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UNDERCOVER DEAN: BLOG POST #1

This is my very first “blog” post, but I figured it was about time I joined the Internet. After all, I’m a college student now! Last Thursday night, I met my suitemates for dinner at Longman Hall, where we enjoyed some of Tripoli’s distinctive menu offerings and talked about everything under the sun: boating, contraception, Hegel, a sophomore named Maria, the recession, and the excitement of our first week as Tripoli College freshmen. One of my suitemates, whom I will call “Akash,” told us all about his childhood in Southeast Asia, and I kept the discussion going by sharing some of my experiences in the Vietnam War. After the meal, we sipped delicious fair-trade coffee and agreed to go on a road trip to Los Angeles at the end of the academic year. But I didn’t have time to sit around “shooting the breeze.” I had an evening class. I bussed my tray, grabbed a delicious 80 percent vegan cupcake, and headed off to “Crime and Justice,” an eye-opening sociology seminar taught by Professor Malinka West. I was a few minutes late because I stopped to admire the silhouette of Sheridan Tower against the darkening sky, but sometimes it’s a good idea to pause and enjoy the little moments. I know that from experience! Tripoli students benefit from small class sizes (an 11:1 student-to-instructor ratio), which provide opportunities for lots of intimate discussions with distinguished faculty like Professor West, author of the controversial memoir Fucking

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the Police, and Other Diversions. Thursday night’s class was part lecture, part debate, part movie screening, and I had to struggle to keep up. The life of a college freshman is so exhausting and fast-paced that I actually fell asleep for a little while at the seminar table!

TH E M AS K E D MA N

If you were to pay a visit to Tripoli and see me hanging out with my new friends in front of Pinkman Hall, you might say to yourselves, “That fellow looks a little older than most incoming freshmen.” And one or two of you might actually see through my disguise (I hope not!) and ask yourselves what on earth a seventy-year-old dean is doing attending classes and hanging out with undergraduates. To explain that, I’ll have to wind the clock back a few weeks. As the dean of students, I’m always looking for ways to improve the Tripoli experience. We face more challenges than ever this year, with an unprecedented budget deficit and numerous personnel issues. But the last thing I want, as funding dries up and half the endowment vanishes overnight, is for our commitment to our students to get forgotten in the general panic. Student life remains my top priority, and I’m dedicated to maximizing the scant resources we have at hand. Every day, I ask myself the same questions: What do our students want? What do they need? What are we doing to make life at Tripoli as comfortable and safe as possible? Obviously, we can’t begin to address those questions if we don’t have a clear understanding of what’s happening on campus. But getting the lay of the land isn’t as simple as it may sound. I attend College Council meetings, I’m a member of

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various faculty-student committees, and I deal frequently with sports teams and other campus organizations. The trouble is that young men and women are not always very forthcoming when speaking with an “adult,” especially an authority figure like the dean of students. And truth be told, no matter how much contact I have with young people, I can’t help but think that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more and more out of touch. Last summer marked the third anniversary of my wife’s death, and as I thought about her and reflected on how I’d spent those last three years, I began to feel that it was time for a change. My office just wasn’t doing its job as well as I thought it could. Plus, I worried that if I went through the same lonely routines for another year, I’d go absolutely batty! That’s when I decided to try something new. Call it a “thought experiment,” but with real things. I set my bifocals aside and got some contact lenses. I bought denim trousers, a Boston Celtics mesh uniform jersey, “boxer” shorts, and a baseball cap that I turned backwards on my head. I even dyed my hair a rich chestnut brown, the color it had been in my youth. As a final touch, I obtained a gold-plated Tripoli College logo chain. Then I pulled some strings and got myself assigned to a suite in Hogbender Hall, Entryway C, with Akash and two other first-year students, whom I will call “Burke” and “Lehman.” What’s the only way to find out what a typical student’s life is like? To become a student myself. By move-in, I was ready to begin. I told my friends and neighbors that I was leaving the country for a few weeks, put an out-of-office reply on my e-mail, and went undercover as an entering (or, since I’m a Tripoli grad myself, reentering!) freshman.

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M OV E - I N

I share a bedroom with Akash, while Lehman and Burke share the bedroom next door. At first, this was a bit awkward because Akash is such a smash hit with the ladies, but luckily he’s also a polite and considerate young man. And anyway, when he’s entertaining a young woman in our room, I can always hang out in the common room. We have a futon, a comfy chair, and a nice window seat. Plus, there’s always someone to talk to, whether it’s Lehman, Burke, or just someone stopping by to say hello. No disguise is perfect, and it’s only natural that I’ve had to do some explaining. As I was laying out my pill organizers and other toiletries on move-in day, I looked up to see Akash staring at me from the doorway. “Are you a parent?” he said. Indeed I am, Akash! I’m the proud father of two girls, both of them Tripoli College graduates! In fact, one of my daughters lives just half an hour away in Manchester, which has been a great comfort to me since my wife passed away. She was the one who showed me how to set up this blog. But I had to stick to my cover story, so I said, “I’m a freshman like you. I’m a little older because I took some time off after high school. My name is William, or Bill.” Then I asked him if he wanted to do any drugs or drink some wine, in the hope that I might be able to learn something about drug and alcohol abuse among incoming freshmen, but he said he was going out to meet some people he knew from TOOT (Tripoli Outdoor Orientation Trips). The TOOT program has been a big hit since it was established eight years ago.

