Cultivating Opportunities at Kenyon
My son, Charlie, Class of 2015, visited Kenyon for the first time during the spring of his senior year in high school. Charlie had been offered admission and we were visiting one week before or after the big Admitted Students Program. Our visit to Kenyon was among the last of several college visits, and after arriving early one evening, we were exhausted. To that point, no college had caught fire with Charlie. He and I were tired and a bit down. Trying to be a good father, I told Charlie that when my energy is low, especially on the road, I go to a “default procedure.” In the case of college towns, my go-to procedure is simple: check that day’s calendar of events. When I checked, I saw there was a stand-up comic scheduled to appear later that night at the Horn Gallery, which I later learned was Kenyon’s student-run performance space. I told Charlie that attending a student-run campus event might give him a feel for what Kenyon was like; Charlie was tired and skeptical. I cajoled, “Come with me … just for laughs.” He rolled his eyes at the dad joke, but it was enough to convince him.
The performance was scheduled for 9 p.m., and when we arrived on campus, it was dark and gloomy, especially around the Horn Gallery. The Horn itself was not auspicious; it is a bare-bones space (later, as the provider of tuition money, I appreciated the minimalism). Arriving at 8:45, only a few students were there. We milled around the back of the space, wondering if we had made a mistake. But by 8:55, happy and talkative students started to trickle in, and by 9, it was almost packed. This pattern of just-in-time-arrival appears to be a Kenyon tradition and is one of the advantages of a small residential campus.
The comic, Hari Kondabolu, performed at floor level just feet away from the students. The room was so full, students were virtually all around him; there was no delineation between his performing space and the audience. The student who introduced him did so in a friendly fashion that broke down the usual walls between event promoter and performer. I stayed at the back but could still see Charlie taking in the performance and getting a taste of the Kenyon vibe. Kondabolu joked about his Indian-American upbringing as the son of immigrants and shared stories about the challenges and foibles of growing up in Queens while simultaneously trying to fit in with his parents’ culture. Many of his stories were witty, cynical and occasionally acerbic takes on immigrant struggle and identity.
In a loose way, Kondabolu’s jokes paralleled the college search process. Two of the challenges of life are “where do I fit in?” and “how can I contribute?” College helps adolescents build a basic body of knowledge, conceptual tools and patterns of behavior for answering those questions. Over time, young people learn how to develop “default procedures” for cultivating opportunity. It is easier to learn these tools and habits in a college with a culture and infrastructure that provides promising edges or niches for students to plug in to, as Legos are designed to do.
A good college is like one of those really nice Lego sets that includes a large nubbed base and a wide variety of blocks and pieces to configure. A good set has the usual blocks, of course, but the better sets also have parts that move, are multi-functional or are fanciful or rare. At colleges, facilities, programs, professors, staff members and fellow students are all part of the mix. So are visiting scholars and performers and road trips to competitions and service opportunities. A good college provides ample opportunities for young people to discover where and how they might fit in and contribute. Of course, part of the challenge is in taking the leap and seeing what works and what doesn’t — effort and struggle are an expected part of the game.
For Charlie, his experience at the Horn Gallery was an epiphany. To that point, college tours had been backward-walking tour guides giving virtually the same tour from campus to campus, disjointed peeks into lectures or seminars and overnight stays with lukewarm student hosts. In contrast, the Horn Gallery experience and his interactions with students and staff the next day showed him that Kenyon was about students aspiring to interests, developing expertise and responding to opportunities.
Fast forward: Charlie matriculated at Kenyon, and as a freshman, plugged in as one of the Horn’s key workers; as a sophomore, he ran the Horn along with another student (the work included applying for grants, allocating money, and hiring and hosting performers); as a junior, he mentored the next Horn directors and was a worker bee; and as a senior, he was director emeritus and performed in the space as a warm up for professional acts. From the Horn Gallery to all of his other academic and extracurricular opportunities, Charlie plugged in and developed a variety of experiences that were challenging, enriching and enjoyable. By the end of his senior year, he was ready to break free of Kenyon’s Lego set. Kenyon was a great atmosphere for joining in the work of the College, discovering who he was and developing his ability to cultivate further opportunities.