It isn't often that I feel out of touch with the world, mostly because my particular generation has only just reached the point where there is anyone around old enough to scratch out a gap wide enough to tumble into. But today I had the chance to visit my old university, SFU
At first glance, things seemed much the same. The main campus sprawl still consisted of an artful scattering of concrete blocks, lent the odd splash of colour by an activist's poster or two. The fountain by the Main Mall was still a filthy disgrace with tiles missing, incomprehensible art pieces from our Fine Arts department still confounded the casual passersby, and the fish pond had accumulated its regular winter coat of algae, scum, and concentrated neglect. Ah, memories. They ran deep for this humble, but respectable institution.
However, this initial familiarity only served to make my subsequent discoveries that much more jarring. My wife, a grad student, had futilely warned me that I'd be surprised at the changes. Mentally shrugging, I figured that there would be a few new residence complexes, rumours of which even I had managed to pick up on. But as I crested the last hill leading up to the main bus loop, 'surprise' isn't quite the word for my reaction. 'Surreal disbelief' comes a bit closer. Where before there had been nothing but trees and the lake of pavement and steel that was Parking Lot B, now stood the beginnings of a commercial district reminiscent of Whistler Village.
A babbling, and sparkling clean I might add, stonework fountain system heralded the entrance to the Renaissance Coffee bar, where even now I sit as I write this, munching on the best scone I've had in years. Any fellow alumni happening upon this entry will undoubtedly be a bit perplexed by this last statement. "Renaissance Coffee?" one might query. "When I
went to SFU, Renaissance Coffee was an unpresumptuous little stand that hawked beverages deep inside the bowels of the Academic Quadrangle. The only way to be 'inside' Renaissance Coffee would be if you were the one or two people who worked there." No longer, my fellow gappees. Now it's a trendy little Bread Gardenesque cafe with a full kitchen, leather chairs, a fake fireplace, and a plasma television screen on the wall. And this is just the beginning. A little haven of yuppiedom extends from this point on for about a city block, its outermost tendrils hungrily eyeing the nearby wilderness. Within, shops selling everything from fine cuts of meat, to baked goods, to medical services nestle beneath a 3 story high apartment complex.
Now this may not sound like much to people from schools couched in actual cities, and in fact it really isn't
all that much. But to the hermit kingdom that is SFU, a school who redefined the term "ivory tower" by placing itself atop a mountain, this is a huge step. I mean geez, during my very last semester up there I remember it being a big deal that we were getting a Mr. Sub on campus. More than the changes themselves, I think what most surprised me was what they signified. My old Uni, which for the 6 years of my attendance had stood cryogenically frozen, had Changed. And it didn't even ask me first.
I feel like an old man tormenting the youngsters with tales of the deep, dark past: "When 'I' went here, we didn't have no fancy coffee shops with things like 'chairs' or 'tables'. We bought our coffee from vending machines in the halls, drank it standing up, AND we had to walk up and down 5 flights of stairs to get even that! Aaaand weeee lllloved it!" (Blatant rip off of an old SNL skit, yes I know.)
I must confess though, the part of my ego that has gotten over the shock has done so by graduating to feelings of jealousy. Where was all this when I went here??? Hell, if we had had even a grocery store up on the hill, I might have considered living on res during my degree. Now the school has its own butchers and real-estate agents (a fortuitous pairing, no?) Just around the corner from Renaissance, I see that a new pub is even in the works. In my mind's eye, I can already see our dedicated undergrads diligently working their way through a pint of microbrew while pretending to discuss their coursework, after which they can stumble 'round the corner to their apartments a mere half a block away.
For as long as I can recall, SFU has long been chided for being a relatively unsocial university. As near as I can tell, there are two reasons for this:
- There was nothing up here: No really, I mean it. Nuh-thing. A company named Chartwells, which as near as my memory recalls is an organization that makes its living by passing off styrofoam recycling plants as student cafeterias, had a nearly exclusive contract to provide food to the University, and they profiteered until the very stones of mountain itself gave blood. The only place to get a drink was the student run Highland Pub, where the food was decent, but the atmosphere a bit too relaxed. The employees, while nice, tended to glare at you a little resentfully when you politely inquired as to whether they were done killing the cow so that they could kindly hurry up and finish cooking your damned burger sometime before the end of the semester.
- It is in the middle of nowhere: SFU is a superb school with great courses, an amazing collection of profs who treat their students as fellow human beings, and a view of Burrard Inlet that is to die for. But it's on the top of a fricking mountain. Without ownership of a car, the possibility of staying up here past 6 is a little disconcerting. Most students trundle up the hill for their classes and roll straight back down afterwards, with a predictability envied by pendulums. The slightest indication of snowfall generally sends students scattering for fear of becoming trapped and forced to resort to cannibalism (Not to be confused with Cannabissism, a practice which flourishes among those brave few who actually do live on campus. Given the bleak surroundings in which they subsist, this is perhaps unsurprising.).
Problem number 1 seems like it may be on its way out. Problem number 2 is a little stickier, mountains being the immovable objects that they are, but then the situation has already been improved a little by the placing of a monorail terminal at the foot of the hill. Ironically enough, this terminal opened the very semseter after I stopped going there. Oh cruel fate, why do you mock me.
In sum: Glad to see things changing for what appears to be the better. Bitter that the changes didn't happen while I could take advantage of them. Maybe this is fate's way of rapping my knuckles for not continuing on to grad school.