College Dazed and Confused

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Is it possible to suffer from culture shock in a world to which you'd once grown so accustomed?

I returned to my alma mater over the weekend to participate in a collegiate media summit apparently making the annual rounds through the Pennsylvania state higher education system.

A fairly last-minute decision, I'd been contacted a few weeks earlier by a former professor — now the chairwoman of the Journalism Department — asking if I'd like to speak on a panel about working in the magazine publication landscape.

My immediate consent barely departed my email server before the anxiety set in. While “hate” may be a strong word, when I speak in front of crowds of more than two people, sweat tends to ooze from my forehead and under my arms, and my trouble with eye contact downgrades to a simple eyes-closed strategy.

Not to mention the fear of the unknown: touring a campus almost completely renovated since I last visited four years ago — the year after I graduated, in town for a friend's wedding.

But the deed had been done, the email sent. I knew my professor was desperate to fill a hole in the schedule, and something told me the last thing she needed was me reneging on my promise. So I cancelled tentative plans with out-of-town friends, and booked a Zipcar for the weekend. IUP or bust!

Sparing the gory details, I'd call the weekend a success. Whether or not my frenzied responses actually made any impact on the few and the brave students I met remains unseen.

But more important than helping to mold the future of the fourth estate, I had the thrill of returning to my four-year home-away-from-home-away-from-home: John E. Davis Hall — the shared journalism building and stomping grounds for the TV station where I cut my teeth in the behind-the-scenes broadcast world.

Despite the consistent smells, unmoved vending machines, and familiar college vibe, my weekend at the university felt less like a blast from the past, and more like a wrong turn into a foreign land. A small town where Smiley Cookies are sold on every corner and autumnal scenic views rival those of the Scottish highlands.

The very antithesis of Manhattan.

There are no gently sloping hills as far as the eye can see while staring out the windows of a subway train. No drive-thru Starbucks. Just a concrete jungle, teeming with wild animals who wouldn't know how to get to a state of relaxation if Siri provided explicit directions.

Somewhere along the way, between tossing my college-graduation mortarboard and yelling at my first New York cabbie, I found a sort of common ground. Maryland. Baltimore. Frederick. Where stores close at 9 p.m., but locals can always find something other than people-watching at the Super Walmart to amuse themselves.

Five years, and four towns, later, I think I'd mostly forgotten what college life felt like. But among equally unfamiliar buildings and familiar friends, I briefly fell back into life as an 18-year-old student discovering a new life, and the shock of it all.


Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for

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