Student View: What I learned at St. Olaf
In this Student View column, John Smith ’19 shares how St. Olaf set the stage for a lot of what he’s been able to see, do, and learn over the past four years — told, of course, with his signature blend of humor and sarcasm.
In my time at St. Olaf College, I have personally received 12 parking tickets. I have “lost my ID” to get in the caf north of 50 times. And I have used the same all-day coffee sticker three days in a row.
I have raised a hermit crab in a Kittelsby bathtub. I have almost set a dorm on fire on five separate occasions. And I have tried (and failed) to send live fish to the P.O. boxes more times than I can count.
I’m not writing this to clear my conscience — as far as I know, there’s no explicit code violations in here. Ethical dilemmas? Sure. Questionable character? Only according to my mother. But a violation of the St. Olaf Code of Conduct? Never.
As it stands, I’m looking down the barrel of post-St. Olaf life, and it feels right to reminisce on things good and bad. And I’m writing because my boss told me to. It’ll be used to advertise the school, I’m sure. My friends will make fun of me for it. But they’ll make fun of me anyway, so forgive the brief interlude as I fulfill my contract.
“Come to St. Olaf, kids. They’re GrrreatTM.”
Nobody told me the tagline to use, so I improvised.
In all seriousness, I came to St. Olaf a Carleton College student in his senior year of high school. My mom pulled me, kicking and screaming, to a campus tour. I needed to apply to more than one college, apparently. St. Olaf is a great school, and it was in Northfield too — it still is, last I checked. So I went. Now I’m here. You can guess what happened.
There really isn’t a great way to tell the story of the last four years without either a novel or a drawn-out series of “I did…,” “I found…,” I blah, I blah, I blah. I’ll be considerate of your time and just use the latter. Here goes.
To nobody’s surprise, I arrived on campus a
freshman first-year. I was hoping to arrive a senior, but I was told “it is our deep displeasure to inform you that the Office of the Registrar cannot just ‘get you the piece of paper and get on with it.’” Ho hum.
I declared a biology major, then an economics major. Then I dropped a biology major. I declared a chemistry major. Then I dropped that too.
Over time, I met friends1, some of whom I still talk to on a regular basis. Others of whom left campus or joined the cross country team. I even managed to find The St. Olaf Exiles, a rugby team that had, at that point, been officially banned from campus for the better part of 30 years. As it happened, they needed players. They got me.
That rag-tag group of publicly indecent safety hazards somehow shaped a good portion of my time at St. Olaf. I have stories to share, and I’ll submit them to my boss, but I decline to make any judgement on their acceptability at this time.
[Editor’s note: They definitely weren’t acceptable. This portion has been redacted.]
You get the picture; these players, my friends, are mostly okay, occasionally outstanding, but generally just young men and women who have had the displeasure of my company for three-and-a-half years now. I owe them everything. If you take away anything from this long-form rambling, it should be that.
But enough there. I learned a lot too. I mean, for what we’re paying, I should hope so. I got to explore some things I never thought I would. For better or worse, this school let me near legitimately dangerous chemicals — the “explodes-on-contact-with-air” kind that get locked in a fancy airtight box.
I tried to open the box.
I grew. Not physically. My doctor lied to me about that one, but I’m over it. I mean, as a person, but not in the Admissions handbook kind of way. My time here threw some wrenches at me, and they pushed me to change a lot. (Just how much have I changed? See a few photos of my childhood below for Exhibit A.)
The accidental youngest of four, I had never moved away from home. College was a shock for me, but that’s not all that interesting. That’s every single one of us, I’d bet. But all those little things that come with the experience teach us something, in some sick and twisted way.
For starters, I had to learn to live with the joys of a roommate and his girlfriend. And I discovered that true friends show their love in caring, but scathing verbal abuse. Which is to say I learned patience, resilience, and how to use earplugs.
The biggest lessons, however, I didn’t actually learn because of anything distinctly St. Olaf. At least I hope not. Sophomore year, my dad died. It was cancer. He was my best friend, and over the course of three months I watched as it got the better of him.
There’s not a lot you can do when that happens. You just sort of glaze-over, let the world go by, and keep your head down. Everything slows and becomes in some way connected to a memory. All you want to think about is nothing.
It was not, to put it lightly, a cheery time. But I got through it. Not alone. You can’t really do that here. It’s a small campus, I realized. We’re all lucky enough to have our friends1 and our professors nearby. And they at least pretend like they care, or they did for me. They let me vent. They let me be angry. They let me think about nothing.
I spent a lot of time in dorm rooms and offices the following semester, talking through it all. I annoyed some people more than I probably should have. They should know who they are, and they should know how much it meant to me.
But slowly and surely, I came out of the funk. I remembered the last thing my dad said to me: “Stay focused.” So I did.
Then I got distracted, and now, somehow, two years have gone by. Yes, I’ve worked hard. I’ve studied hard, too. There have been late nights, early mornings, and no small share of stressful days. I went abroad to Milan and met an amazing host family. So I like to think it’s gone okay for me, academia. I’m graduating, which is a good baseline. I have a job to look forward to, and I’m moving into an apartment. All things considered, that’s not bad.
I digress. I forgot the point of this senseless meandering. I won’t say that none of this would be possible without St. Olaf. It’s probably true, but I don’t want to say it. It seems too, I don’t know, on the nose. None of this would be possible if it weren’t for the invention of the razor scooter, but that doesn’t get us anywhere.
Instead, I’ll say this. St. Olaf College set the stage for a lot of what I’ve been able to see, do, and learn over the past four years. It’s pushed me through some of the hardest times of my life. But it’s the people I know that really make this school. Like I said, I owe it all to them. They’ve somehow put up with four years of my bull[expletive] and helped me get to where I am now. They’re some of the nicest, most genuine, and most depraved people I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing. I love them dearly.
And to think, I could’ve gone to Carleton.
1 They requested not to be named, mentioned, or associated with me. Don’t worry. It’s just this funny thing we do, I promise. They’re totally real. Like, really real. You just don’t see them, because they’re super busy. They’re pre-med.