I used to love college so much that I thought I could be a student forever. I was addicted to the electricity of a good lecture, the delirious giggles of dorm room gossip, the sweet burn of jungle juice in basements with people I hardly knew. I couldn’t imagine lunch better than the grilled cheese with brie and mustard that they made in Mojo dining hall. It was all so beautiful: the crunch of leaves on the streets near the Union, the stale smell of Lorch Hall, the bulletin boards teeming with posters made from generic design templates filled with information about guest lectures, film festivals, improv shows and volunteer programs in Ecuador.
When classes went online, my affection for college faded into a loyal obligation; the honeymoon phase was over. What was once an all-encompassing experience became checking items off my to-do list like swatting flies. Take a quiz, write a discussion post, skim a textbook. Pixels arranged to show my classmates’ two-dimensional faces. Pixels rearranged to show me my grades. Pixels rearranged over and over to become diagrams of biochemical processes. I’d pull out my phone, and new pixels would show me a stranger’s acai bowl. I didn’t feel like I was in school— I felt like I was going on my computer. I careened around the internet like a drunk driver, but I never got the satisfaction of reaching a destination. College was emails, videos and infinite scroll. College stopped being fun.
When an acquaintance posted about a cheap sublet in Brooklyn, I decided to move out of Ann Arbor and into New York City for my junior year. My social media projects, which I originally started to pass the time, became more of a job. I got a boyfriend who was a few years older, and his friends spoke of stock options and weddings; they’d make fun of the raucous crowd at “intern bars” and I’d laugh along even though I was barely old enough to drink and had a virtual physics lab the next day. During a run with a fitness group in the West Village, a friend of mine announced she had to leave early for an interview. ‘For what?’ I asked. ‘A manager who’d work under me,’ she said. I realized she’d be conducting the interview, not participating. My friends were climbing corporate hierarchies and I was taking chemistry. My undergrad status felt lowly and shameful. I stopped bringing it up.
I don’t remember the first time I spoke of college in the past tense, but it became a subconscious habit. ‘I went to Michigan! I loved it!,’ I’d say at rooftop soirees to twenty-somethings who made more money than my parents. ‘Go blue!’ I’d say to clean-shaven strangers in Williamsburg coffee shops sporting block ‘M’ apparel. I’d reminisce on things that had happened months ago as if they were treasured old memories, recounting beer miles and brutal exams. I walked around Brooklyn as if I were an alum, sporting more school spirit than I ever had before, and relishing my memories of a classic American college experience. Because of the people around me, I no longer identified as a student. I kept forgetting that I have another year to finish.
I’m reaching for the undying love I once felt toward classes and campus culture, but it eludes my grasp. To return from New York for another year of undergrad feels like an odd regression. I try to engineer back-to-school excitement with the attitude of scientists reviving woolly mammoths with genetic remains. I look through old photos and check campus websites for upcoming events and speakers, getting excited for passionate guest lectures and game day mayhem.
To help, my boyfriend made a list of all the reasons why I should be excited to go back, populated with things like “Hearing the crowd roar during the game and thinking to yourself ‘I’m part of something,’” and “waking up on a weekend to music booming from distant speakers and thinking ‘this is gonna be the best day ever.’” They helped. But not as much as what I was about to find.
On a late-night Wikipedia binge, I stumbled upon the page Perpetual student, which describes college students who continue classes much longer than is standard: students for whom super-senior is an understatement.
As I clicked through the notable examples, my eyes narrowed, and I leaned in toward the screen. There were people who had extended their college careers into careers of their own, racking up degrees with reckless abandon. A disproportionate number of them hailed from schools in the state of Michigan. Benjamin Bolger, the second-most credentialed person in history, earned his first degree from the University of Michigan in Sociology. His yearning for learning led him around the country with his mother, who was known to read his homework to him to compensate for his dyslexia. If you have a dream school, Bolger has gone there — he has fourteen graduate degrees to his name and a booming business as an admissions consultant.
