Here, everybody is smiling. In Paris, people usually do not. In the city it is normal not to smile, because you will probably never see that random woman from the Metro again. But here, people smile all the time. That is the first thing I noticed when I arrived on the 5Cs’ campus.
For those of us on the other side of the Atlantic, the notion of the “American campus” evokes daydreams, excitement, and fear because it is such a foreign concept. Throughout the centuries, European cities have constructed a different model of education, and it would be hard to imagine Pendleton Pool on the millennial foundations of La Sorbonne or Università di Bologna. Why would we do that? Paris and Bologna have plenty of public swimming pools, and European universities are usually located in city centers. No dining hall, no dorms, no Grove House (too bad, I know), no gym, no bubble.
After completing the first month of classes, I am still getting comfortable with Claremont’s campus culture. Bushes are perfectly trimmed, smiles still appear on faces, students are involved in dozens of clubs, life within the dorms is made of nice compromises. We’re told that Claremont is a wonderful place without racism, xenophobia, or homophobia. The 5Cs work as a microcosm where you can complete a world tour in one day. There is no reason to go outside of them: Student Health Services provides medicine, the gyms enable you to work off the dangerous amount of cake offered by dining halls, parties are organized for you every weekend, and if you can’t find your niche in one of the many clubs, well, that may be a sign of a lack of effort rather than lack of opportunity.
The campuses look like a fairy tale, and, as in every fairy tale, it all sounds almost too good to be true. At my home institution, students go to university just to attend classes, or to fight with the administration because it is already April and no, you still have not been registered. For everything else, the city is there, waiting for you. There is a reality outside of college and the knowledge that that reality is the one that you are living in—the same one where you will probably work one day or another. Whenever I find myself in Los Angeles Union Station, I feel home again, in a sense. The ground is dirty; the station is filled with noises and people that I can’t find in the dining hall. They are not smiling at me, but it is fine. I feel relief; surrounded by the city, I have found anonymity again.
But I’m trying to understand the Claremont bubble rather than criticize it. I talked with students, here on campus, and reactions vary. One told me, “Okay, it’s not the real world, but who cares? Everybody knows it.” Others confided that they miss being alone, that they feel stifled sometimes. But most students consider college a tremendous, indispensable experience. So do I, and I can hardly measure how lucky I am to be spending a year here.
And yet no one questions the very idea of a campus. I researched campuses on the Internet and, surprise, the first U.S. colleges were designed as open spaces. They were a series of independent buildings in opposition with the English model, which tends to organize the campus around a closed yard, cut off from the world. How have U.S. universities become these microcosms? They always have been academic villages, where the fundamental needs of students, scholars, and teachers are provided. Living in autonomy, achieving the best conditions to study, learning not only from books but from the everyday life together … the American campus is almost too good to be true. But it is true as long as you want to believe in it. Some days, I genuinely do believe in the purple mountains in the sunset, the ritualistic sandwiches, reading, and chill time at the Grove House, the meals that look like a five-star restaurant’s menu. But other days, I simply cannot.
Julia Malye is an exchange student studying at Pitzer College for the 2013-14 year. She is from Paris, France, where she is working on a dual degree in Political Science and Literature at Sciences Po and La Sorbonne, respectively. This is the last year of her undergraduate career, and she hopes to complete her master’s in Berlin.