Why Finish College?

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Jesus said to him, No one who puts his hand to the plow
and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

Why Finish College?

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my sophomore year in college (1973) I held some interesting jobs and it was not altogether clear that I would continue my studies as I explored quitting school to take full-time work.

In my work with the Indiana Public Interest Research Group (INPIRG), I worked as a community organizer attending local groups in the western side of Bloomington—on the other side of the railroad tracks—which did not get a lot of attention from local politicians.

The example of this work that stands out in my mind was a house that burned down in a neighborhood which stood just over the city limits. The structure was left in the condition that remained after fire-fighters put out the blaze—the basement was flooded and local kids were using the place as a informal pool, floating inner-tubes in the debris and generally using the property as a playground. I took photographs of the place down to city hall and spoke with officials about it one day. Hiding a tape-recorder under my jacket, I recorded a city attorney who said nothing could be done because the place had been abandoned by the owners and was in any case outside the city limits; he then proceeded to lecture me about the need for better childcare among concerned parents. I later led a community demonstration in front of city hall and brought a delegation to testify before the next city counsel meeting.

My life as a community organizer came to an end later when I interviewed unsuccessfully for a position as a local community organizer.

Another attempt that I made to find work brought me to respond to an ad in the paper for a job as a telemarketer for a local police organization. The job involved sitting in a room at a table with a bunch of telephones and calling everyone in the telephone book, one after another. With each call, we were instructed to ask for the man of the house, perhaps, with the logic that men would be more inclined to offer donations to the policy organization. However, this instruction proved to be difficult to implement because many men over the years had died in accidents working in local rock quarries. When you would ask for the man of the house, the man’s widow would just break out in tears right there on the phone. After about a week of tearful phone calls, I quit.

At the end of my sophomore year, I returned to Virginia to work in construction for a month to earn money to attend summer school and, after my attempt to transfer to William and Mary College did not work out, I returned to construction work while I waited for Iowa State University’s winter quarter to begin in December. During the months of September, October, and November I worked in at a number of sites—I helped lay pipe in the McLean House (McLean, Virginia), I did general labor build the Mitre Building (torn down a couple years back to build the Capital One building) in Tyson’s Corner, I picked apples for a couple weeks in Vermont, and I worked both as a helper to a finishing carpenter and a painter, also in McLean.

At most construction sites in McLean during this period, my co-workers were mostly colorful transplants from West Virginia. My boss at the Mitre job, for example, played poker on Fridays until all the paychecks of those foolish enough to play with him disappeared—I am sure that he provided the beer! One weekend he ended up in jail for having shot up a trailer. His idea of having fun was passing rumors about me with some of the young toughs just to see what might happen, which certainly freaked me out. Still, he had a heart and after the job was done he advised me on how to find a better job, which I did that same day. In this way, I graduated from day labor to become a carpenter’s helper.

The only co-workers that I had who were not from West Virginia were two African American guys from Washington DC—one was noisy and the other quiet. The noisy one used to brag loudly about being a kind of Leroy Brown—I thought that his performance was a hoot and I teased him to the point where he would pull out a razor and chase me around the room. The quiet one never said anything, but one morning we came to work and the police had surrounded the entire building—apparently he had robbed a bank overnight at gunpoint and the police came by to pick him up.

Violence was always a veiled presence on these construction sites. When I worked as a painter, for example, my co-worker was a young fellow from West Virginia who refused to horse around with me. When I asked him why he treated me with such deference—because he routinely horsed around with other guys—he said that it was okay to fool around with the drop-outs, but the college guys (like me) were too quick to escalate into gun violence when a real misunderstanding would arise. By contrast, our boss was more cunning in his gun talk—he always brought a pistol to work on paydays. After he cheated me out of 50 cents an hour one week, I figured out why.

By November of that year, I had earned enough pay working construction that I was able to buy my first car—a baby blue, 1967 Volkwagen beetle. In December, I packed that beetle full of clothes and drove to Iowa State University where I began studying economics like my dad. After my work experiences the prior year, I never again gave any serious thought to dropping out.

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Coming Home

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Phil 1:21)

Coming Home

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My decision to study economics forced me to re-organize priorities both inside and outside school. In school, economics required supporting work in mathematics, statistics, and computer science which I had not taken. Outside of school, my volunteer work in the Indiana Public Research Group (INPIRG) was a constant distraction from my studies. I looked for schools closer to home.

