Off To University


NEAR THE GEOGRAPHIC CENTER of UC Davis stands a three-story building with a stucco facade and 35-foot wall of rectangular windows that curve like an oil tanker’s bow and threaten to expose the learning center’s chest cavity for inspection. This is the John D. Kemper Hall of Engineering. Tomorrow’s engineers—chemical, industrial, aerospace, electrical and computer—are trained behind the glass wall, schooled in calculated certainties. But sometimes, amid all that precision, things go haywire in unpredictably human ways. 

Not visible through Kemper Hall’s panoramic windows, a locked room on the first floor hides a sheltered space, cozy and warm, where numbers mean nothing and soft science reigns. This is where those budding engineers can be put back together when they threaten to fall apart under the pressure of higher education. “We are here for them,” says Elena Herrera, occupant of the cozy shelter and accredited with a doctorate degree in psychology, not engineering. “Sometimes, without calling attention to it because they’re engineers, our students need help.” She adds, “It can be difficult for them to seek assistance, so we try to remove any stigma of asking for help. That’s why we’re located here in Kemper Hall, without any big signs.” 

There was a time when the meanderings of Putah Creek south of Kemper Hall could inspire heroic sessions of lascivious research among University of California freshmen—seedlings planted in the fertile sod of Yolo County. Liberated from parental gaze and at large for the first time, kids would be kids. They would try too hard, drink too much, make dumb choices and leave hopeful wisdom behind, forgotten in the pages of their high school yearbooks. The actor John Vernon poked a finger at this phenomenon with his seminal line from the 1978 college movie “Animal House,” when he told a certain freshman, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” Generations of sons (and daughters) tried anyway. 

Now the beer has gone a bit flat. Freshmen arrive at universities with presumptive entry to the garden of perfection. (Tuition loans come due later.) Today’s university freshmen, kids who spent their last four years under the grindstone of Advanced Placement classes and SAT tutorials when they weren’t studying violin, training for water polo and volunteering at the animal shelter, present at college undefeated yet paranoid by the whisper of failure. At UC Davis, the average freshman arrives with a 4.07 grade-point average and standardized test scores of 1924 on the SAT and 28 on the ACT. The important word here: average. 

They are wound tight. They are as competitive as thoroughbreds. They have even dropped the humbling title “freshman”— today’s relevant identifier is “first year.” And they are demonstrably obsessed with their images, as expressed by the sweaty yoga mats, weight rooms and treadmills that fill the sprawling Activities and Recreation Center at UC Davis. The ARC is one of UCD’s largest and busiest buildings. Likewise crowded is the Peter J. Shields Library, where normal hours are 7:30 a.m. to midnight. The lights burn until 2 a.m. during finals week. Good luck finding fat, drunk and stupid there. 

The presence of Elena Herrera in the Kemper engineering building, discreet and unadvertised, speaks to the university’s recognition of the 21st century’s college student. At Kemper, Herrera’s residency is driven by need, especially among first-generation and minority students, rock stars in high school devastated by their first glimpse at mediocrity with a “C” in electromagnetics, or worse. These students are their families’ bright hopes, honored and beloved and accustomed to unobstructed views from the mountaintop. At college, the mountain is hidden in the clouds. Herrera meets with students unaccustomed to their sudden academic struggles and explains that imperfection is normal and expected. 

“We are especially sensitive to the student who may find themselves alone. Maybe for the first time in their lives, nobody looks like them or sounds like them,” Herrera says. “The coursework here is very rigorous, and it can be overwhelming even to a high-achieving student, especially in a discipline like engineering. They start to fall behind, and they feel disillusioned. They may not verbalize their feelings, but they may start to isolate themselves. At the resident halls, our staff and RAs (resident assistants) are trained to look for that and can refer them to us.” Most of her work involves one-on-one therapy—listening to problems and making suggestions—but Herrera will refer her student-clients to her mental health colleagues as necessary. 

As if contemporary university life doesn’t have enough pressure, in the wings lurks another species of carnivore poised to cause anxiety: the parent. Gone are the days when the journey to college marked the end of parental responsibility and authority, the dinner plate broken, the child ushered into the world of adulthood with a pat on the back and a reminder to phone home. Today’s college parent is accustomed to connectivity 24/7 with his or her progeny. Smartphones mean Mom can text daily, or hourly. And she expects a response. Colleges devote significant resources to strategically harnessing parental support—the grown-ups still control the checkbooks—while weaning a student from round-the-clock homeland surveillance. Support ranges from freshman orientation sessions that include financial seminars exclusively for parents to “family services” staff members who keep parents in the collegiate loop with email invitations to campus events. 

​“Our job is to break the bond with parents, so to speak, to create a positive separation,” says Samuel Jones, director of housing at Sacramento State University. “Some parents are sitting at home doing all of their student’s applications, even pretending to be the student online. We can always tell when it’s really the parent. We let them know, please, it’s time to let your student manage these things for him or herself. It’s time for them to learn leadership skills.”

