Yesterday afternoon I received an email telling me Antioch College would be closing because of financial difficulties but that it planned to try and reopen an undergraduate program in 2012. My first thought was guilt. I thought about the alumni mail asking for money I recycled or the phone survey I declined to participate in. Then I began to feel sad. Two of my bridesmaids also went to Antioch, and while we all have mixed feelings about our time there, there is no denying that Antioch had a rich political history and offered one of the most unique college experiences in the country.
Antioch opened its doors in 1852. Its first president was Horace Mann, "the father of American education," who spent much of his professional life working for more and better equipped school houses, longer school years (until 16 years old), higher pay for teachers and a wider curriculum. Antioch was coeducational from the get go -- ahead of its time. Mann and most of the students were abolitionists and this tradition of social activism continued into the 1960s, where the school and its students, like Eleanor Holmes Norton and Coretta Scott King, were heavily involved in the civil rights movement.
When I was at Antioch, I felt like there had been a shift at some point in its recent history. I always had this feeling that in its heyday the academic standards were higher and the students were less concerned with being "terminally unique" and more engaged in collective action. Don't get me wrong, Antioch in the mid 90s had its share of activists involved in all the usual causes, but a lot of the students (myself included) seemed more concerned with activism as a form of self expression.
A couple of years ago, I brought my husband to Antioch to see my old stomping ground. It was a hot, muggy Ohio summer day and most of the students were gone. We walked inside the student union. The walls inside are still covered with an insane amount of graffiti. When I was there as a student, it was a sign of how "cool" the school was for letting us trash the space. But as an adult alum, showing it to my husband, I honestly felt a little embarrassed.
So in some ways this news didn't surprise me. It seems like Antioch needs to do some soul searching. It needs to find away to return to what originally made it great (and it wasn't being able to paint graffiti on the walls) before it reopens.
One aspect of Antioch that did make it unique was its cooperative education program. In a time where more middle and upper middle class teens are spending more time in enrichment programs instead of working at jobs, Antioch's program forced students out into the "real world." We had to work six months out of each academic year. The only other college program that puts such a strong emphasis on cooperative education is Northeastern University in Boston. Northeastern tends to encourage students to repeat co-ops at the same companies with the goal of getting hired after graduation.
Antioch had a more "liberal arts" approach. They encouraged us to do something different each time. We could choose from the co-op list or create our own. One of my bridesmaids worked on an olive farm in Greece. The other worked at the Miami Art Center during Hurricane Andrew. One of my more memorable co-ops was working as Naomi Wolf's personal assistant.
I'll never forget Naomi asking me what I thought of an episode of The Sally Jessy Raphael Show she had just taped to promote the paperback release of The Beauty Myth. I gave her my critique, which of course, included a point about how the discussion didn't include women of color and how the beauty myth affected them. She looked at me and said, "Anastasia, the real world is not Antioch College."
This was a lesson I learned over and over again, at my co-op at the Boston Globe and later at companies like Oxygen TV and AOL. Still, I graduated with a degree and a resume. I learned about work, about having a boss, and about the real world outside of Antioch College.
I'm now 35, a published author and am working for myself. Even though I have lost a lot of my youthful idealism and ironically write a lot about marketing to youth, I try to integrate ethics and social responsibility into everything I do - whether it's calling out a company for being sneaky or including non-profit youth media at my events to try to get them the exposure they deserve. In many ways, I feel like that part of me was nurtured at Antioch college. So it's with sadness that I say goodbye, for now, to my alma mater. I hope to see you again in 2012.
If any other alumni are reading this, I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings about Antioch closing.