This is an interview I did with a former student, Ashlee W., about her college experience. Ashlee is a second semester college student at a small college in Oklahoma.
Me: So how are you, Ashlee?!?!? What’s it been--five years!
Ashlee: I’m awesome, thank you. It’s been about that long I’m pretty sure.
Me: So I was wanting to interview you because I think it would be interesting to ask people in college what their experience has been like and if they have any advice or tips for new college students. So let me ask you. Before you started college, what did you think it would be like? Did you have an idea of what you expected?
I was nervous about being older than some kids that were just out of high school.
Ashlee: I really kind of had this idea of what a big college would be like. Just how they show it on TV or something, a classroom with a ton of students. And teachers that really couldn’t care less about your grade and such and such.
Me: So did you think it would be pretty intimidating?
Ashlee: Yes, especially dealing with financial aid and learning how exactly college works. And also I was nervous about being older than some kids that were just out of high school, in math especially because it had been so long since I was in math and I wasn't good at it when I was taking it, so yes definitely intimidating.
Me: So was your original plan to start college immediately after high school?
Ashlee: Not really, I wanted to take a year off because I think my senior year after high school I had a busy summer and thought the rest of my year would be that way, and I just wanted to experience life without school for a bit.
I dropped out after the first week because I clearly was not ready and didn't know what I was getting myself into.
Me: Do you think taking a “gap year” worked out pretty well for you? I know some people think taking that year off is a great idea.
Ashlee: Yes and no, because I enjoyed my time off, but when I went that next fall after the break I dropped out after the first week because I clearly was not ready and didn't know what I was getting myself into. But now, I regret it a lot because I see people I went to high school with about to graduate and I just think to myself that that could have been me.
Me: So what was it about that first week that caused you to drop out? I mean, I’m not trying to make you feel bad or anything. I just want to share with high school students and new college students what college is actually like so they won’t be shocked. I assume starting was kind of an overwhelming experience for you.
Ashlee: It's totally fine. I was worried about financial aid because I didn't know how it worked and worried about paying for college. Then when I started classes, I put off my work, and that weekend I went to a One Direction concert and didn't do anything. So I put it off and was so nervous to go in empty handed with nothing done. So I wasn’t good at organizing my time or putting school first.
Me: I see, so you just didn’t feel prepared. Also, I think a lot of people worry about paying for college.
Ashlee: Right, and now my second time around it’s not as big as a concern for me because I have more of an understanding about financial help. I have Okpromise, and it's been a major help with easing the worry of money. And now I’m not as afraid to go to the financial aid office with questions on how I can manage the money aspect. I hope that made some sense. Writing all my thoughts about it is not as easy as I was thinking.
In college, a lot of times you have to go out and look for help yourself.
Me: No, I get what you’re saying. I think it can be intimidating for students to seek out the help they need. For one thing, you might not know exactly what kind of help you need or where to go to get it. Also, it’s different than in high school because sometimes in high school the help just comes to you. In college, a lot of times you have to go out and look for help yourself. Was that your experience?
Ashlee: Yes, and I don't think they prepare you for financial aide in high school as much as they do about which college to go to and how to apply and such. Also about what you said in college, you have to go out and look for help, and that could also apply to anything other than financial aide. Because in high school they really coach you on how to do things step by step, and now in college you have to figure it out. And what I had to learn is that I just had to go and do it because no one was going to come and help me; I had to grow up and do it. Which is hard for me because for one thing, I’m a pretty timid person, and for another, my parents usually did a lot for me that I should have been doing for myself. And in college I wasn’t going to have my mom tag alongside me figuring everything out for me.
Me: Yeah, there’s definitely a steep learning curve and maturity curve when you start college. I felt the same thing myself. So what advice would you have for an entering freshman about financial aid?
Ashlee: Probably not to let it ruin their life where that's all they think about and worry about. Because there is aid out there that helps with college. Okpromise is saving my life right now, and it takes a lot of the financial aid burden off. I realize that that's not everywhere, but I figure that there's something similar, not sure. But they also have scholarships for just about everything. I say that it's taken some of my burden off, but I actually will have to stress about it in a few years because it will only cover my tuition for I think 2 more years. Which is another regret I do have about waiting to go back to college for so long. All those years I could be getting a lot of free money, I wasn't taking advantage of it and it didn't even really cross my mind.
Me: You mean it didn’t cross your mind that the money would expire eventually? Is that how it works?
Ashlee: Right, I didn’t really know that there was a limit on how long it would apply for me. That's to my understanding.
Me: Wow--that’s definitely something that students in Oklahoma need to know. I wasn’t aware of that the money from OKPromise would expire. So what are some things you’ve learned about college that you had to learn the hard way or that you wish you’d known when you started?