INPIRG Distracts

In my sophomore year of college (1973), for example, my volunteering included work on a local congressional campaign, community organizing, and support for other INPIRG projects. The congressional campaign involved chauffeuring a friend of mine, Charlotte, around the district in Indiana accompanying her on numerous campaign stops. The community organizing involved organizing local community groups on the west side (across the railroad tracks) of Bloomington to protest the city’s neglect in taking care of burned out house on the edge of town. The support for other INPIRG projects involved recruiting students for demonstrations and volunteering for things, like the weekly grocery store price survey, when other volunteers failed to show up.

Being a faithful volunteer was personally meaningful and introduced me to many interesting people both in the local community and on campus, but after I was turned down for a paid position as a community organizer for INPIRG, I started to feel abused. This feeling reached a boiling point when the executive director scheduled a defective-part demonstration at an automotive plant in Fort Wayne during exams week and asked me to recruit students to help out—I did my best, but ultimately I was the only student who was willing to attend the demonstration. After the demonstration and poor performance on exams, I decided to transfer to another school rather than study economics at Indiana University.

College of William and Mary

Transferring to another school proved more challenging than I initiated envisioned, in part, because in the spring of 1973 my parents moved from Maryland to Falls Church, Virginia. Virginia had good schools so, not thinking much about it, I applied for and was accepted at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, thinking that I would save my parents money by going to school in state. School in Indiana would be over in April and summer school classes started in June, leaving me the month of May open to earn the money to pay for summer school expenses.

Earning summer school expenses in a month was just barely doable, if I worked construction during the day and worked in a restaurant at night. For construction, I worked as a plumber’s helper constructing the McLean House where, at first, I helped a plumber hang pipe, but, after the old veteran screwed it up his assignment, the foreman made it abundantly clear that my real job was to keep the plumber out of trouble—the trouble was that he “brown bagged” breakfast at six-thirty in the morning and to cover up his alcohol consumption drank profuse amounts of coffee all day. For restaurant work, I worked the dinner shift at Roy Rogers in Falls Church where I flipped burgers until after eleven and routinely closed out the place. Between construction and restaurant work, by the end of May I was so exhausted that at one point the foreman at the McLean House accused me of having fallen asleep while standing up. Asleep or awake, I earned my summer school expenses in a month.

At William and Mary that summer, I enrolled in principles of economics and calculus, lived in the Jefferson House, and worked washing dishes in George’s Campus Restaurant in Greek Town. I remember economics mostly because my professor smoked cigars blowing smoke and telling stories of his government service and because a pitcher of beer was my favorite study aid. Studying in Jefferson House, known best for its six-inch cockroaches, was a lost cause because of a lack of air conditioning and the intense summer heat. It was cooler washing dishes at George’s Campus Restaurant, where I enjoyed hanging out and got my only real meal of the day.

Out of State at Home

One day I received a letter in the mail from William and Mary informing me that I was being classified as an out-of-state student. This classification, which substantially increased my tuition costs and defeated my primary reason to return to Virginia from Indiana, caused me great distress and with letter in hand I went to visit the college president. The president, sitting behind a figure of three monkeys (hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil) on his desk, quietly explained to me that, because I had an Indiana driver’s license and registered to vote in Indiana, that I was not a resident of Virginia. To that I responded: if I am not a Virginia resident, then what state am I a resident of? My parents no longer reside in Maryland where I grew up; I have never actually lived outside of school in Indiana; and Virginia is my only real home—how can I not be a resident? The legal answer was that I was not “domiciled” in Virginia because I could not at that point in my life know where I would live following graduation and Virginia required that I be domiciled in Virginia.

Domiciled or not, the president had actually done me a favor because William and Mary was not a good fit, both because of the small class sizes and strong influence of fraternities on student housing. The small class size meant that my cigar-smoking professor, who waxed eloquently about the distinguished history of tidewater Virginia to the detriment weightier topics, would be unavoidable. And, although I was not enamored with Jefferson House, I was even less interested in pledging a fraternity, in part, because of their culture and, in part, because of my own independent streak. The parochial outlook on life at William and Mary and the high tuition costs made the college a bad fit.

