Friday, August 11, 2006

Feeling Disoriented, But Fortunately Today There's An Orientation

This is seriously what pops up if you Google Image "International Students":




For the past few days, I've been dealing with some administrative business--registering for classes (someone, in their evil genius, decided to classify LLM students as "entering" students with no ability to enroll until the week before school starts (whereas continuing students enrolled last Spring) without giving them priority enrollment, and thus all desirable seminars are full); getting my student ID (picture time); deciding what school sweatshirt to buy (none, waiting to see if the currently closed bookstore provides official law school gear rather than just the larger university name--yes, that distinction is important to me); randomly saying hi to a professor from my old law school who happened to be here this week for a conference (one of those moments that trips you out, until you realize it's just going to become more normal as your career progresses); and stopping by the Advanced Legal Studies office for some advice (more on that later).

There is much that is different about this new school of mine. And by "different," I mean "compared to my old school" rather than "compared to anything I have ever experienced." Dude, I already went to law school, it's going to be more of the same (classes, papers) but with a heftier tuition (cursed LLM price) and higher stakes (more on that later). I am viewing this as a "do-over," which is great--I get to go to law school again (something I enjoyed, except for, you know, people/grades/social scene. I think I now know how transfers must feel--you can't help but compare schools, even with a fresh start and a new crowd of faces. It's one thing to go from college to law school--you can't compare them, that's like comparing apples and oranges. You may remark on some architectural dissimilarities, but really, law schools operate so independent of the wider university that you really can't even compare that. A law school is usually this weird, free-standing building with a separate library, cafeteria (usually bad), bookstore, everything. You can go to law school and hardly venture out to the rest of the campus. In fact, most students hardly explore their campus. During first semester finals my 1L year, I remember the bookstore brought out a table of law school t-shirts for last minute Christmas gifts for family (so, so sad, we law students, that we couldn't leave the library to buy our crappy gifts down the hallway). That is a shame, this insularity--because there is much that is interesting and worth exploration a few buildings away. There certainly is at Liberal College (which is beautiful), much more so than at Liberal College Law School (which is ugly). You come to law school from college without any expectations, preconceived notions, or basis of comparison. It's a pure state. Not so when you come with personal knowledge of another lawschool's geography, administrative workings, faculty gossip, etc. You come to your new school, and like one comparing a new relationship to a previous one (with a good deal of baggage, like say a transcript), you constantly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each. But the problem is, memory erases the flaws of the old, but throws into high relief the flaws of the new.

I hate to compare my current school to my old law school, but I have to straight out say it--my old school was much nicer looking. Beautiful even. Modern, but nicely done in brick with nice touches like courtyards and towers. Perhaps a little lower in rank and prestige, but in architecture and layout--totally superior. Especially compared to my new law school. On the edge of a beautiful, neoclassic and art deco campus, is probably the ugliest and most confounding law school ever. Granted, I've only been to school 3 times in this month (hey, I work from home, I went on vacation, I'm busy)--but every time I go there, I get lost. Literally, walking round and round corridors and hallways trying to find the right stairways and elevators (I feel like I'm in the Winchester House). What with the central part of the school that houses some, but not all of the administrative offices and part of the library; the two additions on either side of the central part that have different staircases and elevators such that you can't get from one side to the other; the fact that if you go from one side of the building to the other you end up on different floors, the weirdness of the library being one corridor and one reading room and the rest of the actual books hidden above and below ground; the trick of figuring where to find the proper administrative figure or faculty given that there is no centralized directory (look it up before hand)---all of this, and I am just feeling a little bit of freshman phobia.

