Tag Archives: College

My Last Letter to Flagstaff

Dear Flagstaff,

autumn forest

There’s no easy way to say this, but I have to say goodbye.

Northern Arizona University

It’s not that I don’t like you. On the contrary, you’re the finest community I’ll ever know. Never mind that you’re the only community I’ve ever known. Having lived in Flagstaff for twenty years and with no actual memories of my life in Pocatello, Idaho, before moving to you, it might be unfair to future communities, but I mean it, Flagstaff. Where else can I see a herd of deer pass in front of my car just uphill from my high school? Where else can I have a mountain for a backyard? Where else will I be an hour from the Grand Canyon and Sedona?

Flagstaff

You’ve been great to me, Flagstaff, but it would be naive to say it was all fountains of chocolate. I mean, you are in Arizona, after all. The snow was nice, but driving downhill on an icy road to a stop light was a little scary. I appreciated the dog food factory, but the smell was a little overwhelming sometimes.

Macy's

Everything good and bad that has ever happened to me, with a few exceptions (Ireland, Montana, Minneapolis), has happened to me in Flagstaff: failed orchestra concerts, a broken arm, publication, falling in love for the first time, crippling self-doubt, hangovers in church, learning to play the violin, becoming an Eagle Scout, rejections from journals, writing my first good poem, writing my first bad poem, saying goodbye at the train station to the woman I loved. I’ve had colds and stage fright, I’ve had frog dissections and marching band performances, I’ve had reader’s theater and photography gigs. I lurched through high school and college in Flagstaff. Spending two decades in a place allows for the accumulation of immeasurable joy and bitterness, and leaving you, Flagstaff, is a tough decision, perhaps the toughest I’ll ever have to make. Sticking around is quite tempting.

Train Station Bench

But I need to see other cities, other states, other countries. I need to travel. I need to study and write and learn. I’ll start by going to graduate school in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln may be the opposite of you, Flagstaff, but everything is packed, and I’ll be out the door by the time you read this. After graduate school, I’ll traverse shores yet untarnished by my footprints.

Duck Pond

Even if I fall for Lincoln, I’ll always miss you, Flagstaff. You were the rough draft of a misshapen side character dropped into the world; you were a place of enlightenment in the saints’ cult of writers; you were the architect of this backpack stuffed with art and questions that I am honored to call my soul.

Christmas in Flagstaff

I owe you more than I’ve given, and you’ve given me more than I deserve, Flagstaff. Perhaps I’ll come back to you someday. I would like to see you at least once more before I die. If I do make it back, I hope you have not changed except to become more beautiful, but I cannot, for the life of me, imagine a more beautiful city.

Pipeline Trail

I’ll miss the hippies and cowboys and geriatric motorcyclists. I’ll miss the perpetual smell of pine trees and incense and dog food. My memories of Flagstaff are like photographs in a gallery hung at random. No real structure binds these moments, and it’s more breathtaking that way. With that, I say goodbye Flagstaff. Wish me luck.

Appalachia

Sincerely,

Duck Pond After Hours

jk

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Graduate School

book boxes A few months ago, I attended the AWP Conference where eager representatives from MA and MFA programs stuffed fliers into my hands. They all offered the same possibility: a few years in paradise with nothing to do but write, read, workshop, and inevitably publish. I was drawn into the illusion that ignored the work, the expenses, the debt, and the difficulty in getting anything published.

While preparing for life after NAU, I knew that graduate school was not the only way to become a writer. I could serve overpriced coffee to people in suits, slipping them poems on their receipts to show them my talent, or I could work as a governess for a rich man with gigantic muttonchops who helps me publish my sad story. Or I could take the realistic approach and work, write, and submit short pieces to journals, like most writers I know, gradually building up a longer and longer list of published works.

After I returned from the conference, I received an email from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I had applied to eight schools last fall, and all rejected me but UNL; late in April they informed me they would offer me full funding and a stipend through a research assistantship. It was a lucky break, and I took the offer, not because I believed it was the only path I could take, but because I believed it was the best path for me at the moment. It’s the opportunity to get a Master’s Degree in English without any debt, which is just short of a fantasy these days. I don’t believe I deserve such an opportunity over other applicants, but because I have the opportunity now, it’s my responsibility to make the best of it that I can.