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Akash wasn’t the only one who had questions for me. Later that day, I was sitting in the common room with Burke and Lehman. The two of them were looking through the course catalog and I was enjoying a light doze on the couch. Suddenly I was startled by the sound of a book slamming shut, and I opened my eyes to see Lehman squatting in front of me. “Hey, man, listen,” he said. “Don’t you want to tell us what this is about?” I thought I’d play dumb, so I told him I wasn’t sure what he meant. “What are you, someone’s grandfather?” I saw Burke cringe, but I reassured him. It was a fair question, after all. I told them that I’d taken a few years off after high school. (And no, I don’t have grandchildren yet, but I’ve got my fingers crossed!) It was naïve of me to expect a disguise to fool these young men, but now that the subject was out in the open, they seemed to take it all in stride. Soon, it almost seemed as if they had lost interest. I’ve been amazed to discover that most of the other freshmen I’ve met have reacted the same way. Today’s students are remarkably open-minded about deviant lifestyle decisions. Of course, I’ve been spending all my time with freshmen and I have yet to run across students I’ve known in my capacity as dean. I’ll have to improve my disguise! Now Lehman was explaining how relieved he was that his parents had finally gone. “College is a time to be independent,” I agreed, “and pursue a journey of self-discovery that could lead you to an activity or course of study that might become your consuming passion.”

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“Yeah,” said Burke. “I mean, it’s like, maybe you know some guy in high school, and he’s just this weedy little guy, and then he goes away to college and next Thanksgiving he comes back with a bow in his hair and he’s like, ‘Oh, okay, I selfidentify as a female water buffalo.’ ” Lehman nodded. “What I’ve never understood is what’s a beefalo?” I didn’t react to these turns and surprises in the conversation. One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is that it’s become more and more difficult to adjust when the topic of conversation changes. “This can be a stressful time for parents and new students alike,” I said. “I wonder if the move-in process could be improved or streamlined in any way?” “A beefalo is just what it is,” Burke said. “It’s its own thing, like a squid or a periscope.” I pressed on. “What are the three things you would change about move-in or about Tripoli College orientation activities?” This got Lehman’s attention. “I’ve had some trouble with the RA,” he said. As far as I could tell from his confused account, the residential adviser had made a disparaging comment about the New York Knicks. There was no indication that this remark had been disrespectful or mean-spirited. The problem was only that Lehman, to use the old phrase, couldn’t take a joke. I tried to explain that the RA must have simply misjudged the degree of Lehman’s devotion to the New York Knicks franchise, but Lehman only rolled his eyes. “What about you, Burke? What are three things you’d change?”

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I had already seen that Burke was less self-possessed than Lehman, who hails from New York City, and I could tell that he wasn’t having such an easy time with the transition to college life. “It seems like all they serve in the dining hall is pudding,” he said. “Also I don’t know where to get my schedule signed. The third thing is that coming here was a mistake.” I reassured him, as I had reassured so many students over the years. “You’ll discuss your schedule with your adviser, and I’m sure he or she will contact you soon. You’re going to do great here, Burke. We all are. Tripoli’s self-serve pudding bars are famous.” I told him that everything would get easier as he grew more familiar with the rhythm of life here at Tripoli College. I also encouraged him to get involved in one or more of the 200+ student organizations on campus, one of which might turn out to be his consuming passion. Then I reminded him that the counseling center was a great resource that many students took advantage of at least once in their four years at Tripoli. Lehman was drinking from a bottle of white rum. He said, “You want a nip, Grandpa?” I wanted more than a nip: I wanted the inside story on the drinking habits of our students. But I’d have to leave it for another time. I needed to catch up on some sleep!

R E F L E C TI O N S

Over the last few days, I’ve settled into my new life. On a personal level, I feel better already. It’s great just to get out of my empty house! Of course, as a seventy-year-old man trying to keep up with young men and women in their teens and early twenties, I

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do face some challenges. My days are so full that I hardly have time to think, and I feel as if I’m always rushing, whether I’m eating an early breakfast at Pinkman Hall, walking to class in the chill of the morning, hitting the books, attending dramatic performances, surfing the net, or just talking about sports and metaphysics with my suitemates in the common room. My fellow students have been very welcoming. I’ve started to feel like I’m the only one who cares about my age, so I’ve given up my disguise and started dressing more casually. Most days I just wear my old loafers, a pair of chinos, and a very old tweed sport coat over a T-shirt. That way, if students I know see me out on campus, they’ll just think I’m taking a stroll in my capacity as dean. Burke thinks I look great, incidentally, and he tells me I’m fitting in better than he is. As I relive all the trials and tribulations of selecting classes (exclusively freshman seminars, so I won’t risk being recognized by an upperclassman), getting to know my suitemates, and familiarizing myself with the routines of student life, I’ve been thinking about my first experience as a student at Tripoli College, fifty years ago. A lot has changed—Tripoli is now coed, we offer a greater variety of courses in a greater variety of subjects, our student body is diverse and technologically savvy in a way that my generation would have found hard to believe—but a lot has also remained the same. The anxieties, fears, and frustrations are different in substance but the same in essence. Who am I? we ask ourselves. What do I want? What am I interested in? And whatever the answers are, they’re bound to be exciting.

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Excerpt from THE GHOST APPLE by Aaron Thier  

A blistering debut novel from a prodigious young writer, brilliantly parroting a panoply of voices -- "documents" official, historical, comm...

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