'The ground view of burgening adulthood'

I spotted scrawny Jimmy on the God Quad walk and shouted out, “How’d your Egyptian quiz go?” A year earlier during a semester in Athens, gyro sellers struggled to decipher his Ohio-accented Greek, tainted by a summer in Vienna. Two hours later I was lolling on the Sorin porch in my canvas folding chair when Cory bustled by, too busy to chat, late for Japanese lab. After dinner I headed out to scout Sorin football practice as Jeremy blew up the stairs for his pads, delayed by a Shanghai Program meeting. I’d just finished scanning Kevin’s blog from Gulu, which read much like Trev’s summer postings from an HIV clinic in Swaziland. Biggie’s back from his yearlong Roman holiday, still 62 inches from heel to crown, and I keep forgetting whether stringy Kyle partied in London or Australia last spring.

A romp of 16 Sorin Otters will treat postseason winter depression by migrating overseas this January while six return to the den — a yearly count of 40 percent of our hall’s juniors.

So I am not surprised to find hieroglyphic scratchings on hallway white boards, though I ponder whether multilingual graffitists are embracing globalism or running from their homeland. I watched MSNBC campaign coverage religiously from the Iowa caucuses onward but barely recollect another dorm TV turned to a cable news channel since the Virginia Tech shootings. A few minutes nimbly sifting 10 million webpages for essential info bits beats an hour slogging through commentator chatter; voting implies government can fix the economy when for all their young lives the drumbeat has resounded that it’s the problem. Despite Obamamania and the mortgage meltdown, more Notre Dame students likely filled out visa applications than ballots in 2008.

Undergrads who tune out pundits and politicians but connect cellularly with their parents every day aren’t overtly rebelling against the system. They are wired to elude it, carefully preserving their lifeline to mission control while zipping through cyber and real space on their own terms. Thirty-three of 54 in my business ethics classes this term requested unlisted land addresses and phone numbers. Facebook visitors devour students’ personal profiles and incriminating photo pages while staffers hamstrung by FERPA privacy requirements can’t get a cell number. Area codes don’t determine residency in wireless Oz, and an online friend is more trustworthy than any institution. Five minutes or 5,000 miles apart, it doesn’t matter so long as you’re a buddy with the password. Google is the system.

Seniors huddled over cold ones this job-hunting season with ’08 grads hired in July and fired by formerly august firms in September. An entry-level job is a pit stop, not an entrance ramp to a pension, but it’s not just finance majors fretting Morgan Stanley’s liquidity who are submitting proposals to Mendoza College business plan competitions like foreclosure notices.

Pete filled the summer before senior year founding a Washington-based lobbying organization dedicated to ending a civil war in Northern Uganda. Blogging Kevin raised $23,000 to design and fund his postgraduate placement, which involves helping that conflict’s survivors reconcile over email. Michael, toiling after a Yale M.D., dreams of establishing clinics ubiquitous as McDonald’s across East Africa.

The parents and grandparents of Victorian-era Sorinites — as posed on the steps smirking under stiff collars and bowler hats in a grainy hallway photo — fled the turbulent Old World for the land of opportunity. Many of our flip-flop shod will chase their destinies in emerging markets from Mexico to Mongolia. This old world of stable domestic employment is ebbing away, and the idealists hell-bent on rescuing the planet’s poor want to be the next Red Cross, not work for it. Budding for-profit and social entrepreneurs, along with ancient language polyglots, are learning it’s more fun to color outside the lines, making their own rules through working around the establishment instead of wasting energy battling it.

For all that, the ground view of burgeoning adulthood is much the same. Fuzzy-cheeked freshmen Otters rocking away summer on the Sorin porch could nearly pass for a crew of Opies back from the fishing hole apart from the omnipresent iPod earphones. Frisbees sail and bikes careen around skittish pedestrians like pinballs narrowly missing their targets. Indoors, vodka is now contraband, but most 1970s and ’80s alums should recognize Popov labels peeking from behind Febreze bottles under dear ones’ sinks.

Since bars, too, have been outlawed, handsomely embellished plywood planks are camouflaged as “study tables” even if a dozen half-filled Solo cups and a drippy Ping-Pong ball are far more likely to materialize on one than a calc text. On Sundays, focus shifts from booze to books until evening when they stroll shoeless into Mass in numbers that have varied little since the disco days. Pizza after 10 p.m. remains their ultimate culinary experience even après sampling salade niçoise in Paris, but the life menu choices beyond touch football quadrangles stretch from bewildering to inspired.

I applaud future J.D.s productively treading more traditional professional waters, but I am astonished by intrepid architects speaking Rutooro and developing research designs for $500 eucalyptus houses in the bush before capping their Notre Dame years with mortarboards. I concede the enterprise of marketers who validate their BBAs by sneaking back on gameday to shill trunkloads of verboten T-shirts at a 200 percent markup to busier-than-ever accounting grads.

And I can hardly fault the recently sheepskinned legions clustered like drone bees in north side Chicago three-flats struggling to prolong their Domer days. Their craving for flesh-and-blood kinship is a booster shot of hope that virtual reality cannot supplant a heart’s ultimate yearnings.

I suspect the directionless souls who retreat to the rent-free folks’ home after commencement would discover their inner selves quicker roughing it through Italy washing trattoria dishes for pane — if only they, too, were a tad more venturesome, like the exploring Irish braving a new world that’s no place like home.

Jim King has been rector of Sorin Hall since 2003 and is the author of the recent book Known by Name, on the distinctiveness of residence hall life at Notre Dame.