“You are standing under my work,” Don Larson interrupted, motioning to the small jacaranda tree. “That’s my tree. I put it there.”
His tree, his work, his campus. That’s how Larson describes Cal State Northridge, his home away from home.
At 5, he attended ground-breaking ceremonies. At 13, as a junior high school student, he attended classes. At 23, he worked on his undergraduate degree. At 25, he got a job as a gardener.
And, today at 35, Don Larson still cruises the CSUN corridors and cafeterias like a college kid. Crisscrossing campus on his bright, yellow pedicab, he points to the past--colleagues and accomplishments from long ago.
“The business community can get awfully staid and dull,” said Larson, a consultant for several businesses who regularly helps different CSUN academic departments and groups. “Here, I never feel really old.”
Larson’s profile counters the traditional perception of campus hangers-on: Confused, aimless types bopping from one bar to another, attending football games or fraternity parties, success far from their grasp. Instead, many students stick around in hopes of bettering themselves, and enhancing their marketability. And the university can benefit too, as exemplified by Larson and CSUN.
Nonetheless, experts warn against college ties that bind too tightly.
“Many are trapped in a time warp,” said Marianne McManus, a Santa Monica clinical psychologist. “They haven’t learned the social skills or interpersonal skills it takes to go on to the next level in life. In many cases, it’s more that they want to avoid the next stage than their great love for college.
“But this behavior may cut them off from other fulfillment in life, and it can’t be mastered indefinitely. At some time, the younger guys will ask them, ‘What are you still doing here?”’
The question is a familiar one for Cheryl Vosvi, 29, a 1981 CSUN graduate. Vosvi takes a night class in mass communications, and uses all the school’s resources, such as the library and career center. She even hangs out several times a week at the same bar in the student union she patrolled a decade earlier.
Her answer is defiant, and definite.
“I used to take a lot of flak for it,” said Vosvi, who is slowly pursuing her master’s degree in communications, “and it’s embarrassing what people think, that you still hang out at campus, that you’re stuck in your student days. But it’s not a regression. I can come here into the bar, and always know a few people. The atmosphere is comfortable.”
Vosvi says she can defend her presence at CSUN because she’s expanding her mind. She says her professional life in the post-college world has been “intellectually unfulfilling.” (Vosvi has worked as a marketing services assistant for a video production company. Currently, she’s in the payroll department at an aerospace and electronics firm.)
Does she believe she’s stagnating while her colleagues prosper in the real world?
“I don’t feel like I’m behind them at all,” she said. “Even if they’re making money, I’m still learning. I’m challenging myself.”
She is possessive about CSUN.
“Yeah, I feel like it’s mine,” she said. “I paid enough money here.”
At CalArts in Valencia, school officials said it is not uncommon for graduates to linger on campus for years, and even decades, after their studies end. Many go straight from student to teacher. As a haven for various artistic endeavors, CalArts lets them polish their craft while continuing to enjoy a college environment.
During his second year of studying for a master’s degree in fine arts, said Ed Dorsey, a music student, “I realized how addicted I am to this place. I have nowhere else to go.”
Dorsey, 32, graduated in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in music and lived in Santa Barbara until he returned to CalArts in 1984 to teach a class in Indonesian music. He completed his master’s degree in 1986, and did some part-time teaching for the next two years. Today, he still lives close to campus, and regularly visits teachers and students.
Puffing at a cigarette, he sat at an outdoor table near a Valencia delicatessen, staring at sights he’s known for 13 years. He looked around and recalled the past.
“I remember being a stupid kid here, when I had never had sex,” Dorsey said. “I bummed around as a student. I had no idea what I was doing. That’s not who I am now.”
Now, he paints houses in Santa Clarita.
John Wilson was also adrift when he started at CSUN in 1980. He didn’t even want to attend college; his parents pushed him. He majored in engineering, grew bored and quit school in 1983. Two years later, he returned with a new attitude. At 26, he’s aiming for a career in finance, expecting to graduate in the spring.
Still, Wilson is not quite ready to leave the college scene. He’s running for president of his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta.
“People call me an old man,” Wilson said, “but I don’t mind. I could be around here another two or three years and not think about it because there’s so much fun. I know I’ll miss it, and part of me wants to stay here forever.”
At the least, he said, he’ll be involved in some aspect of school life for many years.
Wilson’s school spirit brings up the question: When does involvement with your alma mater become an unhealthy addiction rather than a healthy enthusiasm?
“It’s OK to play a role in your former school, to help out today’s youth by working on an alumni association or by giving money,” McManus said. “But it shouldn’t be the focal point of your life.”
That privilege belongs, McManus said, to the school’s current students. Hangers-on often don’t want anything to do with them. They see the school as their permanent property, far above its younger tenants.
“I don’t like coming here during the day,” Vosvi said. “It’s kindergarten, with all the fraternities and sororities. But at night, all the serious people are here.”
At CSUN, many of the serious people are still there because they can’t afford to finish in four years, said Elizabeth Barry, associate vice president of academic affairs.
“Our students work, many of them 20 hours a week,” Barry said. “So they can’t take 12 or 15 units.
“And we don’t have many hangers-on. That applies more to schools like USC and UCLA. Here, students have to support themselves. They can’t afford to hang around.”
At UCLA, they apparently can. Senoria Land, administrative assistant to vice chancellor Tom Lifka, said UCLA has many hangers-on. She said students take a few extra classes or find some kind of employment on campus after they graduate. Many USC students also get jobs on campus after they graduate, said Kristine Dillon, associate vice president of student affairs.
Don Larson has found plenty of work. In 1981, CSUN sent him to China as the school’s first representative in its exchange program with the city of Guangzhou, about 200 miles north of Hong Kong.
Since then, Larson has become an expert on China, and has helped with various dealings between CSUN and Chinese officials. He became one of the founders of CSUN’s China Institute.
But his relationship with the school goes far beyond business. He grew up on his family’s farm a few blocks from campus. The farm eventually collapsed, and an apartment building was built on the same plot, at Etiwanda Avenue and Rayen Street. Larson lives there.
After graduating from high school in 1971, Larson attended several Northern California colleges before returning to CSUN in 1975. He quickly became involved in student government. When he finished his undergraduate studies in 1977, Larson wanted to do something that reflected his fascination with CSUN’s landscape.
He became a gardener.
“I wanted to keep this place pretty,” Larson said. “People thought I was wasting my time, but I wanted to see the relationship between the workers on campus and the academic types.”
One of his suggestions was to move three small jacaranda trees from the quadrangle next to the library to a nearby field. The university, Larson said, wanted to remove them entirely.
“I could take you to places all over this campus,” he said, “that I had something to do with. Want to see them?”