Another perpetual student is Michael Nicholson, who acquired thirty degrees while working as a parking-meter attendant at Western Michigan University. His job gave him a tuition discount, which he used to earn many of his master’s degrees.
The one that caught my eye the most, however, was Johnny Lechner, whose college experience was less scholastic and more social. He took classes at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for thirteen years before graduating, racking up nine degrees in areas ranging from theater to social work to health. His Wikipedia page says this:
“He has won a campus “Big Man on Campus” beauty pageant, studied abroad in, “Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, Florence, Venice and Switzerland,” and South Africa, appeared on Late Show with David Letterman and Good Morning America, been named one of People’s “Hot Bachelors”, run for student body president, and appeared in two films, including Minor League: A Football Story and a starring role in Fraternity House.”
I read more. His favorite things include “going out, cooking out and rocking out,” and the only reason he wrapped up his college career was because of a tuition surcharge called the Johnny Lechner Rule which taxed students with more than 130 credits. His short-lived MTV reality show, still available on Vimeo, takes the audience through his raucous life as a “twelfth-year senior.” Aughts rock music plays over montages of him brushing his teeth, walking past skateboarders and chuckling as his advisor tells him to grow up. “It’s pitiful, at some point,” the bearded academic says before the show cuts to a party scene. Johnny clinks Solo cups and admits to his classmates that he started college when they were in kindergarten.
If I wanted to hype myself up about another year of undergrad, I knew I needed to talk to this guy. Luckily, he responded to my Instagram DM and agreed to chat with me. Before we met, I brushed up on his acting and music career. He had had a few roles and a recent EP. He seemed to be married, and he had an enigmatic Tiktok full of inexplicable videos, mostly shots of Monster Energy cans. I couldn’t wait to meet him.
I opened Zoom, and like a Ken Doll with an HD camera, his bronze chiseled features came into view. He struck me as a cool-uncle type, the kind that would drive a convertible or bring a karaoke machine to Thanksgiving or sneak you weed without your parents knowing. Warm energy radiated from him as he raved about the American college experience.
“I have nothing but great things to say about my college years. Sometimes it feels like it was a dream because I was packed in with a bunch of people that are ultra-optimistic, working hard, enjoying life and not thinking about the future so much…I’m so glad that I did it and I hope other people are not in a rush to get through their schooling.”
I asked about his financial situation. If four years of college can bring about crippling debt, how can someone afford more than triple that? It turns out his star power helped him out.
He told me that he did get some loans in 1994, but he was able to work serving and bartending jobs to pay his way through school before landing big sponsorships. “National Lampoon got involved and gave me some money, MTV gave me some money and I got other sponsorships from places like Monster Energy, for example. I ended up coming out clean on the other end with just a handful of student loans I paid off within a year of graduation, and I’m forever grateful. For some people, financing college is not a laughing matter. It can be a huge burden.”
Finally, I asked him about the motivations of a perpetual student, and his response made me more excited for school than I had been in months.
“The hardest part of getting what you want out of life is figuring out what you want out of life. College gives you this chance to define it as you go while you’re surrounded by tons of positive people that haven’t been burned by the real world… and I’ll be honest with you, the college social life was absolutely so much fun.”
He then told me to take an extra year of college because “the pandemic doesn’t count” and I “have the rest of my life to work.”
I closed the Zoom call in a better mood than when I started it, and I thought about runs along the Huron River, impromptu midnight diner meals, road trips to Toronto, the resilience of the liver. I thought about the natural light in the Chem building, the house parties and the constant barrage of bake sales in the Diag. The grizzled old cynic in the back of my mind that tells me that friends will be graduated and gone, estaurants I loved will be boarded up, and it’ll be like a weird, sad version of my past life was quiet. It’ll be good, I thought to myself. I don’t want to stay forever, but I’m looking forward to one more year.
Statement columnist Annie Rauwerda can be reached at email@example.com.