Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Alma Mater, Mater Mea?

"Alma Mater" roughly translates as "fostering mother," or "nourishing mother. Does that make your academic alma mater your mother in any real sense?

Maybe during the college years, which I hear are quite formative--it's the first time away from one's parents home, and the college becomes for better or worse the surrogate parent--atending to your educational, dietary, medical, and personal development needs. Tons of student organizations devoted to every type of obsession and pathology. Dorm formals, or "dormals." Dining hall plans. Broomball (apparently...brooms, a ball, some sort of goal other than idiocy). Student health clinics that train students in safe sex and help them deal, hopefully privately, with the repercussions of unsafe sex. Ultimate frisbee tournaments, Scrabble hoe-downs, any number of ridiculously orchestrated non-academic social events. In graduate school, it offers the same functions, but by then you are supposed to be more autonomous. You are supposed to be able to eat without a dining plan, figure out how to make friends yourself (although those awful school-sponsored kegs in the courtyard...), and hopefully know how to take care of yourself by this age. So really, does graduate school perform any sort of maternal or paternal function?

I was a commuter to my nearby state college, so I never had that nurturing feeling from school--but I spent so much time there by virtue of my two majors in two different schools (and plus commuting is a pain more than twice a day), that I felt like I spent a significant amount of time there five days a week. I volunteered in many feminist organizations, and edited the feminist newspaper. I belonged to the honors programs in each of my schools. I felt very much a part of the school, despite having to leave it every evening and hardly being there any weekend. I felt that college contributed significantly to my development, both intellectual and personal. When I graduated, I donated a bit of money--not much, but not bad consdering my charity budget then was exactly $100 a year.

I lived very close to law school, and spent even more time there--and the three years I spent in law school, though they passed quickly, felt as laborious and intense as four years in college. I spent many a weekend at the law library. I attended far more school functions than I ever had in college--public lectures, talks, brown-bags, symposia, social events (except bar review)--and this even when I hated law school the first 1.5 years. I didn't even wait till I graduated to give money back. My school has public interest think tanks that I gladly to which I gladly contributed, as well as a public interest law fund (and charity event) that I donated to every year. In law school, I found causes as well as reasons to contribute. It wasn't my mother, but I still felt a sense of duty to aid it in some of its endeavors. I supported the endeavors, and so I supported my school. I may indeed carve out some of my slightly enlargened charity budget to donate to the school fund--not just special projects, now that I've graduated I see that the entire school is a project that may deserve my support if it can continue with its many particular endeavors.

It's no different now that I'm in a post-graduate program, except that it's only a one-year program. I hardly go to school, having only two classes. I don't get much out of my school as an institution other than an opportunity to write and work with faculty--and this is something one may in theory do by oneself if one can develop such relationships independently. My school helps me get in touch with faculty and fixes me up with a main advisor--but a lot of the leg work is my own. So it's not a sense of ingratitude, but rather institutionally-bred detachment that I am looking at my "Class of 2007" contribution form with some wariness. I would much rather contribute to the public interest law fund, or a public-interest think tank here. At least until I feel like I really am a part of the school. Maybe that moment will come with my SJD.

It is slowly awakening now that I've been better integrating myself into the law school as a whole, and not just my program. It sounds silly, but taking classes in a particular program concentration or making friends with the "American" law students goes a long way to making LLMs feel a part of the campus community. It's like that first surge of school spirit I had when I represented my school at a colloquium, or my first school football game. It's the undefinable moment when you feel like you are a part of a greater institution doing great things, and not just using the school as a go-between or writing-coach.

The point is, I'm not fully there yet, and I wonder if it's the problem with such short, independent academic programs--I no sooner adjusted to being here than I am leaving. I'm not really integrated to the rest of the school, and it takes a great deal of effort to carve out time to join and attend extracurricular activities. And all in one year. I can't imagine what it is like for the internationals, who will go back to their countries. Yet they invariably donate to the class fund here. I appreciate their fervor, even as I can't really understand it. Then I think what it must be like to be a freshman at 18 living away from home for the first time. Ah, so the school has become their mother. I am so comfortable here with friends outside of law school nearby and family not too far away, that I don't feel need or compulsion to attend every social event or rely on the school too much to fulfill my personal needs. Maybe the school is an alma mater to my classmates, who are so far away from their own mothers.

I'm visiting my law school alma mater this week, and I will let you know whether I feel a resurgent sense of nostalgia and largesse, and whether I miss the hallowed halls because once I belonged there.


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