I am happy to be here, but I have a weird feeling of displacement. I remember getting lost my first day of law school, but not like this. I miss the familiar hallways, the friendly faces of the administrative staff I knew by first name and biographical detail (one guy did improv comedy at a local club and fiction writing on the side, another was the sister of one of my classmates, both attended law school parties), the ease with which I could navigate the library (all in one tidy, 4 story building with a tower room, mezzanine, and basement thanks very much), the handy guide in the main hallway listing all the offices of administrators' and professors' room numbers. Now I'm at a new school, in a new program. I had finally figured out a few things by my 3L year: where to score "free" paper for your personal printer; where to go to make "free" copies; which orgs gave out the best free (no quotes this time) pizza during their talks; which professors were good to take, where the best places were to study in our (beautiful) library ; and what kinds of cookies the staff at the Records Office liked (kidding). Right now, I know nothin'. I have no clue who to see for which type of question. I keep asking the wrong people. I ask the people at the LLM office about something, they direct me to the Director of my program, who then directs me to the Dean of Student Services, and before you know it I feel like I'm in a Kafka novel. Except I don't even know where the gatekeepers are, much less who they are.

So I'm feeling a little bit disoriented. Fortunately, I have my LLM Orientation today (well, in a few hours, no I don't sleep much).

Law school orientations are always fun. Especially at schools with better endowments. I am hoping for good muffins and bagels at the "continental" breakfast in the Biff and Muffy Harrington Courtyard at Liberal College Law School, and you can bet I'll be comparing them to the baked goods served at the Herb and Judy Sterling Courtyard at Bourgie Law School. It is always dicey meeting people while eating though. Even if they're easy to consume, one-handed carb confections. Then again, it's always dicey meeting new people. You meet your fellow students, smile so much you have to apply extra anti-wrinkle cream at night, and pretend to be interested in everything people have to say and desperately grasp at some thread of commonality upon which to propel the conversation (and hopeful friendship) forward. "I too, love sandwiches!" is basically the pathetic kinds of straws you're going to be clutching at in any awkward, forced first social gathering of so many people from so many different places and backgrounds.

Imagine doing that, as an American who took ancient Latin in college, with a bunch of foreigners. I'm not being xenophobic--I love meeting international students--that's how you get good travel tips and future places to stay at for free. It's like one big happy International Coca-Cola commerical (I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony. I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company...). I'm just saying, it's going to be hard for me, a person who is still too poor to afford expensive vacations (I had to save up to get a tent at Yosemite), to talk to the world-weary jetsetters. Fortunately, I read widely and did a minor concentration in international studies in college, so if you're from somewhere where wars happen or where literature was written (um, everywhere), chances are we have something to talk about. ("I too, hate genocide" and "I too, love the reading of books"). Seriously--those who do not live should read. I had extensive conversations with an Austrian LLM at my old school about Arthur Schnitzler's "The Road Into The Open," Schubert's lieder, and the wacko Freedom party run by the truly xenophobic (and somewhat fascist) Jorg Haider. I can talk to anyone about anything. But I'll have those skills severely tested today.

Not that I'll need to talk and be sociable all the time. There is a lot of talking at you during an Orientation. So here are my predictions for how the Orientation will go:

There will be the inevitable tour of the (architecturally bewildering, probably built during the beginning of the brutalist movement and expanded during the ugly-80's movement, but I am just speculating as to the reasons for its ugliness) law school. There will be the "welcome" address given by the Dean and the Director of the Advanced Legal Studies program, and maybe a few faculty. We will be told how GREAT the school is. We will be told how GREAT the faculty is. We will be told how GREAT (and select and thus special) we are. We will be told that because the school, the faculty, and the students are so GREAT, we will continue on to do GREAT things. We will be told that with GREATNESS, there is responsibility. We will be told to do that which is "right" rather than that which is merely "easy." We will be told that first impressions and relationships last even longer than the grades on our transcript. We will be told that our school is a special school, because contrary to popular belief (and as compared to other schools), our school is the nice, non-competitive one, where everyone likes each other. Why, even the faculty are friends, often having dinner together. We will be told that the faculty are not only GREAT, they're also really nice, so you can expect to have significant mentoring relationships with your professors. Why, some of the professors go hiking with their students or invite their classes over for brunch! We will be told to enjoy our time here, because our time here will be very special. It will not be only about schoolwork--we should take advantage of the weekly social gatherings designed to create or enable alcohol addiction, like the kegs in the courtyard, the weekly bar review, the wine and cheese parties. Oh, but by the way, if you develop a severe problem, there are resources available to you, just go see Dean Arbuthnot. (I am not kidding about this, this was said at one of the panels at my orientation at my last school). Ice cream socials, hiking adventures sponsored by the school's Environmental Law organization, day trips to Nearby Picturesque Tourist Towns--law school will be fun! So turn to the persons in the seats to the right and left of you, and shake their hand and introduce yourself. They are your colleagues. They may become your best friend. And who knows, you might just meet your future partner here!

