By Stan Ridgley
Quite often now – surely far more frequently than in early years when I dwelled in wiseass territory – I count my blessings.
What blessings might those be?
Immersion in a sparkling diversity every working day. Tickled by the delights of a thousand different worldly combinations of cultures and milieus, served to me daily.
Others have it worse.
I sat passive in a car recently, precious minutes spent precisely as I chose to. Slumped in the driver’s side, idly tapping the pearlized paint on the car door. Waiting in a parking lot. A sunny day, shiny heat, but not unpleasant. Nothing to recommend it either, save that the sun’s position along the horizon that day was marginally farther along than the day before . . . but not as far as ’twould be the next.
A brief wait. For a beautiful woman. That self-same sun glinting off her blonde hair, the breeze catching her locks.
Brief, indeed, but a wait long enough to peer at and ponder a law office up on the second floor of a ruddy brick building. And I did ponder for a moment or two the fate of the person or persons in that office. A lawyer “practicing” law.
Locked into a life of repetition and ritual.
Perhaps. Who knows?
But a day like every other. Formulaic. Familiar scenarios changing only in their mundane particulars. Cramped. The same people. Cutouts. Problems. Role-playing. Deadening.
Maddeningly the same.
A dulling, yet compelling psychological stimulus to act strangely. Yearning to burst out, to shatter the golden shackles, to act . . . ignobly.
But . . .
A turn of the key, the engine rumbles low and smooth, and the formulas vanish, replaced with an insistent wind in the hair and a feeling of gratitude . . . even relief. There but for the grace of God . . .
I toil in the second-largest metropolis on the east coast . . . a city of seven million, the home of Rocky and of Liberty.
In the office next to mine is a fabulous marketing professor by the name of Masaaki. Japanese, quite obviously. In the offices on the other side are Arvind and Ram, colleagues of Indian descent, brilliant in their fields.
I step out of my office to grab a bite at one of the many kiosks lining the main campus thoroughfare. Walking out of the building, I hear strange-sounding, lyrical African tongues, Italian, Polish. Students all. Music pulsing on a spring day, echoing off the buildings, the contrapuntal rhythms of youth. Do I fetch fruit from the Vietnamese kiosk . . . or a sandwich from the one run by Jon the Serb? Or veggies from the Turks?
There is always at least one Mohammed in each of my classes.
This semester, I have two in one class. One from Jordan, the other from Bangladesh. Increasing numbers of students from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Bulgaria. Two from Albania. The Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cohorts are always large. Closely followed by the Vietnamese and Thais.
Jin is an interesting young man . . . Chinese, but grew up in South Africa and is a citizen of that country. Speaks perfect English and has fantastic potential for a sharply defined personal comparative advantage.
Ali is from Sudan.
Muhammed from Mali.
Asmaa from Morocco.
And a smattering of Americans.
This is diversity.
This is true diversity of the kind the purveyors of the new appropriateness did not have in mind when the word became politically charged. In fact, my university has been rated the nation’s Most Diverse Campus by the Princeton Review. Only in such a place can someone fluently bilingual yet feel inadequate among the multilingual and talented.
I testify to that diversity. And to that talent.
What does it mean for purposes of this space?
The percussive effect on the soul of such a rich mix of cultures and peoples, all bright and inquisitive, all ambitious and energized, all intense and poised to hurl themselves onto a world that has no clue of what’s in store . . . well, how to measure it? How to describe the pressure, the charge, the unharnessed and unruly dynamism? How to measure it as compared to what would have been had a different environment prevailed in the similar time period.
And, of course, there is the issue that every person forms a distinct portion of every other person’s environment. So when we talk about a diverse environment’s impact on students, we are essentially talking of the students’ endless interactive impacts on each other individually and on themselves in the aggregate.
What does it mean to learn in such an environment as opposed to one where, say, a brown face makes only an occasional appearance and a foreign accent is an aberration? Or in an environment where there is homogeneity of one type or another, where white faces, yellow faces, brown faces . . . where beautiful lilting accents are a rarity?
To meticulously mix metaphors, this yeasty, electrical atmosphere is apparent to me, but strangely not to many of the students themselves. This congeries of cultures is just the way it is. It is not viewed overtly as an advantage or disadvantage, I think, but just a reality.
For me – and for anyone who seeks engagement with life – it is a nirvana of sights, smells, exotic delights, and meshing of intrigues. It is a seething, almost alive feeling of anticipation. You cannot underestimate the potential intellectual energies of 34,000 college students massed in one place, dedicated (presumably) to learning, and unbearably optimistic about what they will do with themselves in the coming days, months, years.
Such an atmosphere is enlivening to the inquisitive mind. It is the antithesis to ritual and routine, formula and fatuousness. It is the wellspring of creativity, the beating heart of innovation.
The problem, for young people, is to reckon up their luck. Their incredible luck at all of this.
I’ve reckoned up my own, and my cup runneth over.
A hundred story ideas beam out at me every workday. I see a hundred stories in the faces of students, gathered together by a self-selection process that yields a sublime combination of careful selection by major, age, and interest . . . but random according to who actually shows up in the group I face each day. I gain inspiration from the lifeforce of a hundred, and yet additional hundreds.
Another day begins in several hours.
I’ll drive into Philadelphia, but I’ll not complain at the cost of the gas.
I’ll celebrate life’s bargain that conveys me, personally, across an urban expanse to enjoy the delights the world has to offer, concentrated within the confines and shelter of a great university.
And when I get a moment to catch my breath . . . I’ll chronicle one of those stories.