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A Conversation

November 3, 2013 at 10:42 pm

I volunteer at Northfield Hospital’s Long Term Care Center on Saturday afternoons, and many of the residents there have some sort of tie to Carleton or St. Olaf. This week, I met a resident whose son graduated from Carleton about 15 years ago. This man had an unusual take on Carleton in that he didn’t have much good to say about it. As he put it, Carleton is a place that might not be comfortable if you don’t fit the culture, into which he did not fit.

Of the Carleton of a few decades ago, he shares the following colorful anecdotes:

    “The guys refused to date Carleton girls--they didn’t shave, looked scruffy. They preferred clean, blonde St. Olaf girls.”
    “The professors were wackos--they didn’t know how to change a lightbulb.”

Why did he send his son to Carleton? For the financial aid package, he says.

For the record, I believe that all of the professors I’ve had, at least, know how to change lightbulbs. The people who choose to look scruffy or be unshaved do so without too much concern for social norms, and they are dated regardless of that unconcern.

As a Northfield resident, he lived a few blocks away from Paul Wellstone, a celebrated and outspoken grassroots organizer, former Political Science professor at Carleton turned U.S. senator, “more leftist than Harry Reid”. He recounts that Wellstone wouldn’t give back the balls that neighborhood kids kicked into his fenced yard. Carleton has an interest house in honor of this man despite his selfish ways with kids’ balls and is holding Campus Camp Wellstone this week, an on-campus grassroots organizer training.

When he asked me what my opinions were, I dodged the bullet by telling him it was my belief that there are always two sides to every story. He nodded, saying that people at Carleton don’t accept that enough, and added that there are actually always three sides to every story--“I don’t know what it is, but someone has one.”

With a constant stream of new information being turned on me, my opinions on many things have been in a dynamic state since I got here. At the beginning of New Student Week for the past two years, I’ve participated in a powerful activity on diversity with the freshman class where a sentence like “I identify as politically conservative” or “I identify as someone for whom the gender binary does not work” flashes onto a presentation screen and those who are willing to publicly identify with that sentence stand up. Both times, I haven’t known which I identify with (the politics-related options being liberal, moderate, conservative, or disinterested). My cross-cultural psychology textbook frequently uses the Japanese culture as the example culture on the extreme end of collectivism and interdependence, meaning that the Japanese tend to listen, adjust to others, and think of themselves in relationship to others (as opposed to the American culture of speaking up, asserting yourself, and everyone having as much authority as everyone else--read Clash! if you want to learn more about silent but insidious cross-cultural conflict--great book!). I don’t know enough about politics to discuss it intelligently, but the American system is possibly the most foreign thing about America in my eyes. On campus, I hear a lot about learning from difference and validating people’s arguments and respectfully disagreeing. I feel that the overriding campus values today are of mutual respect and valuation of everyone as fellow human beings, and I hope no one feels as shut out as the man I mentioned above, who said those with like minds as his son carved out a niche for themselves in the Carleton community.

In terms of my future, he advised me that the future is in healthcare, but it doesn’t matter what you major in because his son majored in history with the intent of becoming a professor but found his passion for aircraft after he graduated and is now an airline captain. But there are people who say the opposite thing, that your major does have some bearing on your future prospects. I’m still not sure, and the only distribution requirement I have left to complete is Literary/Artistic Analysis. Sigh.

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