Dramatically lit freshmen draped in $1,200 cashmere scarves were not the only contribution that Wesleyan students made to this past Sunday’s “college issue” of The New York Times Magazine.

Three Wesleyan students submitted essays to the Times’ “College Essay Contest,” which challenged writers to address the current state of college in the United States. While not chosen as winners, their submissions appear on the New York Times website in a database of the 450 essays the paper received.

The contest asked students to respond to Rick Perlstein’s essay entitled “What’s the Matter with College?” and published in The New York Times Magazine. Perlstein, a noted historian and senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, argued that the college experience has undergone profound changes since the mid-1960’s, when the University of California Berkeley commanded national attention for its radical student activism.

As Perlstein tells it, a large number of current college students are unhappy at college. Students who are content, he argues, look at college not as a private mecca of self-discovery and personal transformation, but as one step towards career development.

“[Modern college students have] embraced a worldview in which erasing the distinction between the university and the world outside it is the entire point,” Perlstein wrote. “Some of these kids, indeed, might end up having more of a ‘college’ experience when they enter the workplace than beforehand.”

The submissions by Katie Boyce-Jacino ’10, Vanessa Kurzweil ’07 and Toni Latimer ’09 all address Perlstein’s concerns to some extent, though Kurzweil’s essay confronted his assertions most directly.

In her essay “Commonplace? Or a Common Space?” Kurzweil concedes that, in the era of U.S. News and World Report rankings, perhaps the modern-day university has lost a bit of its endearing unpredictability. However, she writes, given the expansion in the number of students attending college, particularly students of color, women and students from high-need socioeconomic backgrounds, those who mourn the loss of a privileged vision of the collegiate experience are forced to make a choice.

“A social institution can be widely accessible, so common that its attainment is a presumption, not an aspiration,” Kurzweil wrote. “Or, it can narrow its gates just wide enough to let an aura of mystery and romance shine through, and thereby maintain its status in the popular imagination. It cannot do both.”

Boyce-Jacino and Latimer’s submissions also refer to past and present day university experiences, but also confront the enduring question of campus activism.

In both their essays and in interviews with the Argus, the authors expressed their exasperation with the hallowed image of the 60’s campus radical, often perpetuated by those closest to them.

Latimer began her essay, entitled “Decline of the Teenage Wasteland,” by paraphrasing her mother’s low opinion of current student activism. She said that this generational disagreement was among the reasons she chose to submit her essay in the first place.

“My stepfather challenged me to enter the contest after reading Mr. Perlstein’s essay,” Latimer told the Argus by e-mail on Monday from Amsterdam, where she is studying for the semester. “My mother and I have played the generational blame game over the origins of modern student ‘apathy’ for some time now, and I think [that my uncle] viewed The New York Times contest as a means by which to prove my case in the more rational form of the written word.”

Boyce-Jacino also saw connections between Perlstein’s thoughts and her parents’ mindset.

“The guy who wrote the essay was obviously trying to incite responses,” she told the Argus. “It’s like your parents saying they walked twenty miles uphill in the snow.”

In her essay “We The Students,” Boyce-Jacino posits that the modern college campus has not become less active, but rather has shifted from a monolithic political and social organization to a more diverse and less centralized collection of student groups.

“[This division] would have been a bad thing forty years ago, when the college generation needed unity to be heard by a parent generation so different from its own,” she wrote. “But now, we don’t want to be united. We want to be free to explore our own passions, and support our own causes. College campuses can’t be considered as single units, but as a wildly diverse community of individuals.”

For Boyce-Jacino, coming to these conclusions has been a process. She admits that, when she first arrived on campus, she and her friends expressed disappointment at the seeming lack of large-scale campus activism that many perceive to be central to Wesleyan’s personality.

By the time Boyce-Jacino sat down to write her essay this past August, however, her perceptions had shifted.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying we’re apathetic,” she said. “It’s just a matter of choosing whether to take part in it. The activism is not always wild and crazy and attention-getting. Discounting activism today is the easy way out. To discount it is perpetuating the perception.”

Latimer sees perceived campus identity crises as symptoms of a far more insidious governmental crackdown on all forms of activism, particularly student activism. A self-described “activist for the cause of marijuana legislation,” Latimer used a basis of legal knowledge to describe how several current federal laws restrict student movement.

For example, she writes about how the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, passed in 2006, “renders even nonviolent forms of protest to be terrorist acts-if said protest causes a business economic damages.” These damages can include customers who would theoretically have entered a business establishment but may have chose not to due to protestors.

“The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act renders protests in the name of animal rights to be acts of terrorism; when you consume drugs (which fuel idealism in a world gone mad) you are a terrorist; participation in revolution, tantamount to the college experience, is tantamount to terrorism,” Latimer wrote in an e-mail.

Latimer and Boyce-Jacino also differed on the future of the campus activist. Latimer ends her essay with a somewhat bleak description of last May’s divestment protest in front of North College. She describes students chalking and chanting in support of their cause and how their efforts were met with a lack of response by the University.

“…As a loyal Wesleyan student, I felt the need to conclude my essay by partially exonerating my own institution—sympathizing with the active student body, lamenting the more fiduciary-minded administration (this division seems to be paralleled in many liberal colleges),” Latimer said via e-mail.

Boyce-Jacino, however, strikes a note of cautious optimism in her essay, pointing to the connectivity of the internet, combined with a divergent array of student causes, as the next step in campus activism.

“There is no great ‘clash of the generations’ anymore,” she wrote. “There isn’t as much of a need to challenge the existing order, as there is to improve it. College then prepared us to confront the world. Now it prepares us to meet it.”

To read the essays in full, go to www.nytimes.com/magazine. The essay submission database can be searched by school. Note: Kaliel Johnson, the author of “Sign of the Times,” under the Wesleyan headline, attends Texas Wesleyan.

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