Grad students return with different view

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September 13, 2010

11:08 PM

College is fleeting. For most undergraduates at the College of William and Mary, their time in Williamsburg is four years, a fraction of a lifetime that slips quickly away. A few students, however, manage to extend their stay here by returning for graduate school.

“It’s the best of both worlds, because it’s familiar and new,” Jack Cohen ’10 M.A. ’11 said.

Alumni choose to pursue advanced degrees at the College for many reasons, one of which is often their prior experiences with the school. Not certain he was ready to seek a doctoral degree, Cohen said he enrolled in the College’s masters program in comparative history because it lasts only one year, offers funding, and he already knew his professors.

“It would give me a taste of graduate school but if it was overwhelming it would be finite,” he said. “For one or two years, it’s nice because it’s not a brand new start; you don’t feel like you have to get acclimated all over again, especially for such a short period of time.”

Ryen Rasmus ’09 J.D. ’12 applied to law schools in Virginia because he wanted to take the Virginia State Bar exam. He said he preferred the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College to both Washington and Lee University School of Law and the University of Virginia School of Law.

“It was just a matter of location,” he said. “When William and Mary took me it was like the decision was made for me.”

The School of Education attracts many College students through its fifth-year masters program; Christina Millson ’10, M. Ed. ’11 finished her undergraduate course work in three years to earn her education degree earlier to save time and money. According to Millson, making the decision to stay at the College was easy.

“I didn’t want to leave William and Mary,” she said. “Most of my friends are seniors now. It’s really similar to undergrad for me.”

Although they have already spent years at the College, the graduate students are finding that their lives now differ from those they enjoyed as undergraduates.

“When I first got here it was kind of weird,” Cohen said. “Most of the people I was friends with had graduated. You have a kind of nostalgia.”

According to Rasmus, having younger friends still at the College can be even stranger than feeling like everyone you know has left.

“We had a term — ‘that kid’ — and ‘that kid’ was the kid who came back and had graduated and who would come to meetings [and] parties,” Rasmus said. “Every now and then it’s nice to see an alumnus, but … people are like, ‘Why is he here? Is he doing a fifth year?’ I was very conscious of that. I did not want to be ‘that kid’ at all.”

Cohen and Millson have continued some of their undergraduate activities, including playing in the orchestra and wind symphony, respectively. The College’s graduate schools also offer clubs and hold social events. A few weeks ago Cohen attended a History Graduate Student Association picnic in Colonial Williamsburg. Rasmus participates in the Student Intellectual Property Society and the Alternative Dispute Resolution Group, in addition to writing for a law journal.

While they have new opportunities for professional development and socializing, the graduate students say they miss the campus activities they enjoyed as undergraduates, which still take place close by.

“I miss all the little things that would go on on campus that you could do for entertainment, like Screen on the Green,” Rasmus said. “I still go to Sinfonicron and the musicals. It’s just the little things.”

While Millson lives in the Randolph Complex as a Resident Assistant, Cohen and Rasmus are adjusting to life in off-campus apartments. Cohen is living in the Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Graduate Complex with two of his freshman hallmates. Rasmus lives alone and said it’s been strange not to see familiar faces crossing the Sunken Garden each day.

“Anyone who has ever lived off campus knows it’s weird to not be in the middle of everything,” Rasmus said. “You’re isolated from the whole general population of students.”

His location has not prevented him from befriending his law school classmates, some of whom are married or have children or live as far away as Richmond and Virginia Beach.

“You still have collegiality,” Rasmus said. “It’s just you don’t walk there — you get in your car and drive.”
For some alumni, the familiarity of Williamsburg is a compelling reason to attend graduate school at the College. For Cohen, however, the town’s charm has begun to fade.

“After four years the sentimentality of Williamsburg has kind of worn off,” he said. “Next year I really see myself in somewhere like [Washington], D.C., with a young crowd, a bit more to do. The College is like an island in the town, so the College is young but the town itself is not very young.”

With friends moved away, harder class work and more adult responsibilities, alumni who return for graduate school find their existences recognizable, but slightly altered.

“It’s not quite home anymore,” Cohen said.

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