50 years on: what’s the same and what’s different when going off to university

This is a year of anniversaries for me. Fifty years since I graduated from university. Fifty years since we were married. It seems like yesterday, but at the same time it’s got me thinking about what’s the same and what’s profoundly different. (It’s also useful to try to think about things other than the state of the world, at least from time to time!)

We live in a university town, very close to campus. With the start of a new school year a few weeks ago, cars with out-of-province license plates started arriving back in town, some of them parents bringing students to residence for the first time and others returning students arriving to rented digs with friends.

It’s been 54 years since I was one of the kids being driven to my first year in university by my parents, but as those of you close to my age will appreciate, I remember it all so clearly. What’s the same and what’s different? Well, many aspects of getting ready to leave home in a big way for the first time haven’t changed too much, except for styles. Other things have changed dramatically, mostly having to do with how technology has transformed our lives, after decades of there not having been that much change at all.

I happen to come from a family where both my parents had gone away to university themselves, so they were as excited for me as I was for myself. And they weren’t as nervous as I was, because they already knew it would be fine. Been there, done that. My mother had spent years regaling me with tales of how much I was going to like being at university. And things worked pretty well the same way they had worked for decades … although that would all change by the time I graduated four short years later.

What’s the same:  Buying new clothes to get ready for your new life.

What’s different:  What we bought.

When the university had been chosen and the arrival date was known, the first order of business was, of course, a shopping trip with Mom to buy new clothes!

We bought a collection of wool skirts and matching sweaters. I can still remember my favourite outfit, a green plaid pleated skirt with a matching green pullover sweater. Those were the kinds of outfits that we wore to class every day (including Saturday mornings!). And the guys wore jackets and ties! No jeans to be had (nor had any been allowed in high school). We weren’t even allowed outside the women’s residence in slacks without permission of the residence head (appropriately called the Warden in those days). So, except when we could get away with knee socks (which were great with our pleated skirts!), we had to wear stockings and garter belts. OMG, I can’t believe I actually did that, every day. Those were the years when we slept on rollers in our hair as well. OMG. What were we thinking?

And one thing we didn’t need to buy, sadly, was a new backpack. I don’t know how we lived before backpacks (and suitcases with wheels).  Girls used to carry piles of books in front of them, while the guys somehow carried their piles of books everywhere held in the crook of one arm.  Very manly!

What’s the same:  Setting a budget.

What’s different:   What’s in the budget.

When we were getting ready to leave for university, my parents had a discussion with me about a monthly budget. We came to an agreement as to how much money I should need each month; not much was their position. This would include the occasional social outing, the occasional out-of-residence snack, some new stockings (the pre-tights era) and other small items, weekly calls home, and a flight home for Christmas.

Aside from books and tuition (which, yes, are much higher, even given the difference in salaries versus other costs 50 years on), there wasn’t a whole lot I needed to spend money on because most of what’s available now to spend money on did not exist. (True, beer definitely existed, but with a little luck the guys bought most of that.) There were no phones in rooms, no TVs in rooms, no computers, no Internet, no cell phones, no smart phones, no mini-fridges, and no order-out services for fast food. So, no temptation of online shopping or online gaming. Mind you, because we were missing all those temptations in our rooms, we did spend a lot of time with each other in the lounges, where the TV was and where we could share good times. One of those good times included gathering together to watch the North American introduction of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show!

The phone available to us was one payphone in the stairwell at the landing of each floor in the residence. A dial phone, of course. No more talking to your boyfriend on the family ‘landline’ for hours at a time, as we had done in high school. Instead, there was one public (and costly) phone in an uncomfortable spot for 20 or so young women. No texting, no email. Hence, lots of letter-writing to boyfriends who were somewhere else.  Interestingly, despite only communicating with our families by short, reverse-the-charges phone calls and letter at most once a week, I don’t remember anyone being homesick. I think it must have to do with expectations; we didn’t expect to have more frequent communication.

