Leaving home for college is bound to bring about tremendous changes for first-year students, and even campus tours and overnight visits can’t prepare them for everything they encounter.
Scene found six freshmen from different backgrounds willing to let us into their lives during their first year of college. Though their experiences before and during college differ, they discovered many common themes, from their dislike for some dining hall food to their excitement about meeting new people.
“I feel like I’m the same person, but it’s a great experience to be a person trying to find out who you are, to start with a clean slate,” Ronan Rooney said. “I’m finding out I like who I am.”
A community right outside their doors
Settling in to college life definitely requires adjustment, for some more than others. They’ve learned the art of compromise and flexibility. It’s a totally different life than what they were used to, but by the end of the year, they were more at home.
“The sloppy joes today, I learned my lesson,” J.P. Kemmick said with a grimace after an October meal. “But the pasta was really good.”
“I’m finding I’m making a lot of friends because I cook,” said Kristina Ufer, who likes to bake in her hall kitchen. “I always make a double batch now.”
Several had struggles with their roommates, strangers chosen by strangers to share small quarters.
“It’s not always easy with a new roommate,” Do Han Song said. “I’m kind of a neatness freak. I’m always dusting and vacuuming and keeping my clothes clean and folded. My roommate didn’t really pick up on that. You know, after awhile there is a limit. I got tired of nagging and nagging him so I just cleaned up his stuff myself.”
His roommate transferred to a different school after first semester, and Song had the room to himself after that.
Asha Ajmani understands.
“We’ve had some problems,” Ajmani said of her roommate in the all-female Harstad Hall. “She doesn’t even talk to me. My RA told me we’re both maturing, but we’re maturing differently.”
By the end of the year, they hadn’t healed their rift.
“She’s all about boys, and that’s not what I’m here for,” Ajmani said. “They’re nice when they come along, but that’s not what I concentrate on.”
Even though it was hard, Ajmani said, “I’m sort of glad it happened, because it let me form friendships with other people.”
Others got along with their roommates, but don’t intend to live with them again. But even if they haven’t been best friends with their roommates, most have developed great relationships in their halls.
Aaron Ledesma lived in Foss Hall on lower campus and didn’t like it at first. He had heard Foss had a reputation as a party dorm, and that is not his thing. Then, a few months into the fall semester, Ledesma got sick. His RA kept coming to his room to check on him, bringing soup and other food from the UC.
“On upper campus, the student room doors are closed and the halls quiet,” he said. “Around here everyone is in and out of each other’s room all the time. Don’t expect to get to bed early. It just doesn’t work here. But that’s the way I like it.”
‘I want to take a bite of everything’
The freshmen found a wealth of opportunities on campus, and most decided to take PLU up on them.
Rooney, who will probably double major in psychology and history – and maybe add political science to that – plays drums in the University Congregation band Deliverance, trombone in Concert Band, competes with the debate team and serves as freshman activities coordinator for Hinderlie, planning events like hall pumpkin carving. He also got a job in the Provost’s Office, and eventually became the office web designer, a skill he taught himself in high school.
Even with this serious commitment to school and other activities, he said he was getting a little bored in the spring so he decided to tackle something new and started writing for the student newspaper, The Mast. His first story was published in early March on a student who speaks the ancient language of Aramaic.
“I think I like the frenzy,” Rooney said. “I like deadlines. I want to take the first year to take a bite out of everything and see what I like.”
The same is true of Kemmick, a secondary education major from Billings, Mont., who enthusiastically embraces everything about college life. He has thrown himself into just about any activity – from writing the sometimes irreverent Daily Flyer to joining the Ultimate Frisbee team to participating in a marathon 20-hour Saxifrage editing session to joining the Red Carpet Club giving tours to prospective students. He even dressed up like a woman for the traditional Miss Lute male “beauty” pageant. And he’s made a lot of trips to Seattle for concerts, as well as a crazy weekend road trip to Palm Springs for a two-day alternative music festival.
“I pretty much like being a part of everything,” Kemmick said. “I do a lot of stuff. I’m more or less always on the go.”
He tries to meet as many people as he can. And he knows he's better for it. “I think I've met a couple of people who will be friends for the rest of my life, but they're not like my friends back home,” he said.
After a moment’s pause, he continued, “But then again, I’ve only known the people here less than a year.”
For Ufer, the first year was about settling in and broadening horizons. She joined the knitting club and participated in the annual Sankta Lucia Festival in December. “Now that I know what kind of opportunities there are, I’m looking forward to being more involved in hall events and clubs,” she said. Ufer plans to become more involved with the Diversity Club and Campus Ministry next year.
Ajmani said she has the “best job on campus” as a student photographer, taking pictures across campus for use in print and online publications and working the photo shop. She also joined the multicultural club Fused.
“I’ll be sitting in my office with a view overlooking the city,” he said. “I’ll be a real estate tycoon, own a mortgage company and own several diversified businesses including an auto tuner shop for Lamborghinis and Ferraris. After work I’ll head down to my own Ferrari and drive home to one of my several estates around the country. That’s my dream.”
