AU: Sweat the small stuff
During the year I'm a Resident Assistant and this summer I work at the residence hall front desks, and so a lot of kids and parents in town for tours or orientations ask how I like the school. If you already go here you've probably been asked the same thing. And every time I'm asked I sort of look away, look back, and begin by wondering aloud, "Well, how do I say this..."
To me, there would be few reasons to attend American University were it not located in Washington, D.C. The academics seem about average, the facilities noting special, the campus pretty but less attractive than nearby Georgetown's, and the students impressive in some ways, disappointing in others. AU's appeal does not lie in its football team, its charmingly colonial red-brick residence halls, or in the hearty endowment made possible by our successful and generous forbearers. Instead, AU's appeal is that it is located in the nation's capital, that it is less urban than competing George Washington University, and (under publicized but very important) that its class schedule allows students to start interning as early as the first semester of their freshman year.
Our international relations and communications programs are outstanding. Our student newspaper perhaps the best in the D.C. area (The Eagle runs more original content than any other local student newspaper-does it more often, does so without administration oversight or assistance, and does so at a level of quality equal or greater to its D.C.-area counterparts.). Our full-time faculty is well-respected and published, and AU is home to several institutes (Campaign Management, Civil War, Nuclear Studies) that are famous worldwide-not because AU made them so, but because they're simply good. Yet amidst all of these successes there remain difficult problems.
Our IR and communications graduates are well-trained and smart but AU lacks (so far as I can tell) an established reputation in those fields as being a real incubator for rising stars. The Eagle is a well-run paper and the product of hard work by some communications students, but often most of the paper is put together by students who don't want to be journalists. Though this is a positive reflection on those students, it reflects poorly on AU's communications students and it suggests that they often fail to take advantage of the opportunities available to them-especially in the area of getting valuable bylines and news clips.
Incoming freshmen are lured by often generous financial aid offerings, yet I know many students who have had to withdraw from the University because their aid was not renewed-and I know still more students who are unsure even now whether they will still be here in a month. Every day it costs AU students more to attend the school than it did the day before; parking permits are obscenely expensive, meal plans patently overpriced, fines and fees exorbitant and customer service generally lacking. Ask any AU graduate whether they plan on donating to the school and most will tell you that they've given enough already. It is unfortunate, then, that the permits, meal plans, dorm rooms, library fees, and everything else cost so much and thus build up ill will with someone who might otherwise graduate and donate. It is unfortunate that student staff are often paid wages or stipends that, when compared with the amount of work required by some jobs, end up figuring out to less than $2 per hour. In fact it's not just unfortunate; it's fundamentally exploitive in nature and like the above example, I think, ultimately harmful to the school's bottom line.
Classes could be better, too. Maybe this is what happens when academic freedom meets the results of our TV culture; where papers can be downloaded, book jackets read instead of the books themselves, and where telling someone that they're wrong is a "value statement" instead of a simple notice of fact. I know one student who recently called democracy "a Western superstition." Surely someone like that either needs to be set on the chosen path or set far away from American University-a place that let's all just assume should probably go ahead and give democracy the benefit of the doubt. At AU America-hating can be easily shrouded as enlightened discourse and to make that argument can get one labled a neo-McCarthyite by kids who don't know the first thing about Joseph McCarthy. Classroom debate is often uninformed and professors can be so desperate to generate discussion that they're glad to accept any student comments no matter how worthy of refutation they are. It's not uncommon to leave class at AU shaking your head, wondering how the people around you got in. Maybe this is what college is supposed to be like, but I think it's just that the school needs to decide what it's going to be for and against and go from there.
AU is a great school with a lot going for it. It wasn't my first choice when I was applying to colleges, but as I enter my last year there isn't another school in the world I'd rather have spent my time. I wish we had a Big-10 football team, I wish my friends in California had heard of our school-I wish a lot of things. But maybe if administrators spent a little more time thinking about some of the small things a lot of us who love the school wouldn't have to pause, take a breath and begin, "Well..." every time a prospective student asks us how we like it here.
Evan Wagner is combined Bachelors/Masters student in the College of Arts and Sciences and is the former Managing Editor for News and incoming Copy Editor of The Eagle.