Ashlee: Something just recently actually--I’m not sure if this was something I should have been expecting which is obvious or not, but last semester my history teacher was literally so easy; he gave you exactly what would be on the test, and all you had to do is study that and eventually I stopped taking notes on what else he was talking about and just on what would be on the quiz. Now I’m in a summer intersession class, and I took my first quiz in there the other day and did horribly because you have to read the chapters in depth, look at his slides, and take good notes because it's not just some test you study for by what he actually talks about in class. I guess it's not that I wasn't expecting that; it's just not like what my first semester was like. But of course as you move on up in college, it gets harder.
Me: So you figured out that each professor is different. They all teach differently, and some are harder than others, I guess?
Me: How is college different from your expectations?
Ashlee: I can give you an example. In my comp class she would teach us one day, the next week our rough drafts were due, and then the next week we would turn in our paper. But it wasn't until two weeks after that when she would post grades, and I had thought it would be more punctual.
Me: I actually have heard of professors who wait until the end of the semester to grade any of your work and give you your grade. When I was getting my Master’s degree in library science, all the assignments were due at the very end of the semester. It was the strangest thing. The professor would grade everything at the very end, so you didn’t really know what your grade was until after the semester when you saw your grades posted.
Ashlee: That would drive me crazy, I’m very impatient when it comes to seeing my grades.
Me: You posted that you have a 4.0 so far, right?
Ashlee: Yes and I’m pretty proud of that considering my grades in high school. My goal in college was to do better than I had in high school.
In high school, for me it was like if you didn't do one assignment, not a big deal, but in college it's crucial.
Me: What advice do you have for new college students for keeping their grades up? How is college work different from high school work?
Ashlee: In highs chool, for me, it was like if you didn't do one assignment, not a big deal, but in college it's crucial because I’ve noticed that there's not as many grades taken so everything you turn in needs to be its best. The advice I have that I actually need to take more seriously myself is not to put stuff off because when it's hours before a paper's due, you’ll be thinking about dropping the class, not going, or just not turning it in. Every bad decision to not do it will run through your head, and it's extremely stressful. Even though I have turned in some pretty good papers on short notice, but that's beside the point
Me: I know my students’ number one problem seems to be procrastination. :-( Even though they know they are guilty of it, they don’t seem to want to change it, oddly enough. I have also had students wait until the last minute to submit their papers because I have them upload them online, and then they have problems uploading their papers and end up having to turn them in late and get points counted off.
Ashlee: Yes, that's one thing my comp teacher stressed was that TurnItIn can be slow, and you might not get your paper submitted on time if you wait until the last minute.
Me: Well, you seem to have learned a lot and become more confident about your college experience. That’s good news.
Ashlee: I know I still have a lot to learn though--I can only imagine.
As I’m learning how to be an adult it comes with a lot of frustration and stress and trying to not just give up.
Me: Do you have anything you want to add about your college experience or any other “grown-up” advice? :-)
Ashlee: My motto, I guess you can say, is just struggle now to succeed later. As I’m learning how to be an adult, it comes with a lot of frustration and stress and trying to not just give up. I just think about how it's shaping me for my better life when I have everything I’ve worked for. So I’ll have fun, live life in my 20’s, and learn to struggle so I’ll be somewhat of an expert at it later.
Me: Okay, well, I’m going to let you go then, Ashlee. Thanks for chatting with me and sharing your expertise. I think you know more about college that you realize!
Ashlee: Oh definitely, and thank you for asking me to do this, I enjoyed it very much
Me: Good, I’m glad to hear it. You’re welcome!!!! Okay, bye now, Ashlee! Good luck! I’m glad to hear things are going so well for you.
Ashlee: Bye bye it was so great talking to you
Me: You, too! :-) Bye!