All this Internet-free time should have allowed for a remarkable amount of studying, right?! Hmm.

What’s the same:  Most students still wish they were eating their mother’s cooking.

What’s different:   There’s way more choice now, but most students still complain about it!

Before I went away, I heard a lot about how I needed to be less fussy about what I ate because I’d have to learn to eat whatever was served when I got to residence.

In what I believe must have been very much the end of an era, the women’s residence at McGill in those days served sit-down meals to the female students for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was served in the cafeteria in the basement (which I admit I only frequented once in 2 years, not being heavily into getting up before it is absolutely necessary). However, we ate the other meals in a dining room with table-cloth-covered tables of eight, and served ourselves from steaming serving bowls of wholesome food and platters of meat or fish placed on the tables by wait staff. That dining arrangement simply cannot have lasted much past the two years I was in residence! Talk about bygone times.

What’s the same:  Wanting lots of freedom.

What’s different:   Having lots more freedom and realizing that freedom has its challenges too.

Before I went away, my mother told me more than once about how it was a good thing they (my parents) gave me a curfew, because I’d have an even tighter one when I got to university residence. She wasn’t impressed to find out that I had relatively generous curfews, which included one 2:30 a.m. curfew each week.

They eventually disappeared from residences because of the cost, but for decades, even until the 90s, most women’s residences (which themselves are few and far between now) had a watchman who sat in a little reception office at the entry to the building. He (it was always a ‘he’) knew who everyone was and saw his job as looking out after you. Every visitor had to sign in with him, and the resident then came down to the front to receive the visitor. So the watchman knew who was visiting you and how you felt about it. In my two years in residence, male visitors were “received” in the lounge only, not in the residents’ rooms. Now that’s what I call a difference!

One reminder about curfews: Sometimes having a curfew could get you out of situations you didn’t really want to be in.  Getting back before you got locked out or could lose future late curfews was a message that was begrudgingly respected.

What’s the same:  Good study habits are critical for academic success at university.

What’s different:   There are lots of assignments, quizzes, tests, labs, and essays that all count towards your final grad and keep you motivated, or at least remind you of what you should be learning.

Before I went away, the mantra from parents and teachers alike was that things would be different in university, that you’d no longer have them to badger you into doing your school work, that you’d have to take all the responsibility.

There is no doubt that it was a rude awakening to move from a high school system to one where none of your assignments, labs or term tests counted towards your final grade. In most of my first-year courses the only thing that counted was the final exam – and many of the courses were full-year courses, meaning one exam at the end of the year. Can you imagine how easy it was to convince yourself in September and October that you could learn the material without doing the assignments, etc. and then have a very rude awakening when exam time rolled around? It was definitely more baptism by fire then than now. However, interestingly, I still don’t think we felt as stressed as our students do now. And that is a shame.

My wish to everyone starting their post-secondary studies this year is that 50 years from now you all remember your time at university as fondly as I do, for all sorts of reasons.

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4 Responses to 50 years on: what’s the same and what’s different when going off to university

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Ah, a nice look back through sepia glasses there Jane. Fifty years, where did they go? Hard to believe we actually had to write letters to friends, even in the same city (Birmingham in my case). And then waiting for the postman… We didn’t even have a telephone landline then.

    At some point I decided I didn’t want to go to uni, which immediately made me a non-person as far as school was concerned. Maybe I’ll reminisce about my years as a trainee accountant in Birmingham in the 70s 🙂


    • Jane Fritz says:

      Ah, yes, young Brits would definitely shake their heads at the state of telephone usage in the UK for many decades! There’s a post for you. 🙂 But postal delivery was astounding. Now many of our neighbourhoods in Canada have banks of mailboxes instead of home delivery and they don’t even bother to pick it up often because so little comes by post. Methinks that you could have a lot of fun reminiscing about your accountant trainee years. I’ll watch for it!


  2. alesiablogs says:

    What a great post. Nostalgic to say the least, but contemporary enough to make me ponder and at times smile. You are so clever Jane!


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