Pulling on snow boots and sprinting across the quadrangle in a blizzard.
Emerging from the library stacks with a backpack full of books so essential I would have to call them juicy.
Lunch on the grass, warmed by the sun.
I have a wellspring of memories about experiences on college and university campuses, starting at a young age. When I was 11 years old, my father joined the staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the rest of the family came for picnic lunches in the shadow of Henry Moore statues. Occasionally, he’d let me take the day off from school, which I spent reading in the libraries and wandering the infinite corridors. Then there was liberal arts college, then a year of studies in Colombia, then teaching in Taiwan, then a campus job at MIT, then graduate school in Texas, then working as an editor at the School of Nursing in Austin, Texas. All told, I have spent 25 years of my life on or around campuses on four continents, as a student, a teacher, an employee, or a visitor. No wonder I feel most like myself when I’m on campus.
Maastricht University, my latest campus to explore, is diffused in the city and doesn’t have the bounded feeling of other places. But it comes with many familiar feelings and features: the beaten stone steps and the defiant shortcuts. Vending machines and photocopiers. Weird unused corners, bulletin boards. Everything buzzing with learning, studying, teaching.
How the students fill the place. They’re everywhere, swarming. Then, just as suddenly, they’re gone. The lawns, the elevators, the classrooms are empty. And just when the university spaces begin to forget the students were ever there, they come back.
But that’s in normal times. One of the most intolerable aspects of the pandemic to me is the way it has turned the campus experience into an abstraction. Yes, students are going in person, and I’m glad for that. But my house, where I work, lacks the tidal changes of energy and the sparks of randomness. I don’t miss being in an office, but I miss being on the campus. It has already started to forget me. (They always do.)
Michael Erard, Data Science Funding Specialist and Grant Writer at the Institute of Data Science