March is a particularly fine month to be a college student. Finals are a long way off, class discussions have moved beyond the awkward phase, everyone has a few new followers on Instagram…and then there’s Spring Break. The best part of college is not even being there, right? According to the Huffington Post, Spring Break in Cancun is so good that they have to guard it with Marines. 25,000 spring breakers went to Cancun last year, and they are expecting 43,000 this year! This is a big number, so I’ll offer a point of comparison: it’s as if every man, woman, and child in my hometown suddenly took their shirts off, poured fruity drinks, and then stopped all traffic in the streets in order to have a dance party. That’s an unfathomable amount of Harlem Shaking. (Sorry, I will not be linking to any youtube clips.)
Spring Break is epic, but is it suitable subject matter for a serious blog about higher education? Generally, I consult the industry bellwethers when weighing blog topics, but I took a flyer this week and conferred with another sort of higher education professional – my friend, who has been in school for nearly his entire thirty years of life. He’s currently working on an English PhD from NYU, his fourth degree. He is a professional student. “Write about what you know,” he said. Simple advice from a wise man? Perhaps. After three degrees, you know a lot. Trust me, I know him. Yet, to describe the life of a professional student is difficult. Hence, Spring Break…
Spring Break is seize the day, and live for the pleasure of now. Spring Break is 24 hours of party in a sunny place. Spring Break is spending money. Spring Break is not thinking about the higher purpose of life, or considering how every personal decision affects the trajectory of a career. (Just Google it.) Spring Break is posts that should be deleted, and late night video clips that will some day cease to make sense. In the way that Las Vegas’ life without rules represents everything normal adult life is not, Spring Break is a telling opposite of the professional student life.
The professional student does not “seize the day”, but does know that the phrase comes from the Latin, Carpi Diem. The professional student lives on student loans in a studio apartment. The professional student divides the hours of the day between work and waste (time that should be spent working). The professional student learns a difficult second language over the course of years, (Latin, Code, multivariate Calculus, or Arabic), because someday, far in the future, she will have a medical degree, a job with NASA, or a position at the UN. The professional student deletes his Facebook account because it’s a frivolous distraction.
Professional Student or Spring Breaker, who are you? In truth, most of us are a bit of both. We’ve all had classes, tests, papers, and finals that turned us into professional students for brief periods of time. We’ve all made decisions and sacrifices with future hopes in mind. The stress and drudgery of studying for tomorrow, as much as the fruity drinks, makes Spring Break great.
Maybe all of this is obvious. My friend’s the smart one. What we need to understand is his daily drive. Why isn’t he drawn to the allure of the Spring Break life? 43,000 people, a small town, believe Cancun Spring Break is so good that Marines are needed to guard it.
So, this is what I know he knows. Though he wouldn’t turn down a trip to a tropical island, he has read, elsewhere, that there are ways to re-imagine the possibilities of “work” and “play”. What we may see as the boring facts of the professional student’s life – reading all night in bed or at the library – are, for him, life affirming acts that transform daily life into riveting, moment-to-moment existence. He constantly encounters new thoughts as events; he arrives at ideas as others arrive at the airport ready for a trip to the tropics. Some would say we can have both “work” and “play”; the professional student might say, all can be “play”.