I’m not going just to improve my writing, though of course my emphasis will be in creative writing, and of course I intend to come out of it a better writer. But I also hope to become a more scholarly reader, a better student, a more disciplined person.  I was born into academia, and I can handle it a few more years without losing my mind. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity. So I’ll buckle down, pack up my four thousand books and my no. 2 pencils, and plunge into the fire.

-jk

Once Upon a Time, Graduation Meant Something

Empty It finally happened. I graduated. I shook hands with the Dean of Arts and Letters and some of my favorite literature professors, and was handed a fancy diploma case for after the real one arrives in the mail. I went through the whole ritual, but when I left the Skydome amidst Flagstaff’s annual early-May snowstorm, I felt about as empty as the diploma case they gave me.

Most of my friends and family expect graduation to be a time of great joy, relief, sadness, and memory. I reflected on many things, but I tend to be reflective in general. For me, graduation offered no profundity. It was a mess of finding the right place, shaking the right hands, and enduring vague speeches about the future. Walking onto stage, having my name (and other information) announced, and receiving a diploma case should have been meaningful experiences, but I couldn’t keep myself from thinking that it was all a show.

Commencement was a self-congratulatory performance for the university, and the profiteering involved in the current education system was not only evident but ever-present. All students were required to have a cap and gown to participate in commencement, and the only way to obtain them, short of cheating and borrowing them from a friend, is to purchase them from a company; I was among those who cheated. After receiving an empty diploma case, students were ushered into two photo shoots. I was literally pulled into position, but I cannot get any of the photos taken unless I spend more money to purchase them. The commencement speeches had nothing to do with any of our own problems, our crippling student debts, an unnavigable job market, a scary world with an even scarier future. Instead, the speeches were about the university’s accomplishments, its growth and benefits, all at our expense.

College is no longer about advancing art and science and law; it’s become a business for the corporations benefiting from the on-campus dining, the corporations who make and sell caps and gowns, the construction companies profiting on new buildings the school can’t afford without cutting valuable tutoring and learning initiative programs. Education is one of the most important assets of the modern world, but the education system has become a method of exploitation.

All through commencement, I felt exploited. That’s not to suggest I did not receive an adequate education. Indeed, my professors exceeded my expectations, and they’ve changed me immeasurably. But college, as a system, profits regardless of anybody’s intellectual, scientific, artistic, political, technical, or social improvement. Instead, it encourages us to bankrupt ourselves so it can grow. In the end, NAU’s leaders do not care whether or not I graduate; they care about getting my money, and that realization hurts. I’m fortunate to have worked with professors who sincerely value their students’ collective improvement, to the point that they run themselves into the ground physically and emotionally by the end of each semester just to help us. But NAU, and the modern college-industrial complex, has done little, if anything, to contribute to its students’ intellectual improvements. I owe nothing to my university, but I do not blame it. This is a national pattern, and all of us are caught up in it. How long will it last? How long can it last before students realize that they are on a conveyer belt for the profit of private firms with no investment in literature, law, environmental science, political science, understanding globalization, or the development of compassion?

And now I’m going to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Now I’m plunging myself back into the factory.

Am I wrong about all this? Is it not the case that my friends have been placed on a conveyer belt for the past four years? For the next fifteen? Will the education system ever be returned to the hands of the educators and not the businesses? In a perfect world, the students gain more from a four-year program than the university they attend; we’ll never make it to a perfect world, but I think we deserve more than we’ve been given. We are more than crops with full pockets to harvest from. We are more than fruit to be drained and dried. We are scared, we are angry, we are curious, and we seek understanding. We are passionate and seek the means to express. We are knowledgeable and seek to use our knowledge. We deserve to be treated honestly about what we’ve been given, what we can do, and where we are going. Although I’m disappointed in my graduation, my university, and my country for voting the universities into such positions, I’m far from disheartened. Behind the curtain and the profiteering are professors who still work hard to teach and improve us. It is because of these professors that I have the means to express my discontent, and it is only through these means that I see any possibility for change.