Iowa State

When I checked expenses at Iowa State University, where my father attended college, they were lower than at William and Mary College. Iowa State had the additional benefits of being closer to my grandparents and of having a nationally-recognized program in agricultural economics, which was of interest. The idea of studying at Iowa State also pleased everyone in my family. When I applied to and was accepted by Iowa State, I felt that I was truly coming home.

Also see: Looking Back

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The Dish Machine

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“But when he came to himself, he said, How many of
my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread,
but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

The Dish Machine

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the fall of my senior year in high school, I used the money that I earned as a camp counselor during the summer at Goshen Scout Camps to buy a new Conn 88h trombone. My interest in music quickly escalated and I announced my interest in studying music in college. My decision to study music came to the chagrin of my music teacher, who being the tuba player in the National Symphony Orchestra, arranged for me to begin lessons with a trombonist, also with the National Symphony Orchestra. Between my trombone, my new teacher, and my new practice schedule, it became clear that I was under-prepared for spring auditions even as I applied to the music department at Indiana University (IU). When I clutched in the audition, unable to play even a Bb scale, I was so ashamed of myself that I gave up the trombone and could not enjoy classical music for more than a decade. Unable to study music, I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana in the fall of 1972 as a freshman without a major.

In the fall, IU registration was a chaotic event in which students entered a large auditorium with tables set up for the different departments and walked between the tables to sign up for classes. Once enrolled in a sufficient number of classes, students stood in line to pay for your tuition before exiting. As I waited in line, I met a volunteer with the Indiana Public Interest Research Group (INPIRG), a student group funded by a tuition checkoff, and he invited me to an organizational meeting to learn more about the group. Intrigued, I checked off INPIRG on my tuition form and attended the meeting where I was elected as a student representative to the INPIRG board of directors.

INPIRG quickly became a home away from home. As an INPIRG director, my friends were mostly law students who identified with Ralph Nader who was famous for his work on automobile safety [1]. Nader’s new book in 1971, Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing, which led to the organization of the student PIRGs [2], such as INPIRG, all over the country. In INPIRG, I chaired the personnel committee which hired an executive director that fall and I directed a new bookstore pricing survey which quickly became popular among students.

My volunteer work as a “Nader Raider” was less popular with my roommate who was a business major. He spent most of his time practicing his putting and ganged up with a student across the hall to torment me when I studied for exams. In view of such torments, I quickly moved into a private room in the German Language House, because of my interest in German literature and language studies, and out of the Graduate Residence Center (GRC).

Still, before I left, GRC helped me expand on my work with INPIRG. More than just the first co-educational dormitory on campus, GRC faculty advisers worked closely with residents to initiate independent study programs. In my case, I developed a program in the spring of my freshman year that allowed me to assist almost full-time in an INPIRG study of Indiana state government offices. My contribution to the study involved studies of two offices: a new state regulator of private schools and the state department of weights and measures. Both studies required travel to Indianapolis to interview state officials, background reading assignments, and lengthy written reports.

Between my independent study project and the bookstore survey, in INPIRG I was heavily involved in political and economic research. This research did not, however, mix well with my other studies, particularly my studies in German literature where I struggled to keep up and where I clearly could not identify with the nihilism so prevalent in postmodern literature. The despair in contemporary literature seriously disturbed me, even though I did not attend church during these years, and I had trouble envisioning a future majoring in literature.

In my distress, I visited a professor in the comparative literature department to seek counsel where I asked: “where should I aspire to attend graduate school if I continue studying comparative literature?” Harvard University, he answered. Then, I asked: “how many IU students have been admitted to graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard University?” None, he answered, stoking my distress.

Being one of the few men living at this point in the German Language House, I sought refuge from my distress in attending the many campus parties that I was invited to. The parties were good, but they kept me up late and Sunday morning I was scheduled to work the dish machine at 6:00 a.m. The early shift on Sunday mornings was lite work because hardly anyone got up for breakfast and I could just sleep—nobody knew; nobody cared.

One Sunday morning I will never forget—I woke up hanging over the dish machine with a terrible hangover from the party the night before. Smarting from the hangover, I resolved that I could not continue doing what I had been doing—bogged down in depressive literature and being manipulated into self-destructive political activism—where I would never finish school or find a career. Knowing from experience that politicians mostly argue about economics and economic studies were doable, that morning I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an economist.

[1] Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1965).

[2] New York: Grossman Publishers.

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