Forever Young

Evolving views on a group having the time of its life.

illustration of an adult lying in the grass with thought bubbles full of Penn State related things swirling above his head by Marcos Chin

 

When you live in a college town, the collective age of that town never changes; it’s a continuous stream of 18- to 22-year-olds. But you become aware—sometimes acutely so—of how you change by how you relate to that group as the years pass.

When I was a kid and my father took me to State College for football weekends and, a few years later, when I would visit my friend’s older brother, a Penn State senior, I was in awe of the students, envious of their freedom and their (perceived) potential. My own four years as a student here were a blur of classes and parties and long nights in The Daily Collegian newsroom, of friendships and relationships that lasted 10 minutes or 20 years.

A few years later, when I started teaching as an adjunct, my perceptions of students continued to shift. Their concerns and priorities—which I had once shared—began to seem frivolous. Some seemed to take their studies seriously; others viewed classes as ways to spend down time between social engagements. This is our future, I would think to myself at the end of each semester, sometimes with hope, sometimes with trepidation.

When I became a father in 2022, my views on students—and many, many other subjects—changed again. I began to see them not as entitled Gen Zers (or traffic cones) but as someone’s child. This made me both more compassionate toward them and more nervous about the uncertain future they face. The good news is that most of them seem to live very much in the present and are more concerned with finding a place to live next year or what role they’ll take on in their club than the precipitous decline of local journalism or the steady creep of global warming.

As I watch my toddler learn new words and toss his dinner to the floor, I can only wonder what he might be like as a college student. Will he discover his passion? Will he slake a deep thirst for knowledge? Will he find friends who share his interests and challenge his beliefs? Will he be a hyper-achiever or more interested in expanding his horizons? Will he be able to do his own laundry?

I wonder what the town itself will look like then, if the high-rise apartment buildings that still seem out of place will be everywhere, if the bars I frequented as a 20- and 30-something will have the same names. I wonder if the sense of community I felt even as a visiting grade schooler will still permeate the campus. Will he feel it? Will he know then that he is, if only for a short while, part of a place where time seems to stand still? Or will he realize it only later, when he looks up and 20 years have gone by and he can’t help but envy the freedom, and the potential, of the students who have replaced him?

 

Jeff Rice is the Penn Stater’s associate editor.