Fall

I visited Seattle for the first time in the fall. The weather was still temperate and sunny, the days were still long and the late afternoon light was perfectly golden. The city’s natural beauty was fully on display, and I fell in love.

ImageI know what you’re thinking–how can you possibly make it through another rapturous essay on apple picking, pumpkin spice lattes and changing leaves? But while I’m a sucker for all these things, I love fall because it’s been the season of so many good memories.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with fond memories of my first college term. I had no idea what to expect of the campus, the people or even my major, and I was pleasantly surprised to immediately love everything about the University of Oregon–even its retro student union, overly enthusiastic football fans and giant lecture halls. All of us who start college in the fall probably think of autumn as a time of year for fresh starts and self-discovery.

ImageTwo years later, I had one of the best autumns of my life studying in Paderno del Grappa, Italy. I spent much of the semester traveling all over Europe, and one of my most vivid memories is of the varied weather. It was practically summer one weekend in Florence, but two weeks later, my soaked ballet flats squelched all over Dublin during a daylong downpour. We wandered Paris in mostly T-shirts in October, but we needed to buy more layers and lots of mulled wine to  keep from freezing a month later in Köln. It was thrilling to experience Europe while the seasons were changing.

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ImageThree years ago, in the fall, my favorite people came together on the scenic rooftop of my first Seattle apartment.

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ImageAnd the next fall, when there was no more roof, we settled for a cramped kitchen.

ImageAnd to start this fall, some of us made a pilgrimage right back to the place where my love for fall started…at the University of Oregon.

Image…We were a little overwhelmed.

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The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

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I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Spring seduction

For the last five years, I haven’t been so pleased with the magazines, catalogs, radio commercials and billboards I start to see this time of year.

I feel like I’m suddenly inundated with images of sun and fun come March. In the local alt-weekly newspaper, a search for weekend activities turns up advertisements for boating festivals and oceanside cabin rentals. Every March issue of every women’s magazine urges readers to start getting fit for bikini season, to pull out the tanning lotion and to run, not walk, to the nearest Old Navy and buy the entire spring collection.

When I lived in a beach town whose four seasons are spring, slightly-colder spring, summer and spring, I didn’t mind so much. But I live in the Northwest now, and I’d rather not be reminded that though it is past March 21 and thus technically springtime, real warm weather likely won’t be upon us for months to come.

Over the weekend and earlier this week, skies in Seattle were almost suspiciously perfect. Not a cloud hovered over Seattle Saturday, and Sunday morning and afternoon were decently clear before the rain moved in.  On Wednesday, the high temperature surpassed 60.  It was the kind of weather one might see in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the middle of spring.

But now, I feel as if I dreamed the whole thing. This morning I woke up to the same gray skies and lazy rain I saw last Friday, and the sun only peeked through for a couple of hours before it disappeared again. Now, the forecast calls for the same old dreary clouds and rain.

This kind of meteorological bait-and-switch is one of the few reasons I don’t like living in the Northwest. Friends and family who still live in California often ask me, “Don’t you get sick of the rain?” I don’t, as long as it’s moderate and fairly constant. The only time rain bothers me is when it abruptly halts a multi-day run of beautiful spring weather–especially come May or June, when we expect beautiful weather after so many months of rainfall but keep getting inundated with storms.

I have countless stories of wacky spring weather in the Northwest, and I’ve only lived in the Northwest for five years.

In May 2008, a chilly rainstorm in Eugene, Ore. yielded to a weekend of suffocatingly hot weather. On Saturday, as my still-damp umbrella hung on a coat rack, I tried to walk to the corner market and nearly fainted in the heat. My roommates and I tried to sleep on the lawn in front of our house because the night air was slightly cooler than the temperatures in our stuffy bedrooms. On Monday, we walked to class amid a downpour, clad in rainboots and coats.

It rained every day for weeks leading up to my graduation ceremonies last June, forcing families and graduates to consider wearing plastic ponchos at my department’s outdoor commencement. The clouds parted for two full days of 80-degree sunny weather, and suddenly wide-brimmed hats were more appropriate. The very minute all our parents waved goodbye and drove off, the rain returned.

I grew up with such consistent temperatures and conditions that I groaned inwardly every time an editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel asked me to report on the weather during my internship there. (How many ways can I say “morning fog and afternoon sun; highs in the mid-60s,” I wondered?) Spring in Seattle is a completely different experience. In fact, the season between March and June shouldn’t be called “spring” in the Northwest; in these months, there are only short flirtations with sun sandwiched in between long spells of clouds and rain. A Northwest spring is simply a three-month tug-of-war between winter and summer.

