College can be like a slow-motion entrance into adulthood. A new level of responsibility comes with the freedom to choose what to learn. But since someone is still cooking the meals, there's plenty of time to wonder how to feel relevant in a complex world.
Before Sept. 11, there were so many causes to choose from. In recent years, activist groups have linked up under the umbrella of antiglobalization. Even so, the issues were splintered, as they were when I was in college. Then, people organized around everything from preserving abortion rights to eliminating pornography.
We even had a war back then, but by the time the yellow ribbons went up and the protesters prostrated themselves on the sidewalks, Kuwait was liberated.
Having gathered with housemates around the TV, wondering what it meant to be going to war, I can only imagine how different life must feel to students whose main concerns two weeks ago were classes and jobs. During the Gulf War, we debated US motives and means, but it was possible to see the conflict as distant. Not this time. Most college students are only a degree or two of separation from those who have lost friends or family. An abstract debate at a cafe would now seem a luxury.
Today's lead story hints at the sense of purpose that's emerging from grief and confusion. Students' reactions are a kaleidoscope: planning open forums, signing up for courses on international relations, joining the military, thinking about sensitive ways to protest. Instead of being gently nudged into maturity, they have been rudely awakened. But they aren't knocked down. More than ever before, they're standing up.