Several years ago, Professor Richard Light wrote “Making The Most of College,” a book based on interviews he conducted over 10 years with Harvard seniors.

Professor Light asked students about their most memorable learning experiences and expected them to describe something that happened in a classroom. However, he wrote, “When we asked students to think of a specific, critical incident, or moment that had changed them profoundly, 80 percent chose a situation or event outside of the classroom.”

Rare are alums who look back on their college days to recall a life-changing lecture on ionic bonding. What we remember are professors who challenged, encouraged, even frustrated us; long hours spent in late night discussions with roommates when we should have been preparing for classes; and, yes, the parties, big games, and relationships begun in youth that strengthened over the years.

This past weekend, eight guys I met at USC gathered again to celebrate friendships stretching back 50 years. Seven grew up in the gritty neighborhoods of Compton and South Central Los Angeles and each has achieved remarkable success in life.

Brian is a physician, father and grandfather. James, a former IBM engineer, recently completed a term on the San Jose Grand Jury. My roomie, Michael, was a longtime partner in his law firm who travels annually to Uganda to support struggling families.

Joe C. is a marine biologist and college professor who continues to inspire students from backgrounds like his own. Larry, is longtime investment advisor enjoying retirement; Joe R., a recently retired San Jose orthodontist, handcrafts custom knives. Stan is a videographer, who faced down cancer this past year.

We also raised a toast to Otis, who died at 28 at the beginning of a promising career at 20th Century Fox.

As a college dean, I frequently told stories about my classmates to inspire and motivate countless students. I spoke about their successes and shared their trials and tribulations as models of what can be achieved through determination, persistence and hard work.

Professor Light is among researchers finding that students who study together are more successful. I once asked our group for advice for success to share with students and those seeking to advise and guide students. They talked about the support we provided for each other beyond the classroom.

We were what have come to be called “posses” on college campuses. Since our majors ranged from English to Psychology to Physics, and business, we didn’t provide much subject matter assistance. However, after classes we often met in the Tutorial Office initiated by Joe C., where bid whist and tall tale telling re-energized us after long days of classes and labs, as we struggled to thrive on a campus very different from our neighborhoods and communities.

Like most students, our families provided the foundation, examples, and sustenance needed to travel the long road to our goals and destinations. Although I was a journeyman cashier at a Berkeley Co-op supermarket, my long Afro prevented me from getting hired in Southern California. So, Mike and I spent many cool evenings waiting in my car in front of the Western Union Office for my mom to wire extra money for food and rent.

Several of us remembered sitting together when an Admissions Office tour stopped by with a group of high school girls, one of whom Michael later married. Last weekend, Jimmy showed a photo he and his wife, Susan, had recently taken at the same campus spot where they met nearly 50 years earlier.

We also talked about the different world today’s students experience — both on and off-campus. I recollected early morning street races against LA police officers. Our Black Student Union members gathered with Young Republicans to protect Tommy Trojan’s statue from UCLA vandals.

We chose majors based on what excited us and none of worried about getting jobs after completing our studies. Tuition was affordable with financial aid, work study, summer jobs, and some help from families. Most of us hadn’t borrowed to pay for undergraduate school.

We never doubted but that we would own our homes and be able to provide greater security for our families than we had experienced. While worrying about the futures for our children and grandchildren, each of us takes pride in what they have managed to accomplish.

Like many college kids from “back in the day,” we are forever grateful for the days of our youth when our paths first crossed, and for all that still binds us together these many years later.

Note: A group of my St. Mary’s High School buddies continue to gather several times a year and we are thinking of our classmate, Joe McNally, and all the people of Paradise and elsewhere who have lost their homes and loved ones in the recent fires.

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He is currently a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to help more students to succeed. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean@tbrownassociates.com

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