***My thanks to Ashlee W. for sharing her collegiate expertise with me and my readers. If you would like to share your college experience on my blog, please leave a comment with your contact information (email or Twitter handle, not your phone number please) or tweet me at @WriteNonsense. Thanks!***
If you are an Oklahoma college student, here is some information you need to know regarding the expiration of Oklahoma's Promise, which Ashlee brought up in our interview:
"Once you start postsecondary education (any education after high school), your five-year time clock starts ticking. The year that you do not attend will count against your five years of scholarship eligibility; however, you can use Oklahoma's Promise again until your eligibility expires. Please contact the Oklahoma's Promise office for an exact date of eligibility expiration if you are unsure. (Limited exceptions to the five-year limit can be considered only if the interruption is due to certain hardship circumstances such as illness, injury, military service or other extraordinary situations. Please contact the Oklahoma's Promise office for more details. In no circumstances may an Oklahoma's Promise student receive benefits beyond a cumulative time period of five years.)"--from OKHigherEd.org
It was only after I lost my grandparents that I appreciated what disappeared with them. They lived at the foothills of the Ouchita Mountains, rocky knobs of earth that demarcated the western grass plains of Oklahoma and the shallow ridge of hills and forests that stretch east into Arkansas. Likewise, my childhood was spent in an in-between place; on one side were the poverty and scrappy hardiness of people like my grandparents and on the other, the upward mobility and middle class dreams of my parents' and my own generation. The house my partner and I recently bought has central heat and air. I don't think my grandparents ever even had air conditioning. I remember an attic fan that would kick on, pulling hot air upward and pushing cool air back down. In the winter, they used a wood burning stove in the corner of the room.
My grandma was a quiet woman with large bright eyes; dark, wrinkled skin; and long, black hair that defied gray, which she usually wear in a bun on the back of her head. Her wardrobe veered toward opposite ends of the spectrum: she wore either grandmotherly, print dresses or brightly colored slacks and shirts that were the epitome of fashion in the 1970's. My memories of her are wrapped up in the food she cooked. She preferred a wood cook stove and baked in cast iron skillets. Every night she cooked pinto beans and fried potatoes for my grandfather, and for the holidays, she baked home-made pies with golden meringue whipped from egg whites. She was quiet; she left the talking to my grandfather. Unassuming, modest, soft-spoken--my mother says that my grandmother was truly a lady in every sense of the word. She didn't have fancy clothes, servants, or any of the other markers of the elite, but she was a lady nonetheless.
My grandfather was the storyteller in the family. His throne was a green and yellow woven armchair, which sat in the far corner of the room, next to a love seat where my grandmother sat catty-corner to him. I wish I could remember the stories he would tell. But I can't. I do remember his voice though, the look in his eyes as he retraced the stories of the places he'd been, the people he'd known. It was mesmerizing, truly so, in a way that I've not encountered since. A person could sit and listen to him for hours, like a favorite song on the radio. For me, listening to my grandpa was an experience resonant with comfort. Outside, the weather was hot, the locusts were buzzing to kill a chainsaw, and inside, my grandpa wrapped us in the safety and familiarity of his storytelling.
My grandfather loves sweets; my grandmother abhorred them. His favorites were lemon cake and ice cream. I remember we would bring him cartons of ice cream for his birthday. Although far more talkative than my grandma, he was not a loud man, nor arrogant. He liked to laugh, found amusement in his children and grandchildren. He laughed with his mouth closed, and his laughter shook his whole body and twinkled in his eyes. Being the person who made him laugh was a special prize, like an unexpected gift on your birthday.
I could say my grandparents were simple people with simple lives, but I don't think anyone's life is actually "simple." If they aspired to touch stars or see unicorns, I never knew it. They worked hard all their lives and seemed satisfied with the bit of comfort they had accumulated at the end of their lives.
I have a lot of regrets when it comes to my grandparents. I regret their early deaths. My grandma was 59 when she died; she had struggled with diabetes and asthma for a long time. She died about a month, I think, before I graduated high school. I remember she kept an oxygen tank in the living room. My grandpa died several years later, lost and lonely without my grandmother by his side. I regret not listening closer to my grandpa's stories, not writing them down and asking him questions. I regret not telling my grandparents how much they meant to me, the way they shaped every aspect of my life. I regret an incident that occurred when I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven years old; the guilt has plagued my entire life.
It was Christmas. My grandparents never got us presents. They couldn't afford it. They lived on beans, potatoes, and government commodities. But that Christmas, my grandma had bought me a pair of earrings. And when I opened them up, I gave a snort of some sort, and my "thank you" was ripe with sarcasm. I thought I was cool; I'd heard the same sort of contempt come from some character on a Disney sitcom. But of course, I was just being a fool. My older cousin pulled me aside and told me not to act that way, and I told her my ears weren't pierced. I had no need for earrings. Funny that I felt no remorse at that point, but I've suffered from it every day since then.
I guess an adult can excuse such childish behavior as the folly of an immature mind. I guess I can chalk up all my regret that way. But I just can't balance the lasting impression my grandparents' had on my life with my indifference toward them when they were alive. Like most young people, I took my grandparents for granted. I can only hope that the residue of their lives that I carry in my DNA and in my memories pays them the respect that I owe them so dearly.
First off, the title of this book is a misnomer--The Smartest kids in the World. Maybe it's irony, something tongue-in-cheek, because as Ripley points out, this has nothing to do with how smart kids are, but it has everything to do with the school system that educates them and the culture they live in.