Sac State has only 1,700 residential students among its 29,000 undergraduates, but the dorm halls that bloom on the north end of campus provide the university’s most inspired collegiate environment, where students relax around the dining commons and swim complex and counterbalance the school’s commuter-centric legacy. Like his colleagues at UC Davis, Jones reports the era of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll is largely an outdated stereotype at Sac State. 

“That’s not the way it works anymore,” he says. “College is hard to get into, and it’s a big financial investment. Of course, some students still test the limits. And some get in trouble. But those are usually the ones who don’t want to be here in the first place. They move on.”

Around Sacramento, most stay. UC Davis and Sacramento State have high freshman retention rates—93 percent at UCD and 82 percent at Sac State. Nationally, 64 percent of public university freshmen stay for the second year.

IT’S LATE SPRING, and Mikaela Tenner focuses her eyes on her laptop as she studies for her new food service job at The Coffee House in Memorial Union at UC Davis. A third-year Political Sciences and International Relations double major from Glendale, she somehow has time on her hands and wants to stay busy. So she goes to work. She helps pay for an education that includes rising tuition, meals and an apartment off campus.

“They usually don’t hire freshmen for campus jobs because they figure they don’t know enough and need time to adjust,” she says. “But once you get past your first year, it’s easy to get a job. And I like having things to do.”

Beyond a lonely few first weeks away from home, Tenner made a smooth transition from high school to college. Her parents visit from Southern California on Picnic Day and report satisfaction with the university’s treatment, value and security. Mikaela’s brother, Ben, will be a UC Davis sophomore this coming academic year. Says mom Kristina Tenner, “Our kids adapted very quickly to their new life.”

Both Tenner children spent their first year as tenants in UC Davis dorms, surrounded by other freshmen and watched over, at least to some degree, by resident assistants who weave the safety net of residential life. The family credits the RAs with creating an environment both welcoming and nurturing. While they don’t enforce curfew (there is no such thing, despite requests by some parents), the RAs do guide new students into social events and keep parties sober by enforcing no-alcohol rules on dorm floors. 

The safety net was tested this past fall for the Tenner family, when Mikaela decided to study abroad and enrolled for a semester at Sciences Po in Paris, a university where the children of wealthy French families study politics. Life was good—the student from Davis lived with a clan of bankers in a mansion in the 15th Arrondissement—until Tenner took a trip from la rive gauche to Italy. She passed out in a Milan train station and was hospitalized. Tests showed she was fine, but she was held for observation, and Kristina Tenner, alerted by Facebook, headed to the airport.

“Thankfully, the UC study abroad program insisted that we take out an insurance policy to pay for a parental visit in case of emergency,” Mikaela’s father, Paul Tenner, says. “My wife was able to make a quick trip to Italy to see our daughter. Our experiences with study abroad were positive, but they were not exactly the norm.”

AS TUITION AND DORM COSTS HAVE RISEN (for California residents, the annual bill tops $34,000 at UC campuses and $23,000 at California State University schools), expectations from parents and schools have billowed and landed on the freshman, who quickly realizes college life has little tolerance for dumb mistakes. Dropping below a “C” average can jeopardize financial grants. A cavalier switch in majors can add another year of studies—and another $34,000. Breaking rules can lead to discipline hearings, probation and expulsion. 

“You have to learn time management and self-discipline, or else,” Mikaela Tenner says. And while large public universities hire psychologists and provide support for struggling students, the obligation to engage those services rests almost exclusively with the student. By law (or without a waiver), schools can’t discuss grades or health with parents. Says Branden Petitt, UC Davis’ director of student development and housing, “Rule of thumb is, there are basically two types of students who don’t make it here: those who needed help and didn’t ask for it, and those who asked for help too late.” 

No university admits a student hoping the student will fail. A better strategy is to stop ill-equipped students at the door—which explains the emphasis on high grades and towering scores on standardized tests—while making sure admitted students can navigate the new environments and layered complexities of college campuses 10 times larger than big public high schools. 

Mary Shepherd at Sacramento State and Becky Heard at UC Davis help plan comprehensive orientation programs for new students and parents: two-day affairs when the total campus experience, from intramural sports to clubs to fraternities to health care and professorial office hours, is brought into focus. The event typically closes after freshmen are instructed to line up, present themselves to an academic adviser and register for classes, generally 12 units or fewer to ease the transition. At Sac State, professional residential staff members emphasize the approachability of professors, encouraging freshmen to visit their teachers after class during office hours. 

The arrival of new students can be a moving moment. Heard, UC Davis’ parent programs director, once nudged her husband from slumber at 2 a.m. and dispatched him to the Davis train station, where they welcomed a freshman (plus luggage) from Southern California. The young man’s disabled mother couldn’t make the journey, so the lad traveled alone. “In a case like that, parents will have my cell number,” Heard says. “It goes with the territory.” Not every parent gets Heard’s private phone number. She follows her instincts, basing her level of support on a family’s collegiate experience, circumstances and ability to navigate the university environment. 

At Sacramento State, Shepherd takes special delight in greeting the freshmen whose parents know their way around the place, from Lassen Hall to the coffee bar at The University Union. “Some parents will tell us they went here and don’t need a tour. They’ll wander around and take it all in, marveling at how much things have changed since they were Sac State students,” she says. “I really enjoy seeing that.”