I'm sure this will be tailored to this particular crowd of students, since most of us in the LLM program are from different countries. Maybe there will be ridiculous talk about how we represent international relations on the "personal" level, and how we are each diplomats in our own way. How in the era of globalism and multiculturalism, we are the ambassadors of our distinct cultures but come together in the unifying human desire for knowledge. How education unites, rather than divides, because only ignorance is divisive--whereas knowledge brings only greater insight and understanding and thus compassion. Will there be the inevitable reference to the "post-9/11" state of the world and the need for more intercultural exchanges and friendship? How the friendships we build in this program will not only enrich ourselves and the future network of international, interdisciplinary legal scholars, but also the world? Is someone going to seriously use such inflated rhetoric as to say we are"hands uniting around the world" until you wonder if Michael Jackson is going to fly in from Dubai to sing "Heal the World"? If I am right about this, I should get paid for writing cheesy orientation addresses .

Imagine the size of the grain of salt with which you have to take all of this. There is a lot of truth to it, but a lot of hyperbole too.

Truths:

1) First impressions and relationships do matter. But so do grades. I think grades last longer though.
2) Yes, you can develop a drinking problem in law school. (not me, I'm a teetoaler--but I have seen it)
3) No, you should not see your Dean about it. Go to the health center, AA, anywhere else.
4) Even at the "nicest," "least-competitive" schools, there are always some mean people who mess it up.
5) Most of the faculty are very nice, but do not expect to go hiking with them or be invited over for brunch.
6) You won't have time to take day-trips to Nearby Picturesque Tourist Town. And even if you did, go with your significant other, go with your friends--but don't go with a group of law students you may not know/like, particularly if the town has some kind of wine-tasting or microbrewery plant.
7) You can meet your best friends in law school, and I even know of (two) couples who made it to the altar. But also expect to be indifferent to or dislike most of the people you go to school with.
8) Everyone in law school is a nerd, but there is an Ian Bestian taxonymy of nerds. There are jock nerds, fraternity/sorority nerds, socially awkward nerds, mean competitive nerds, avaricious consequentialist nerds, socially conscious nerds, belief in moral superiority due to religion or personal defect nerds, hipster nerds, artsy nerds, literary nerds, environmentally conscious nerds, gym freak nerds, former film major cineaste nerds, gourmet foodie nerds, etc. etc. And everyone thinks that they and their pretentious clique is superior to everyone else.
9) Yes, LLM students can save the world through scholarship and friendship. (okay, not really.)
10) Yes, we are select and special.

#10 I know for sure, because I asked today about the chances of getting into the JSD program (not good) and was told certain things to make myself feel better about it. There were 700 applications for the 60-80 spots in the program (they really expanded it this year!). This year, there are 77 students in the LLM program. Seventy of the LLM students are international students. Seven are American-trained lawyers intending to pursue academia. I am one of those seven. Yes, I do feel special.

I'm also totally freaked out. Last year, there were 50 applications for the JSD program. 25 of those applications were from Liberal College Law LLM students. Only 15 got in, all Liberal College Law LLMs. They're expanding the LLM program without expanding the JSD program, which means it's going to be quite competitive. This means that I am going to be applying to JSD programs and teaching fellowships far and wide this fall. This means that I will be begging all current, former, and I-sort-of-know-you-through-this-blog professors for letters of recommendation and even phone calls if that helps. This means that everyone should expect pathetic, begging emails come September. This means that if you want to block my email address in your Outlook filter, you should probably do it now.

It's going to be a busy year, what with the colloquia paper, the thesis, two classes, being a diplomat and an ambassador, and saving the world through scholarship and friendship.

Heal the world. Make it a better place. For you, and for me--and the entire human race.

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