College courses can be a lot tougher than expected
Many freshmen who cruised through high school are surprised to find themselves much more challenged at college; others are disappointed to find their courses too easy.
“The schoolwork at PLU is much more difficult than I expected it would be,” said Song, a graduate of Spanaway Lake High School who plans to major in business or economics. “In high school I never had to study and I pulled A’s. It doesn’t work like that here. Plus, with the freedom for the first time to do whatever you want to do and so many activities to choose from and distractions out there, it is easy to lose focus on the class work. When that happens you can get into trouble real fast because the classes are almost all very challenging.”
Ajmani learned how advanced her pre-college courses were. Her PLU biology class was using the same text she studied in high school. After consulting with advisors, she was allowed to skip some beginning classes in both biology and French. She intended to be a biology major but is now looking at other areas. She knows she’ll double major in French, and plans minors in religion and art.
Ufer has always been a solid science student, excelling in class and at science fairs during her years at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma. So she was disappointed to learn ther biology text wasn’t new to everyone and that many of her calculus classmates had taken the class in high school. “I feel like I’m having to work a lot harder,” she said. “It’s definitely challenged me a lot more than high school, but once I became adjusted I was able to start meeting those challenges.”
She was thrilled that her plant research in high school enabled her to conduct research projects at PLU with her advisor, Dana Garrigan.
“It’s really awesome as a freshman to get to have those opportunities,” said Ufer, who wants to go to medical school.
And the courses have challenged her to ask more questions. A spring philosophy class on animals and the environment made her see why some people oppose research on plants. She decided to add philosophy to her biology major for a broader view.
“It really made me stop and think and change my perspective. Research could have a huge, horrible impact on the world,” she said. “There are repercussions you don’t really think about in the lab, but need to think about.”
“The majority of the classes I’ve taken have made me realize a whole other realm of thinking is out there.”
Life lessons outside the classroom
Sometimes the lessons of college come in disguise.
Rooney said one of his lowest points of the year turned out to be one of the best. He and his roommate were hanging out in the hall, when both their wallets were stolen from their room. Rooney lost $100, plus all his identification. His reaction to and anger over losing that amount of money made him rethink what’s important.
“That made me re-evaluate a lot of my stressors if I was this ticked off at less than $100,” he said. “I shouldn’t care this much about material stuff.”
Rooney knows there are plenty of people right near PLU who don’t have $100 to lose. He decided to see how he could help them, and volunteered at the East Campus Christmas party, which provides gifts for underprivileged children.
“It was the most gratifying thing I’ve done since I came to college,” Rooney said.
Ufer said she saw more alcohol on campus than she expected, but is glad PLU keeps tabs on it. She mostly stays away from drinking and had a frightening experience with a friend who had too much to drink. Her friend got very sick, and Ufer had to get an RA and Campus Safety involved to help her.
Song said he thinks he has taught some of his fellow students as well.
“One of the guys who is one of my best friends now said when I met him in the fall that I was his first Asian friend. That’s OK. He came from a very sheltered background and an almost all-white high school. It was great to see the shock on his face when we took him clubbing in Seattle. We have definitely opened up his eyes a little bit.
“I knew that PLU was not going to be a real diverse place compared to some other bigger colleges. Even my high school was way more diverse than this. But it really wasn’t much of an adjustment for me because I knew what to expect and I can get along with anyone.
“You know, just because a place is less diverse doesn’t mean that there is racism. PLU is very open, accepting and welcoming. I don’t feel in any way limited because I’m Asian-American.”
Nearing the end of the year, Spring Break was a welcome respite from school. The students enjoyed visiting old friends and appreciating the things they love about their own homes.
“It was good to see the stars at night,” Ledesma said.
“I got to go to the beach,” Ajmani said.
It wasn’t all fun though. On the first Friday of Spring Break, Song was involved in an automobile accident. A truck ran a stop light and he smashed into it. Song was rushed to the ER and was released with no significant injuries, but needed physical therapy for neck and back pain.
Kemmick is home in Billings to work and save money for school. He’s pretty good at it – at the end of the school year, he had more money in his bank account than when he started.
Ufer is living with her parents and volunteering at the VA Hospital on American Lake in Lakewood. She hopes to return to a summer job as a barista at Tacoma General Hospital.
Song continues working at his mortgage job. Reviewing the year, Song said he doesn’t feel a lot different.
“I don’t think I’ve really changed much because I had a pretty good outlook and a mature perspective before I came here. Plus I really didn’t move far from home in Spanaway,” said Song, who considered transferring to a college in Arizona for a change of scenery but decided to stay at PLU. “Other freshmen have changed a lot.”
“I think college changes everyone, but you can’t put your finger on exactly how,” Ajmani said.
“I’ve been able to grow a lot more in my own personal beliefs and be a lot stronger despite what the people around me are doing,” Ufer said. “I am a lot more independent, and I have a deeper appreciation for spending time with my family.”
Summing up his first year, Rooney called it “eventful.”
“It had its ups, it had its downs,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself, which is the cliché thing to say, but it’s true.”
Nisha Ajmani ’02, Greg Brewis and Steve Hansen contributed to this story.