Author: Mari Meyer, GSE, C’12
They say that becoming a student again is no different than riding a bike—sure, it may take some oversized training wheels, an industrial strength helmet, perhaps a pair of skinned knees or two and a bruised ego here and there—but as a new student at the Graduate School of Education and the Graduate Assistant here at the Office of Alumni Relations, I can officially concur that student-hood, whether you once loved it or simply survived it, sticks to your bones and stays with you for life.
I have been noticing the remnants of my own student identity creeping up on me in these first few weeks of the school year. Though I expected early on that I would inevitably return to my tortuous and deeply unhealthy on-again/off-again relationship with the caffeinated lifestyle—I never would have imagined that I so quickly would re-learn the primal, survival skills of the student in her natural habitat.
Anthropologically speaking, the student must evolve and adapt to her environment, first and foremost based on physical need. Like many other graduate students, I have found that my basic physical need revolves completely around: ( 1). shelter (though this is generally the least important as there are libraries to sleep in), (2). food (or some variance thereof) and (3). cold, hard cash—which for most of us has been generated by what will ultimately become our endless collection of student debt. But that’s another conversation.
It wasn’t until a recent trip to the Fresh Grocer Salad Bar that I wholeheartedly understood my own behavior as a return to familiar student territory. While my fellow patrons loaded their disposable containers with greens and meats and cheeses and dressings by the ladleful, I was strategically mapping out the efficiency and worth of my mid-day meal. Which vegetables carry the highest count of vitamins and fiber? What is the ratio of caloric content and filling fixings to their weight on a pay scale—the final determinant of the cost of my meal? Why waste my money on thickly sliced cucumber rounds when those heavy medallions would far outweigh three times their nutritional value in feather-light spinach leaves? And so it begins. It’s not enough that I will accept—rather, seek out—as many opportunities to eat for free as possible (even four years out of undergrad, that is one habit that will never cease to improve my quality of life), I now have revitalized my innate instinct to analytically assess every morsel and meal in terms of its satiety versus monetary turnover.
It is no different, say, for those of us who have also returned to the art of the coin-operated Laundromat experience after living in a home with washer and dryer—in the apartment itself! I fondly remember the days when Chicago, my hometown, switched from quarter-collecting parking meters to giant boxes accepting cash, coins, and plastic of any kind. People were furious about the prices, but oh, how luxurious it felt to free myself of loose change, that dirty, clinking pocket confetti. What a pleasure to never worry about where and how I would find quarters in exchange for a dollar bill, which I so rarely had in the first place. And here I am, a graduate student in West Philly buying extra socks and underwear in a concerted effort to prolong the need to gather my most valuable coins by the roll and exchange them for clean clothes—after hours (what, it doesn’t take you this long?) of sorting, and stuffing and piling and folding and transferring back into dressers and onto hangers—just to wear and make dirty all over again. Who has the time (or quarters?!) for this arduous nonsense?
I neither defend nor encourage this behavior, yet I must admit to feeling a certain rush of adrenaline each time I swipe that highlighter across the page, a kind of innate thrill as I fill up one more free cup of coffee here in the Office of Alumni Relations (whose inhabitants do nothing but enable this jitter-inducing addiction), and an emphatic joyfulness when I’ve finished ALL of my homework and made it into bed prior to 1 AM. Sure, my new roommates write their names on their food to distinguish it from one another’s—I mean, really, would we not know that the uncooked chicken breast cutlet in the half-sealed plastic bag wasn’t ours?—and sure, I just added the Student Loan distributors to my “Favorites” list on my phone. But let’s be clear here, student-hood is a privilege and pleasure. When else in life will my sole purpose and hardest job require me to simply learn more? I can only hope that, even in my most sleep-deprived moments of despair—with my overabundance of unwashed socks and my sad looking salad platter—I can find humor amidst the panic and gratitude for getting through it best I can.