Valley Voices

I’m back at Fresno State and it has changed – for the better

Students walk and ride by the memorial fountain at Fresno State on the first day of classes for the fall semester, Monday, Aug. 22, 2016. Dan Waterhouse writes that today’s Fresno State administration is more focused on serving students than it was when he was a student in the 1970s.
Students walk and ride by the memorial fountain at Fresno State on the first day of classes for the fall semester, Monday, Aug. 22, 2016. Dan Waterhouse writes that today’s Fresno State administration is more focused on serving students than it was when he was a student in the 1970s. The Fresno Bee file

I wrapped up my first semester at Fresno State last week. Nothing particularly unusual about that, right?

It isn’t, except that I’m 62, and it’s my first time back in the classroom in 26 years. I’m a Fresno State alumnus from the 1970s and 1980s. A friend recently asked me to contrast and compare my three stints, reflecting on the campus itself and my fellow students. Here’s what I see:

The mood in the 1970s at Fresno State can be summed up this way: The administration, faculty and students all disliked one another, at times intensely. The university was roiled by the Vietnam War as well as by then-campus president Dr. Norman Baxter.

When I returned in the mid-1980s to pursue a graduate degree, the culture had shifted noticeably for the better. Administration was more oriented toward helping students than it had been when I was an undergraduate, but the bureaucracy still ruled. There was still turmoil, this time about LGBT student issues, the AIDS epidemic and what student government was doing with its revenue.

Campus was much more “white” in the ’70s and ’80s than it is now. And back then, far fewer students were the first in their families to attend college or receiving financial aid.

When I decided to return this year, I was very nervous – I had been away from the classroom for many years. Folks at the university did everything they could to reassure me and welcome me back.

The first day of school, I went to get my Bulldog identification card. There was a hold on my records because of my long absence from campus, so I was sent to Admissions and Records to see what needed to get done. The hold was cleared on the spot, and a supervisor went with me to make sure I got my identification card. That kind of personal attention wouldn’t have happened in the ’70s or ’80s.

Back in the day, students didn’t have access to the wealth of supportive services they do now. The Student Cupboard offering free food to students or the professional Clothing Closet didn’t exist then. These services are important because it’s tougher being in school these days.

During my prior campus experiences, college students weren’t homeless or profoundly food-challenged, and we could live on the money from summer and part-time jobs. That’s not the case today.

The breadth of learning experiences available didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago at Fresno State. And yes, some students are definitely into having fun, but most are serious about learning. Quite a few are politically active and want society to change for the better in how people are treated.

More than a few are rebels – in a good way. They’re the ones going their own way, not down the corporate road. They’re developing businesses while in school.

Two friends have online clothing stores. One created two nonprofits doing great work in the community. Another is developing smartphone applications and started a tech firm with one of his fraternity brothers. Others have small businesses doing graphic design and photography.

These young people are fitting their business endeavors in along with a full load of classes, community-service commitments, student-organization involvement, internships and perhaps another job (or two). And they’re performing at a high level academically. I often wonder when they find time to sleep.

A big difference between my contemporaries in the 1970s and 1980s vs. 2016 is the drive they have today, even when they’re having fun. They know that they have to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack to prosper.

Many of today’s students aren’t primarily motivated by money. Fresno State students (and staff members) contribute an average of 1 million hours of service to the community every year. That may stem from the fact that 75 percent of Fresno State students are first-generation college-goers, and there is also Fresno State’s institutional focus on the value of volunteering.

Speaking of the community, any community member can join me in classes through Open University. I’m taking advantage of it, taking background classes while waiting to be admitted to the creative writing graduate program next fall. It’s administered by the Division of Continuing and Global Education based in the Kremen Education Building (at Maple and Shaw avenues). I highly recommend it.

Dan Waterhouse, a devoted Bulldog and resident of Fresno, recently retired after a 32-year career with Caltrans.

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