One of the things about getting older is that you develop a tendency to reminisce. And my trip to New Orleans with our Jake was a time of many old man’s moments.
As an impending High School Graduate, Jake is about go through a classic American “coming of age” experience. But first we needed to work out what he would do next, and since he didn’t fancy going to work in MacDonald’s, we were coming to the end of a very long winded, and, to an Englishman, bizarre process. It was time to choose a College (sorry University).
I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but I have great memories of the process I went through in 1970 to choose a University fitting to my talents. Please bear in mind that my school thought I was a waster who could never deliver on his potential, “could try harder” was my middle name as far as the Wyggeston Boys Grammar School was concerned. But I set my sights high, and applied to 6 “red brick” Universities. To those who don’t understand that phrase, they were all young, based in city centres, and majorly built out of red bricks in the post Victorian era. Big, social places, but older than the comparable American institutions.
I went to Newcastle, Manchester, London, and most significantly, Leeds. Yes, I went on my own, on the train, but these are two issues that don’t happen in modern day middle class America. The parents haunt their poor children through this process in America.
In America, there is choice in everything. In most areas of life choice is a fabulous thing, but trying to work out where to apply to go to College is very confusing, particularly since there are 4,000 to choose from. In England there are 139, with a few more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For those that don’t know, there are around 5 times as many people in the US as there are in Great Britain, what on earth is going on? In February 2005, USA Today reported that 64 percent of high school graduates go to college, but in the UK, only 45% of school leavers go to University.
It is all quite different in many subtle ways in America, not least because if you can afford it, anyone can find a college that will take them. And then there are abundant sports scholarships, a concept that really doesn’t exist in Europe. The economics are totally different to Europe, US colleges charge up to $70,000 a year (£40,000), and all US courses are 4 years long (most courses in the UK are 3 years). I’ll give you my cynical explanation of this issue, they just don’t teach American kids to a high enough standard in the High School system, so the first college year is mainly teaching them the basics that they missed earlier on. Like reading, and writing, and yes, even arithmetic.
But this is also one of the key benefits of the US system, how many of us in the UK have chosen a degree course at the age of 17, and then been stuck with it. For instance, my father made me do Maths, “those computer things are a passing fad”. A great visionary my dear old Dad.
So Jake has theoretically applied to do Economics and History, but in his first two years he can chose whatever courses he likes. There are certain rules, he has to do a science as well as a liberal arts. But the variety is just fantastic, he needs to pass the courses, but he can change his mind on his direction many times, and most of the students do.
I got diverted from our road trip, and an old man’s memories.
Jake and I rolled in to New Orleans, not his first choice, but they had offered him a scholarship of $30k per annum. A pretty hefty bribe, but I promised not to try and sell the place too hard.
Tulane University sits 5 miles from the centre of New Orleans. It is beautiful, very low rise, full of green spaces, but something struck me as strange. I turned to Jake, “do you think the amount of females is uncommon?” A quick internet search showed that there are 25% more girls than blokes, and it was 28C, in April. We both loved it.
We wandered around New Orleans, which is old with great character from its French and Spanish colonial days. But it has a high crime rate, which puts many American middle class parents off. We had a great time, we saw kids playing in jazz bands on street corners, and even managed to creep past a few bouncers to watch some really great bands.
Which brings me to the differences, what do I remember of my exploration trip to Leeds University 44 years ago?
Well I think you should make the key decisions in your life very logically, weigh up your priorities, evaluate the evidence, and then reach the proper solution. And in 1970 I decided I needed to go to Leeds University because they had just opened the largest bar I had ever seen.
Which is the funniest thing, because in Tulane, of course, they have no bars. I have to admire my son in many ways, but one of the obvious ones is that he has chosen to go to College, sorry University, in the US. He has foregone what most of us English folks remember most about our University life, drinking.
And what is the other key issue? It is about getting away from your parents and starting to grow up, something that many Americans just don’t get. I remember my first week at college (university), it was great. Yes, there was drinking, but most of all there was freedom. In the US, 50% of kids have their parents tagging along for the orientation week.
Times do change, Jake is so much more mature than I was at his age. I had hair down to my shoulders, horn rim glasses, and an obsession with Monty Python. Yes, quite a change. And above all else, how did I feel after our trip to visit the place where Jake will spend his next 4 years?
Jealous, oh how I wish I could be enjoying that life, even without the drinking.
Did I mention drink too many times in this ramble? But I would give up drink to go back and enjoy it all over again, and in America, as always, they do the rest of it so very well. Welcome to New Orleans Jake, a truly great place, you will have a wonderful time.