June 6, 2003

Outgoing students reflect on changing times, University

On the morning of 9/11, Heng Duong was awakened by his father. Duong, now an outgoing fourth-year in the College, was supposed to leave his family's Chicago home and move back to campus early as an O-aide.

When he arrived, he sensed an emotionally charged University community.

"The response around campus was very measured," Duong said. "September 11 changed a lot of outlooks here. It united everyone and divided everyone at the same time."

Campus was indelibly changed by the attack, but Duong said that his impulse was to not let it disrupt his life. He resolved to perform well in classes that fall quarter and went out of his way to ignore the event's aftereffects.

"It was a really moving event but you forget it because that's the opposite of what they meant for you to do. Not that we shouldn't guard ourselves to be safe, but we can't be defined by it," Duong said, sitting in the A-level of the Regenstein Library shortly before midnight on Wednesday night. He was preparing for his final exam at the University.

While the events of 9/11 jolted the University with a new pulse of community, students and administrators reflect on other, more subtle, events and trends that have changed the campus community from the time soon-to-walk-across-the-stage fourth-years arrived here.

One of the starkest changes over the last four years has been a result of the effects of the downturn in the economic market. According to Barbara Murry, a College advisor here for the last five years, the "fantastic" job market of graduating seniors receiving large signing bonuses has shrunk into one where job offers are retracted.

The effect of this downturn, according to Elise LaRose, another College advisor, is that there has been more criticism of the liberal arts education. Students and families are increasingly questioning the value of educations not often directly applicable to the job market, such as in philosophy or art history.

"Up to even as recently as one year ago it didn't matter what you studied," LaRose said. "It was more about you know how to do and how to think."

Along this vein, the University has modified Core requirements over the last several years-a move lamented by fans of the University's longstanding traditions. The now-outgoing class was the first group to experience widespread changes in the Core, in the fall of 1999, according to Ryan Skarbek, a fourth-year in the College.

"People like to say there's been a change but I don't know that's necessarily true," Skarbek said of his College experience, who views the curriculum revision as part of an institutional effort to make the school more fun, saying that former University president Hugo Sonnenschein wanted to make the University more of a "party school."

"But most of my most fun moments here were spontaneous and without alcohol," Skarbek said. "That just goes to show that you can embrace your nerdiness and have fun at the same time. I'm not sure that the movement toward lightening the school will make that much of a difference."

Duong reflects a similar message, saying that the College has become more "mainstream," also saying that there is less of a push toward academia as a career choice of graduating students. "It's lost that edge these days," he said. "I sort of missed the old-school way."

But the University is working to make a difference in another sphere-affirmative action. According to LaRose, the University is investing both to spend more resources on minority students and to incorporate more minority academics into the faculty here. Ironically, the University's effort to extend affirmative action has come as the policy has been called into question.

The U.S. Supreme Court formally reopened the issue this spring when it considered cases against the University of Michigan's system of admission, and is expected to make a decision midsummer.

"It's an interesting twist of fate," LaRose said. "We weren't as aggressive when a lot of peer institutions were. Now we are moving forward when they're trying to backpedal."

Another change the University has experienced over the last several years has been a dramatic increase in the popularity of studying the world-both in language and civilization classes here and abroad.

The shift comes as advances in communication, trade, and travel have increased domestic interaction with foreign cultures. According to LaRose, more importance has been placed on learning foreign languages well enough to communicate in them.

"Foreign study has just blossomed," she said.