From 2009-2013, I called Bates College my home. For those four years, it easily superseded Madison, and even edged out Bayfield, for that title. With few exceptions, the people that I identified with most in the world could all be found clustered around an overflowing dinner table in Commons, hanging out on Frye Street, or lounging alongside Range Pond. The cramped confines of Smith, the classrooms of Pettengill, and the tables of Ladd Library all acted of venues for my own growth through college. The framework for that growth was undoubtedly a product of my upbringing in Madison and Bayfield, but my commitment to nurture it was my own. That commitment had been carefully fostered by a core group of professors who had all but adopted me. Without knowing it, I had transformed from a Wisconsinite or a Madisonian into a full-blooded Batesie.
When I arrived on campus two days ago, I was faced with a school that I recognized physically, but not emotionally. The Bates I knew didn’t appear to be there anymore. I was seeing someone else’s Bates. In the two days I spent on campus, I reconnected with a grand total of nine students who I knew by face and name. Just nine, when my Bates housed hundreds of familiar faces. How bizarre.
Yesterday, however, I began to recognize the school that I had left behind. Instead of avoiding the rain by holing up in the library, I decided to spend the day in Commons, our dining hall. At some schools, the football stadium is the heart of the campus. At others, it is the library. For Bates, it is Commons. Every student passes through its doors at least two times a day, spending hours under its lofty ceiling. It is the heart and soul of Bates College. There, you can witness the entire student body living out Bates’ community-focused mission on a daily basis. It is truly a special place.
As an alumnus, I knew my pilgrimage would cost me. Being a Bates alum has its perks, but free food isn’t one of them. I, therefore, planned to make the most of the $7.00 entrance fee. Once inside, I set up near a power outlet and readied my computer, hard drives, and camera. Then, I hit the buffet. Commons is unlike any other cafeteria I have ever experienced. Ranked among the Best Green Restaurants in America, it provides fantastic food while maintaining an ethos of sustainability. Before collecting any food, I wandered from station to station, marveling at the wall of cereals once more, checking out the “Choices Fridge” with new eyes, and perusing the vegan breakfast treats hungrily. After reviewing my options, I filled a plate and retreated to my corner. It all tasted just as good as I remembered it had.
From that moment forward, I maintained a steady workflow built around caloric intake and productive output. I processed photos while snacking on vegan muffins. I edited blog posts while sipping on coffee. I checked email while savoring a piece of toasted Ezekiel bread with organic peanut butter and chunks of banana. In short, I was in heaven. While I was enjoying my own personal feast, I was also watching the students come and go, caught up in the same routines that I had enjoyed so much during my time here. Even though they were basically the only students on campus, the athletes sat in the same sections of Commons that they sat in when I was there. Habitually, I had chosen a table roughly where I would have sat in my day. They really were experiencing the same Bates I had left behind, even though their experiences would no doubt be somewhat different. It was starting to feel more and more like home. All that and I hadn’t even hit lunch yet!
My former thesis advisor joined me around 11:30 AM. Over a plate piled high with garlic sautéed kale, chana masala, quinoa salad, and roasted root vegetables, we discussed my plans for the future and I recounted the story of my last two years in North Carolina. From book on tape recommendations to strategies on how to increase blog traffic, she was full of useful ideas on how to get the most out of my next ten months. Then, she filled me in on the latest and greatest at Bates. The conversation rarely slowed for an hour and a half. After we said our goodbyes, I walked back to my table, looking at the students around me knowing that they were well cared for.
I spent the next four hours in Commons keeping largely to myself. I limited my snack breaks to a piece of vegan nanny cake and upped my coffee intake. I wrote new posts, drafted future posts, tweaked photos, and caught up on a few correspondences for a few hours. By 2:00 PM, the students had cleared out, and the workers descended on the empty dining room. They had two hours to clean and cook before the next round of students would return for their evening meal. Even though the activity was relatively mundane, the quiet precision was impressive. Dozens of Commons workers swept floors, wiped down machines, vacuumed carpets, replaced salt and peppershakers, prepped dinner ingredients, cleaned bathrooms, all the while pleasantly chatting. Any worker whose job interfered with my table simply said a cheery hello and moved along.
By 4:30 PM, Commons was clean and ready to serve the hungry athletes who poured in as soon as the doors opened. Personally, my incessant snacking meant that my appetite had faded long ago, yet I still found room for a plate of General Tso’s tofu (one of my favorites!). I recognized a few more friendly faces, but mostly occupied myself with the comings and goings of the students. Commons has always been well known for its stellar people watching. I did more than my fair share that day. The students began to clear once more and I realized I was nearing the end of my to-do list. At 6:45 PM I headed for the door, leaving Commons behind.
During that period of almost 10 hours, I had eaten till I was fit to burst at least three times, updated most aspects of my blog, and had renewed my connection to Bates College. Not bad for $7.00. Commons just has that effect on you. It is so quintessentially Bates that you never want to let it go.
While my time in Commons had no doubt been essential in my efforts to regain the sense of belonging that I had apparently lost in my two years away from Bates, it was my conversations with three professors that made these two days so unforgettable. With the first day of school less than a week away and meetings in full swing, each of my favorite professors had set aside at least an hour of their time, and in some cases much more, to check-in with me. While the conversations varied immensely from professor to professor, each was undeniably excited for the path that I had chosen and the route that lay ahead of me. What struck me most, however, was the noteworthy shift in our relationship that had occurred since my graduation. Despite my relative inexperience in the world of academia that they inhabit so fully, they addressed me as a peer, rather than an advisee or student. No matter how slight, that change continues to excite me today. Knowing that three of my most influential mentors will be watching my progress closely is about as empowering as it gets. I have no doubt that I will hold myself to a higher standard knowing they are checking in.
Now, I am leaving Bates, headed to Sugarloaf to spend the night with another close friend. A fellow Batesie, I will be very curious to see what Lucas has to say about his post-grad relationship with the school. For me, it seems clear that my relationship with the student body will undoubtedly change, but my commitment to the Bates experience and to the College’s ideals is timeless.