Memories of college — as I send my daughters off

By Tom Allon

We are getting an early dose of fall breezes in August even though we are entering the dog days of summer now.

Life seems to change drastically the day after Labor Day each year. Work gets busier, more people are around to take meetings, the fall culture calendar heats up, school kids dot the subways — the whole pulse of the city quickens.

But for the next three weeks we can still enjoy the relative quiet on our streets, late summer barbecues and the ability to still don T-shirts and sandals on the weekend.

But for me, this late August is largely focused on getting two of my children ready for their freshman year in college — a huge milestone for them and a large adjustment for me.

My youngest daughter and my stepdaughter are about to decamp for the pretty campuses of upstate New York and for an exciting academic and social adventure. They are about to experience one of great American traditions: four years of learning, studying, socializing, and forming lifelong bonds. I envy them.

It was 37 years ago that my parents drove me upstate to the same school my daughter will attend. Unlike her, I had not really visited many college campuses and the new experience being away from home was quite a shock to my system.

But the discomforts of sharing a small room and putting up with noise at all hours of the night was totally worth the academic stimulation that animated my days in class and evenings at the library.

Could hypnosis be a useful tool in eliciting eyewitness accounts in criminal investigations? Was Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” to eat our young an effective use of irony to comment on society’s ills?

What happens when we sleep and what value do dreams have in psychotherapy? If Robert Kennedy reviewed Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” what would he say?

These were the provocative questions I was asked to write about as an eager 18-year-old still trying to figure out what my life path would be. At the time, they seemed like esoteric questions. Why would I ever have to think about an author’s use of irony or ponder what goes on biologically when we sleep?

But today, every one of these important questions make sense to me. They forced me to think deeply about things I would never have given a moment of thought to otherwise. It forced me to write persuasively and passionately about topics that may have been arcane and out of my wheelhouse. They challenged me to question long-held assumptions and push back at received wisdom from my family and my friends.

Almost four decades since I first started my college journey, I am still using the skills I built there each day. When I write — at work or for my regular columns — I think of how my professors would rate my writing for content and style. Have I clearly stated my thesis, have I given enough detail and does my conclusion make sense?

I recall that even in the 1980s, the price of tuition seemed quite steep, and I had to take out loans to fund my education. It took me 10 years after graduate school to repay them. Every month I wrote my rent check and then another $350 repayment for the loan. Initially, I thought: This isn’t fair. I didn’t recognize the value I had received until years later when I was well into my career as a journalist and publisher. Today, I believe that those four years of expensive tuition were the best investment I ever made.

But now, it isn’t about me and my long-ago education — it’s about my kids and their future. Tuition has skyrocketed astronomically since my time, but now I have the wisdom to realize that this is the best gift my children can ever receive — a strong college education that will set them up for life.

Driving upstate this weekend, with a car packed with clothes and supplies, I’ll be the guy with a big smile on my face — it’s time for college and I get to appreciate it for a second go-round.

Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallon@cityandstateny.com.

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