This Homecoming Weekend promises to be as strange as it will be memorable, because those who were my peers just a few months ago will be returning to campus as members of that distant and ever-growing faction that is "alumni."
And sadly, if all goes according to plan, I will reluctantly be initiated into that same group about six months from now. This frightening image has dominated my train of thought recently, and as I drifted off to sleep the other night, I couldn't help but imagine what it would be like when "Ryan J. Byrnes — RC '08" brings it all back home at some indiscernible point in the future.
The year is 2012, and I'm making my first return to campus since graduating way back in May of 2008. I've just emerged from a brutal two-year battle with writer's block to write my second book, and my life isn't all that different than that of "Californication's" Hank Moody, minus most of the sex and drugs. Overall, I'm happy, moderately successful and, clearly, I'm still single.
The drive to Richmond has left me famished, so I make my way to the new dining hall. Students speedily zoom through the entrance lines, using a retina-scan instead of card swipers to register their lunch to the latest meal plan, Spider Carnage. The culinary options have seemingly diversified, but students are in such a trance, it's as if they hardly notice. I stop a young woman, who looks like she could use a few slices of chocolate cake and ask her what she thinks of this new dining center.
"Yeah, it's nice I guess," she says. "I just, like, never have any time to eat anymore if I want to get all of my units done." She takes a few bites of her salad, grabs a bottle of water and continues on her way.
It's then that I remember that Richmond switched to a unit-based academic system the year after I graduated. The change was made after faculty found out students were getting good grades and actually having lives at the same time. The new system required students spend 15 hours per week for each unit, taking up to five units each semester. Funny, I always thought it was hard enough to get an A back when they used credits.
After lunch, I venture over to Lora Robins Castle to return to the scene of some of my favorite collegiate memories of nearly a decade earlier. The fortress is more medieval than ever, now with a deep moat surrounding it. Apparently this is what all that mysterious construction around the dorm back in my day was for. Floating in the murky water are some young men who had tried to sneak into the castle after curfew, joined by a few LoRo inhabitants who appeared to have fallen off the bridge on either their tipsy trip home the previous night or during that morning's walk of shame.
As fascinating as LoRo is, it is overshadowed by the new massive structure on a hilltop across the street, right where the Westhampton Deanery used to be. I vaguely remembered Westhampton College discussing expansion plans during my senior year, but I never envisioned that the final outcome would look like this. I ask a few guys bustling by what exactly it is I am looking at.
"That thing?" one says. "That's WILL Hill. Now if you'll excuse us, we need to go work on our units."
Apparently, when Hillary lost the '08 election, WILL decided it needed to kick it up a notch, as part of a nationwide effort to bolster feminist dominance. As I approach the mini-mountain, the music of the Indigo Girls fills the air. On top of the hill, surrounded by statues of Simone de Beauvoir and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lays a colossal cube-shaped building. Apparently, Westhampton wanted to make it clear that, no matter how many phallic symbols were erected on campus, nothing would be bigger or more powerful than their box.
I continue along the road, which is now completely brick, to venture to the other side of campus. Ten students speed by in their BMWs. Not a big change there. Suddenly, an army tank comes barreling down the road after them. I manage to get the attention of the driver, who ends up being a University of Richmond police officer. I guess the $40,000 Dodge Chargers of my day just weren't enough to keep up with the fast-paced students. He looks at me scornfully as I ask him if he thinks his vehicle is a bit of overkill.
"Buddy, this tank is going to save a life one day," he yells before shooting a missile through one of those nameless facilities buildings. He laughs giddily before speeding away.
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I pass the illustrious B-School, which \0xAD— according to the banner hanging outside —\0xAD has moved into a three-way tie for the 19th best undergraduate business school, thanks to the installation of a life-size stock trading floor. I overhear a few students as they exit the House that Robins built:
"This new PDP is so much work, and it's only worth a fifth of a unit!"
My attention turns to two huge structures farther down the path. As I get closer, I can tell the two structures are a massive door and a globe, with a sign over them reading "Weinstein Center for International Education." It's literally what they said it would be: an $18 million door to the world. I go inside the globe and find out that the school became so obsessed with getting students to study abroad that Americans are now the minority on campus. I stop an international student to ask him what he thinks about the phenomenon.
"America very good to me," he said. "But I was never told about units."
I walk over to fraternity row but am distraught when I see nearly all of the lodges have been knocked down. All of the fraternities are gone, except for SPE. So all of the fraternities are gone. I find an old can of Beast buried under some leaves and, though I was never a big fan of the stuff, I wipe the dirt off the side of the can and shotgun it for the sake of history.
I finally remember there's a homecoming football game, so I make my way to the new on-campus stadium. I'm instantly blown away by its beauty, though the four-story parking garage across the street kind of ruins the natural feel the campus used to have.
The first quarter comes to a close, with the Spiders leading 10-3. The few hundred students in the crowd head for the exits. I stop one and ask why he is leaving so soon. He looks at me with an "Are you kidding me?" expression on his face.
"Oh, right," I say. "The units. Well, do you know where I can get a copy of The Collegian?"
"A Collegian?" he asks. "What's that?"
"You know, the student newspaper?"
"Oh, they stopped making those my freshman year. But I do have the latest edition of the Richmond Review."
Dismayed, I slowly head back to my car, wondering how the place I once loved so dearly had, in just a few years, transformed to the super-mobilized, academically unitized, over-internationalized, under-socialized, mega-feminized and un-Greekified state it was now in. I wondered if there was anything about the new Richmond that truly reflected what my experience at the university had been like.
"Hey," I call back to the student. "Do they still charge you guys for extra print credits?"
"Yeah," he says. "Cheap bastards."
Well, I guess some things don't change.
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