Covering educational issues as a reporter was a heeby-jeeby experience for Ripley, replete with opinionated adults and wild variations between schools and even classrooms, so she fled the U.S. and began to study other school systems around the world. She decided to focus on South Korea, an educational powerhouse for years, Finland, which dumbfounded the world and itself with the meteoric rise in its test scores, and Poland, in the midst of an educational turnaround of its own. But she didn't just want to talk to the adults in these systems who has their own opinions. Instead, she turned to the real experts--the students themselves. Specifically, she focused on three American exchange students visiting these countries for a year in order to get their in-the-trenches view of what the school systems in their host countries are doing as opposed to their home schools.
What she found might be surprising to some but probably shouldn't be. First off, throwing money at schools doesn't work. The schools in countries other than the US are downright shabby in comparison, located in aged, utilitarian buildings completely void of the educational gadgets so common in American classrooms. Yet the students these schools produce make American students look like they suffer brain damage in comparison.
In addition, Ripley takes a direct shot at sports in school and the fact that it is of such grave importance in American schools and mostly absent from foreign schools.
Another importance difference between American schools and other schools around the world is the teachers. In Finland, for example, the country quickly injected both rigor and quality into its schools by closing most of the educational colleges that churned out a surplus of teachers, thus narrowing the supply chain, and increased the qualifications a person would have to meet in order to be accepted into a teacher training program. In other countries as well, the teaching profession is seen exactly as that--a profession of professionals, and thus, something to be viewed with respect.
All of these steps point to something sorely lacking in the US--a respect for education. In so many ways, young people get the message that education is not something they should take seriously, that it is not something worthy of respect. As a person who spent nine years working in the public school system, I saw this particular problem every day. But it was something all too apparent when I myself was a student back in the nineties.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book to me is the argument that the reason American students do so poorly on international tests is because of the counterproductive narrative of intelligence so often cited in the United States. The oft-repeated idea is that academic achievement is a direct result of a person's intelligence level, that academic ability is something innate and cannot be changed. You either got it or you don't.
In high-performing countries, on the other hand, the cultural message is that academic performance is directly related to hard work. This is especially true in Asian countries, such as South Korea, where education occupies kids' every waking moment.
As an American raising a child in the US, I've already begun to see this narrative of "the smart kid" playing out with my own daughter. And she's only three years old. Repeatedly I hear adults praise her for her accomplishments by telling her she's smart. I grit my teeth and turn the compliment around by telling her she's hardworking or a "big girl" instead. So for me, the idea that this narrative permeates our culture is quite (and disturbingly) apparent to me, and I want to fight it as best I can. Adults don't realize the damage they are doing despite their good intentions.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in education and especially to parents with kids in school. And to my colleagues in Oklahoma, I recommend this as an outsider's view of what does and (mostly) doesn't work in the Oklahoma education system.
I am not what you would call cultured. I don’t hang out in art galleries. I hate jazz. I don’t slosh wine back and forth in fancy glasses and extoll its floral bouquet. I think art house movies are annoying. I've never read Proust, and, frankly, I'm not even sure how to say his name. No, I am not cultured.
But I do have a culture.
Culture isn’t about being fancy, or at least, I don’t think so. It is a much more casual thing. It's the everyday happenings that fill up our lives. My culture is paint-splattered shoes that should have been thrown out months ago and t-shirts with bleach spots. It's a dog with a muddy rear end and a bucket full of kitchen scraps.
It’s beans and fried taters.
If there were ever a meal that bespoke the culture I grew up in, that would be it. Beans and taters. They evoke the warm sun of my childhood. They make me wax nostalgic. And it seems I’m not the only one who finds poetry in this meal of legumes and spuds.
I did a little google search to find out what other people thought about beans and fried taters, and here’s just a sampling of what I uncovered:
My grandmother used to make these, and I didn’t get the recipe before she passed away.
We had these often growing up.
I have been trying to make these like my mom did . . . when I was growing up.
I am a true Okie and these were a staple growing up.
When I was a kid, beans and fried taters were as common for dinner as milk is for breakfast. Everybody ate them. Well, maybe not everybody. Just poor people like us. But I didn’t know we were poor. All I knew is that we ate a heck of a lot of beans and fried taters.
So what happened, then, to this simple fare? Progress. Progress in the form of boxes of processed food that is quick and cheap. Before this so-called progress, if your stomach was empty and so was your wallet, what you turned to was a pot of beans and a skillet of crisp fried taters. Not anymore. It seems like nowadays they’re appreciated more for the memories they bring back than their affordability.