It might sound hellish, but here’s the good news: summer eventually wins.

A look back

Tonight I stumbled across a New York Times story about the increasing competitiveness of college admissions. Universities such as Tulane, UCLA and Georgetown saw record applicants, tens of thousands of them, for so few spots that they began to wonder whether having so many applicants to choose from was a blessing or a curse.

Accompanying the article was a blog post on how high school seniors should prepare for interviews with admissions departments and alumni at the schools to which they’ve applied.

These two pieces got me thinking about my own college application experience. I struggle to remember specific details of the process–it was only five years ago, yet the whole thing is just a blur of stress, confusion and raging emotion–but I soon realized two things. One was that if college admissions continue to increase in competitiveness, Stanford and Harvard will soon be home to young cyborgs, underrepresented minorities and not much else. (OK, I kid.)

The other was that in 2005, at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was apparently grossly underprepared to apply for and interview at some of the more competitive schools I’d set my sights on.

The one specific admissions-era memory I have is an interview I took at Whitman College. I remember staring out the window of the admissions dean’s office, in awe of the fall colors in the trees. I remember stumbling over my words overeagerly as I tried to explain to her what a passionate and well-rounded person I was, struggling to stay on topic and wondering how long my diatribe should last. Most of all, I remember how young, naive, unprofessional and unintelligent I felt sitting in that antique chair, facing the woman in the cashmere sweater and the window with a view of the fall leaves and the main quad, where far superior people (or so I imagined) walked along the pathways.

In the New York Times post, the author advises prospective students to dress in business casual attire; I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.  In the comments section, a schoolteacher advises students to bring a resume with them to interviews; at 17, I had no such thing.

David Kogler, a college admissions officer, said, “I’m surprised at the number of students who can’t easily articulate why they drove six hours to visit our campus”  and how they’d take advantage of their time there should they be accepted.

I’m not. Most of these teenagers haven’t taken speech and communications classes, haven’t experienced professional job interviews (minimum-wage retail and food service jobs don’t count) and haven’t yet figured out their identities or future goals. How can they be expected to talk about their ambitions with certainty when they haven’t yet entered the stage in their lives where they actually start discovering those ambitions?

On that fall afternoon at Whitman College five years ago, I had no idea where I was headed. Vague ideas of art history classes, stacks of classical Greek literature and busy choir schedules floated through my head. If the admissions officer was looking for someone who was certain, focused and as articulate as a college graduate, she certainly didn’t get it–and why should she? It should be high school seniors’ enthusiasm, passion and curiosity that gets them into their colleges of choice. They shouldn’t worry about getting a polished business-casual wardrobe and credentials that are perfectly in order until they’ve lived a little.

Though applications have only continued to increase since 2005–and even then, college admissions were more competitive than ever–high school seniors shouldn’t have to put on a show in which they become someone else entirely when they interview at colleges. If they do, my cyborg theory may actually become reality.

(Oh, and in case you wondered…I was waitlisted and then invited to join Whitman College’s class of 2010 on the condition that I start in the spring. I declined and went to the University of Oregon in September. I’ve never regretted it.)

Thoughts on graduation

When I graduated from the University of Oregon, I felt like I was on top of the world. Over the course of two days, I got praised endlessly. I got awards, certificates, honor cords, honorary pins and diplomas that finally recognized all those years of hard work. It was sunny, I was wearing a pretty dress, all my friends and family surrounded me and all I did was sit there and smile.

That’s all, just smile. I seemed unable to turn off the grin through both those days. Probably because I didn’t know what else to do. I’ve never received compliments well; I never figured out how to react or what to say, so I always just smiled and said “thank you” over and over.

Getting a compliment never felt right. To me it always seemed like the conversational version of a see-saw: while one person is doing all the work to pull the see-saw down, the other is just enjoying the ride to the top without pulling their weight. So when my advisor, a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn’t do sappy, presented me with a journalism award along with a glowing laundry list of my merits, I felt like marching up to the podium to set the record straight and give him the partial credit he deserved for my accomplishments.

My point: the praise I received blinded my smiling self into forgetting just how hard I worked to earn it all. The awards and the graduation ceremonies boosted my ego but made me forget about my past work ethic. I forgot that, once college is over, we have to start all over again to prove we’re as great as our diplomas say we are. Sure, we got a degree. Sure, our grades were good and our teachers liked us and we held leadership positions in school organizations. But when our skills are put to the test in the workplace, will we deliver?

I’ve worked really, really hard this week to impress people—people whose journalistic background is awe-inspiring and totally intimidating. It’s been a challenge. But I’m glad my temporary graduation amnesia is gone and the work ethic is back.