What You Really Learn At College

He looked at me questioningly with his inquisitive brown eyes and asked, “How would you describe the atmospheres of the schools you went to?  How were they different?”  I paused.  How could I describe Humboldt State, the enclave in the uppermost region of Northern California?  The place where I learned more about life than education?  How could I convey to him and his two classmates who were interviewing me about my college experience why I went there?  And how could I explain that college can be a time in your life to explore everything else besides one’s major?

I chose to attend Humboldt State, located in the small town of Arcata, CA, after I looked it up in the Anderson Guide to Colleges after a friend (oh, alright, a boy) told me he planned on attending there.  He was much more interested in the “alternative agriculture” that thrives in the moist environment (ie. pot), so out of curiosity I read about what kind of school it was.  The first line read something like this: “Nestled among the redwoods in the mountains by the ocean…”  That was all I needed to know.  It was nine hours away and completely different than life in the valley.  I planned on majoring in history, so I figured it didn’t matter where I went: history is history.  My parents, thinking I would attend the local university three blocks away, were a bit taken aback by my choice.  They were supportive, and helped me load up all of my belongings that I would need for dorm life in the wet, rainy mountains and drove me up.  My peers kept saying, “We didn’t know you were a pothead!”  I smiled because I knew I was incapable of inhaling anything but air.

Arcata is still a place that welcomes hippies and the free at heart. It was the first town to elect a completely Green city council and openly questioned John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.  It has a small central Plaza with a statue of William McKinley in the center.  (Which one boyfriend contested, he thought it was someone else and made a bet with me that it wasn’t McKinley.  I won the bet, of course, and he got mad because I “knew everything”.  There was a big sign that said “William McKinley”, how was it my fault that he never read it? He also got mad when I told him that Simon and Garfunkel were not the first ones to sing “Wake Up Little Susie” first, but the Everly Brothers. He also swore that I took Intro to Ichthyology to learn more about the subject than he, the one

See, it says William McKinley right there.

majoring in it. This might be part of the reason why I ended that relationship, but I digress). The plaza was lined on three sides with art shops, music stores, a nice second hand store, a designer shop, Hunan Plaza (best Chicken in a Chile Brown Sauce ever), and an ice-cream parlor.  On the fourth side were the bars: Sidelines for the jocks, The Alibi for the artists, Everett’s for the locals (it was notorious for tossing out college students), and our favorite, Toby and Jack’s.

Founders Hall with its 66 stairs. That was the best shape my butt was ever in.

The school itself is indeed nestled among the redwoods; the Redwood Community Forest borders the campus and is a great place to hike and feel small among the towering trees.  Hiking was necessary to get anywhere.  My classes were in the upper most regions of Founder’s Hall which required you to climb 66 stairs, then climb to the second floor.  If you had a late afternoon class you could look out the window and watch the sun set over the ocean.  All around campus boys kicked around hackey-sacks and other students laid out if it was sunny.  Most of the time, however, it rained.  Many students end up leaving for how overcast and drizzly it is.  I woke up every morning, looked at the clouds masking the tops of the redwoods and thought that I was the luckiest person alive to have that be my first sight everyday.  Sometimes, the clouds would roll away to reveal a beautiful clear sky for a few hours and everyone would crank up the Led Zeppelin and the Doors and come out in droves.

I lived in a suite with nine other women.  For the first time in my life I shared a room and was surrounded by people.  I had to learn how to deal with

Nothing makes your problems seem insignificant like a redwood tree.

other personalities (and we had all types in our suite).  The result was me spending as much time as possible on my boyfriend’s floor hanging out with him and his 9 suite-mates.  Guys, I learned, were way less complicated than girls.  It was much easier playing with a potato-gun, watching Monty Python movies, and taking care of a gecko.  I only lived on campus for a year.

In the meantime, since Humboldt is so remote, the student body is made up of people from all around California and the U.S.  I met people from everywhere and no one from where I was from (which was the point).  On my first day of school I met a tall, blonde, bean-pole of a guy outside my classroom.  He introduced himself and we sat next to each other in the front row– me so I could hear, he because he was studious.  He also wore Converse and was nice enough.  I didn’t realize at the time that I was talking to my future husband.

I looked at my interviewers after describing its laid-back lifestyle and said, “When you choose a college, choose one that will get you going to where you want to go in life, but also choose a place that you really want to experience.  College is the one time in your life where you can choose where you want to live just to experience living there, so live someplace that interests you.  Go there and experience life.”


4 thoughts on “What You Really Learn At College

    1. Yes, college can serve up both the positives and negatives, but those experiences make us who we are today. That was one of the reasons I wanted to go so far away to school, so that when the negatives came up, I had to deal with them on my own instead of running home to Mom and Dad.

  1. How amazing–I graduated from HSU as well. I received my MA in the Teaching of Writing. Good old Founders Hall. I meant to stay only long enough to get my masters. Twelve years later I finally exited from behind the Redwood Curtain. I owe much of my life from my Arcata days. I can’t claim being a Humboldt Honey, nor a frequenter of Toby and Jacks. Loved Trinidad Beach. Miss the clam chowder. But do not, do not, do not miss the rain. Perhaps that is why I haven’t returned to visit.
    Go Lumberjacks!

    1. Oh, that is great! I love Trinidad. I used to volunteer at a seniors’ center and on every full moon some of them got together to hike Trinidad Head to watch the moonrise. They invited me along, and once a month we went up there and drank champagne and ate cake. Humboldt is a hard place to leave, but as you say, it’s equally hard to go back.

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