasons for wearing a bikini involve getting a tan.
Frankly, it’s all so familiar—the autumn air, the mad rush between classes, and the fact that I’m studying sociology—that I can’t help but imagine myself here a few years prior, as an undergrad myself. In fact, I practically saw myself the other day, walking among four members of the Cal Marching Band heading towards the stadium for afternoon practice. They were carrying an assortment of trumpets and trombones, proudly sporting “Beat Stanford” t-shirts and wearing their marching band hats. Clearly, they were blissfully unaware that—regardless of the university—being in the marching band is totally not cool. Truly, these are my people—or at least, they would have been. I am not going to join the Cal Marching Band, but for a second, I wished I could. I am surrounded by temptation: opportunities to relive the glory days—or maybe, just to acquire some of the positive memories I never got around to creating.
But, unfortunately, I also remember how, as an undergraduate, I found it was a bit strange when graduate students joined groups clearly not meant for them. Don’t they have friends their own age? On one occasion at Princeton, my preceptor asked me to explain “The Street” to him. “What a ridiculous question”, I thought, “How can you be a student at Princeton and not know about ‘The Street’?” Now that I’m on the other side of the divide, though, I get it. I wake up in the morning, run, and head into my office, which I leave only to re-caffeinate or attend class. When I’m done, I go to my house off campus. I’m happy with my routine—it makes me feel like an adult—but as a result, I have no idea where the undergrads here go to party, or to study, or to socialize or… hell, I don’t even know what campus looks like after 9 p.m.
I find this unfortunate because—despite the complaints bandied in our graduate student lounge about “those kids” filling our classes and competing with us for library books—I believe that undergraduates are the lifeblood of any university. That’s not to say that the critical output of a university stems from its undergraduates, only that the university as a place and an institution and a culture depends on them. There are, after all, no graduate student theater troupes, graduate student activist groups (beyond our union), or even graduate student parties. There are just atomized groups of us holed up in our departments burrowing deeper and deeper into our specialities. The figurative glue that holds campus together—the people who, quite literally, travel between our parochial ivory towers on a daily basis—are our younger peers. And yet, even as I write exultations about their role, I haven’t actually had a single conversation with one during my time here.
The rigidity of the unofficial and unspoken separation between graduates and undergraduates would be easier for me to accept had it not been for my time at Oxford, where both sets co-mingled in the college in a way that, a few years prior, I would have thought highly unlikely. I miss that. I am, when all is said and done, two years older than a senior—hardly an unbridgeable rift, but one that, as I advance up the ladder of academia, I am sure will grow.