I, for one, ate a lot of beans and fried taters growing up. My sister, my brother, and I ate so many, we thought it must be our dad’s favorite food. It was! But, of course, that’s not why we had it every night for dinner. As we grew up, my dad worked his way up the financial ladder until more mainstream foods began popping up on our plates--hamburgers, spaghetti, tacos, macaroni and cheese--and less of the more traditional, cash-strapped stuff.
And like many others whom I found online, when I think of this rustic cuisine, I think of my grandma. For as long as I knew her, she made beans and fried taters every night for dinner. There was never any question about it. Every night. Thanksgiving. Christmas. It didn’t matter the occasion. There was always plenty of beans and taters for everyone.
My grandparents worked hard all their lives. I mean HARD. Not 40 hour work weeks. I'm talking about the kind of work that has you out in the fields before the sun’s cracked open the horizon, the kind of work that soaks you in so much sweat that bugs stick to your skin, the kind of work that builds your muscles and breaks your back. They hauled hay, chopped wood, worked in the broom corn fields, and heaven knows what else. Mind you, it was nothing illegal--no, nothing that would have gotten them rich.
By the time I knew my grandparents, they were old. Or at least, to my immature self, they were. And every memory I have of them, I cradle in my brain as gently as a newborn baby.
So when I say beans and fried taters are my culture, this is what I mean. They are a tradition passed down through the generations. They are my family. They are my childhood. And today, when I fix them for my own little girl, I am not just feeding her dinner; I am memorializing our family history.
You're probably wondering, "Hmm. Alley kids. Sounds interesting. It must be about homeless children living in alleys." Okay, so a confession--it's a catchy title, but what I'm actually talking about is Tornado Alley. You know, that region of the U.S. right in the middle, like the yolk in the center of an egg, where tornadoes and thunderstorms whip up the ground and send cars and cows flying? Yep, that's the one!
I grew up in southern Oklahoma, right smack dab in the middle of tornado alley. Tornadoes have been in the news lately because it's spring, and a massive F5 tornado just smashed its way through Moore, Oklahoma. Very sad. Several children died, and people lost their homes and possessions. I was lucky because all of my family and friends were spared.
I know what it's like to go through tornado watches and warnings. We get them every spring and summer. I live in north Texas now, but it gets its fair share of bad weather. A week before the incident in Moore, a different tornado tore up a neighborhood south of us.
Growing up, we routinely cleaned out the closet and huddled under blankets during tornado watches and warnings. It didn't really seem that scary, as I remember. What is far more memorable are the many times we lost electricity and sat around bored because we couldn't watch television. My mother thought these were prime opportunities for family togetherness though. We'd light candles and sit around making up stories. It was a lot of fun, but whenever the lights would come back on, we'd celebrate and it would be back to tv watching!
Oddly enough, I've never experienced a proper tornado even though I've lived all my life in this region. But there was one time when something whipped through our yard that was either a small tornado or the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil passing through. My brother, my dad, and I were out in my dad's garage, which is not actually a garage but more like a storehouse for all the "useful" junk my dad has collected over the years. I don't remember what we were doing out there or how old I was. I must have been about 8 or 9. Suddenly, we looked out the door and saw pieces of wood and old ladies on bicycles flying past. I picked up my dog Toto, and my dad grabbed our hands. There was a slight lull in the atmospheric shenanigans, so we took off across the yard. Now, my parents live on five acres of land. Not that we actually had to cross that much territory, but still, it was a bit of a jog. We dodged pieces of wood, tree branches, sheep, and other flying debris, and slammed through the back door of the house. Panting and excited, we ran into the living room and found my mom reading a book. She looked up at us, puzzled as to why we were breathing so hard. Yeah, we just ran through a tornado, Mom. She had no idea! Another example of the power of a good book!
The upshot of the whole thing is that we lost a barn that had been on the property. We didn't have anything of value in the barn, thank goodness. If I remember correctly, there was a family of cats that lived inside, though. I think I saw the mama cat a few weeks later pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans down the road.
My parents now have a storm shelter in their front yard. We've all moved out; it's just the two of them still living there. I suppose they figured it'd be more comfortable hunkering underground without us brats around to bug them. My dad stores huge cans of peanut butter in their shelter. He has a year's supply and keeps up with them by writing the purchase date on each one. I'm not kidding. And they're those big honkin' ones like the kind you need if you're opening an army barracks or something. So if a tornado tears through their property or the undead begin to rise, you'll find my mom and dad sitting underground having a fiesta with their cornucopia of peanut butter. They'll get lots of protein and will hardly have to go to the bathroom at all. A double advantage!
Word and Book Lover.