Last week I was in the Albany area in New York on my way to spend the evening at the home of a friend from college. I had arrived in town early and decided to walk around the campus where we went to school — Siena College in Loudonville.
My visit coincided with the start of a college search for my son, who is looking to transfer from our local community college to a four-year school in another city next spring.
As I walked around campus, so many good memories washed over me and I found myself thinking that wherever my son lands, I hope he finds what I found at Siena.
I was on the low end of the maturity scale at 17 when faced with the decision of where to go to college. More than a little apprehensive about leaving home, I actually announced to my parents that I might not go to college at all. Their response: I was more than welcome to take a year off and work … and then go to college. That did not sound appealing so I quickly rethought the idea.
As we began looking at colleges, my main goal was to find a place where I felt comfortable. I was looking for a small school within a few hours of home, with access to public transport so I could easily come home for long weekends. I looked at a handful of schools, getting a cold feeling at one college in Connecticut (no one even looked at us or said hello as we walked around campus), and a slightly warmer feeling from a couple of schools in Pennsylvania, but I didn’t like how difficult it would be to travel home without a car. I visited Siena and stayed over with a friend from my hometown who was a sophomore there. She and her friends could not have been nicer, and I finally felt I had found a school that was a good fit for me. I applied, was accepted, and decided to enroll.
Fortunately, I played field hockey and that made the transition from home to college infinitely easier. I had to report to campus a week before other freshmen for preseason practices. Though I struggled to introduce myself on the first morning of practice (I mumbled my name and hometown and was mortified when I was asked to speak up and repeat myself), the people on the team were very welcoming, and it didn’t take long before I felt that I was going to be ok.
That was the beginning of four happy years in Loudonville. What I had seen on my overnight stay as a high school senior was exactly what I found as a student. As a downstate New Yorker, I was amazed that it was the norm for people to make eye contact and say hello around campus — even when they didn’t know each other. Stunning!
Because the school only had about 2,600 students, including commuters, and most people were friendly, it was easy to meet people and settle in. Life on campus was simple and manageable: classes during the weekdays, mostly in one building; meals in the one cafeteria on campus; and studying in the library at night.
On weekends, the social life mostly centered around parties in the dorms followed by trips down the hill to a cheerful establishment called Dappers. Fake IDs may or may not have been required.
It was in this environment that I not only had a ton of fun and learned a lot, but also built friendships that have lasted for more than three decades.
I know I am not the only person who went to a college, big or small, and came out with fond memories and lifelong friendships. I’m not exactly sure what it was about those four years that created such a bond, but Siena did feel special, and I think it has something to do with the simplicity of the time and place.
Not only did we not have Smartphones or the internet, most of us didn’t have cars or TVs, and we didn’t have phones in our rooms. We got to know each other so well in part because we interacted and connected for longer periods of time than many people do now. I usually called my parents on Sundays from one of the payphones in the hallway on my floor and occasionally wrote and received letters. Otherwise, there weren’t a lot of outside distractions. We lived in small cinder block dorm rooms and we figured out how to keep ourselves entertained.
As an aside, rooms seem especially small when your roommate tips over the dresser while curling her eyelashes and a bottle of Obsession perfume smashes all over the floor. But I digress.
Part of our entertainment involved music. We arranged the beds to accommodate my giant 1980s stereo system. We occasionally removed one of the windows so a speaker could face outward and play music for anyone below. (You’re welcome, everyone who lived on the quad from 1987-1989. I hope you enjoyed Sweet Home Alabama.)
Today I would be hard pressed to live with that many people in such a small space. Share a bathroom with 70 women? No thank you. But at the time, I felt I was living large, staying up as late as I wanted, cooking noodles in a hot pot at midnight, and looking for high jinks around the dorm. We were a bunch of Catholic kids away from our strict parents and there was a lot of fun to be had.
Some of the best times I had at Siena were playing sports, field hockey in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. In addition to the games and practices, it was hard to beat driving around upstate New York in a van on the way to games at other schools scream-singing Build Me Up Buttercup, Sweet Caroline, and other classics. I still miss being on a team.
There were other parts of my four years that enriched my experience. I spent the spring semester of my junior year in Spain, and though I was insufferable when I came back for senior year, thinking I was sooooo worldly after having lived in EUROPE, it was an incredibly interesting experience that helped me grow up and expand my point of view.
I also had an on-campus internship during my senior year with the sports information department that involved writing articles for the basketball program, compiling statistics, and working in the office. One of my most profound takeaways at the time was a fascination with this newfangled thing called a fax machine, but it turned out to be valuable preparation for the work world and led to a job immediately following graduation with an Albany-area branch of GE.
The friendships I developed are what I appreciate most from my time at Siena. There were so many great people, and though I have lost touch with many of them, I still smile when I remember things we did. I’ve maintained close contact with most of my roommates and a few others. I had the good fortune of meeting a bunch of Chatty Cathies who were fun, smart, and loyal. Over the last 35 years, we have seen each other through all of life’s events — weddings, births, new jobs, moves, divorces, illnesses, and deaths. I always know I have a crew behind me for whatever comes up.
Places change over the course of 30 years; there are new buildings on campus and other shifts in the landscape, but I was struck by how the place basically felt the same as I strolled around last week, even in late July when the campus was nearly empty. There still seemed to be a palpable sense of belonging that was so present while I was a student.
After I left campus last Monday I spent the evening with two close friends from Siena. We did what we always do — laughed really hard and told stories and gave each other lots of free advice. We don’t see each other often, but when we do, we pick up right where we left off and it’s as if no time has passed.
Picking a college can end up being a pivotal decision in a young person’s life, setting a course for where they’ll live, who they’ll marry, and friends who will stay with them for the long haul. Siena was the ideal school for me at that point in my life. My wish for my son is that he finds a place where he is enveloped into a community as I was, one that grounds him and provides him with a foundation that has a positive impact on his life.