A friend of mine recently compared her experiences at St. Olaf to being at a four-year-long summer camp.
To me, this comparison is quite fitting in many ways; like summer camp, the Hill is incredibly isolated, situating itself geographically in a rural small-town setting where the colleges largely dictate the local business and the culture. Students generally spend the majority of their time on campus – in class, in residence halls, in the library or the caf, just like one might do in a summer camp situation with various prescribed activities and communal living.
The social style is another aspect of St. Olaf life that mimics a summer camp. At least initially, friendship circles are formed out of convenience, proximity. Like those little log cabins in the woods at camp, your first-year residence hall can shape the entirety of your college experience by mere chance of who lives nearest to you. Of course, lives shift and people move in and out of friendships, but the idea of a somewhat stable “friend group” is, I’m sure, a rather familiar one for many of us.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we attend both St. Olaf and summer camp with a unique temporality. Summer camp only lasts a week, St. Olaf only lasts four years, and these explicitly structured blocks of time to exist in a certain place can serve us well or poorly, depending on how we choose to look at them.
It is easy to become disconnected from the St. Olaf experience when you consider the temporality of the situation. One can decide that these years are a time of preparation for adulthood, a time that somehow counts less than the years one will spend in the workforce. When faced with something negative, it’s tempting to discount the experience as irrelevant – I’m only here for four years, none of this will matter after I graduate, I will forget the majority of these people and never see them again.
For most of us, there is at least some modicum of truth to these thoughts. And, of course, a certain amount of long-term perspective is healthy and important. However, it seems to me unnecessarily dehumanizing to oneself to invalidate experiences in college with the argument that it’s all temporary.
College is a time of immense fluctuation and growth, and the relationships built in these years are not insignificant. We experiment, we question, we learn. St. Olaf is not a way-station on the path to professional adult life; rather, it is a complex, specialized part of a holistic life lived.
So, yes, in a number of ways, St. Olaf is akin to a summer camp with its isolation, its insular friend groups, and the temporality of it all. Yet, at the same time, we cannot disregard the beautifully rich lives we lead while on campus because of these things. Perhaps, then, we can find it in ourselves to see the fullness of our humanity in a temporary situation – whether we’re sleeping in bunk beds at summer camp or bunk beds in Ytterboe.