-jk

The Best Advice From Four Years of College

Works

I now begin what will probably be numerous entries reflecting on the past four years of my life, as I near graduation and shores unknown. Be prepared for a lot of sentiment and confusion. For now, I’m going to let my peers and mentors tell you what I’ve learned; the following quotes are from the people who have inspired me in college, friends and professors and faculty. These little stones of thought cannot encapsulate my experience with the array of teachers I’ve met at college, but this mosaic, I hope, will be enough to show you the diverse voices I’ve had the honor of working with.

“Good writers are simultaneously gifted and burdened with insight and razor sharp observational skills, making them hypersensitive to the world around them. And believe me, if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.” -Professor Armstrong (Creative Nonfiction)

“There’s no one way to do feminist criticism, and at a certain point, no matter what an author does, somebody will call it bad. If a female protagonist is sexually independent and active, a critic will argue she’s being hypersexualized and that she’s a negative portrayal of women; if a female protagonist doesn’t participate in sex at all, another critic will say she’s being sexually repressed and is a negative portrayal of how women should act. And we should remember that there’s no one right answer.” -Professor Renner (Sci-Fi Literature)

“The kind of dizziness people felt when they talked to Socrates is what I feel now after learning and listening to everything around me and trying to take it all in. That kind of dizziness is good. It’s the beginning of a thought process.” -J.E. (friend and writer)

“Online research can be helpful, even digital humanities, even though saying that makes me cringe. But when it comes down to it, the best way a historian can conduct research, to put it one way, is to have boots on the ground. You have to go out and find your sources in person.” -Professor Reese (Islamic Reformist Movements)

“If the story I heard on the radio today about black holes is true, then nothing we do is important, and I’m okay with that.” -Fritz (friend and teacher)

“What will a discussion solve? We can have a really good discussion about history, but if we leave it inside the classroom, it’s just an exercise in academic masturbation.” -Professor Kalb (World War One)

“Everything is problematic. If I hear the word one more time, I’ll flip. Is it so bad to just enjoy a story?” -M.W. (friend and writer)

“Study literature, all literature. You’ll be poor, but you’ll be free.” -Professor Canfield (Postcolonial Literature)

“Stay calm. Just stay here and relax. It’s only an earthquake.” -Mayan spiritual leader

“Studies have already proven that reading literary fiction can make you more compassionate, and being compassionate is really the only hope for humanity.” -Professor Stalcup (Fiction Writing)

“You can only do what you can. We raised so much money for water for migrants; two hundred people are still going to die crossing the border this year.” -A.K. (friend and historian)

“Culture is really the driving force for any movement, and every movement has its own culture. Counter-culture is still culture, still follows the same rules and influences other cultures do.” -Professor Dakan (Resistance and Activism)

“Just asking questions and getting to know people, everyone, can help you out no matter where you go in the world.” -C.T. (friend and traveler)

“I don’t accept the nature of this world. But every so often something warrants a chuckle.” -E.V. (friend and poet)

“There’s no such thing as multitasking. True focus can’t be applied to multiple tasks at once. Everything you do on your phones while trying to listen to a lecture is called serial tasking.” -Professor Sullivan (Asian Mysticism)

“You can do a lot with a B.A. in English. Or one can. You, maybe not.” -Barb (friend and boss)

“Maybe we should stop defining women’s rights so superficially, like whether or not they wear a burqa, and look at bigger-picture issues, like education or healthcare. These are strong, resilient women who survived up to thirty years of war. Let’s treat them as such.” -Professor Martin (Afghanistan)

“A lot of us treat romantic love like it’s a really new thing that somehow never existed in the ancient world. But look at the wording these playwrights use. Look at the anguish and loneliness. I think this is proof that they had a concept of romantic love, similar to ours, at least in ancient Athens. What does that say about humans? About us?” -Professor Kosso (Ancient Athenian Democracy)

“Fuck off.” -E.N. (my muse)