The back to class carnival at the University of Ottawa

One of the University of Ottawa's more prominent students.  Photo by James Morgan

This is what long nights of studying cause. Photo by James Morgan

I can’t be overly reverent anymore about the whole going-to-college experience. One of my other pursuits is being a graduate student. I’ve been going back to school every September for 25 of my 37 years. Judges hand down much shorter prison sentences for serious crimes. After all this time, I find it pretty entertaining to see students, new and returning, descend upon the University of Ottawa campus and the surrounding Sandy Hill neighborhood.

The University of Ottawa is not a rah-rah pep rally sort of school. I went to one of those when I was much younger, and it felt more like a high school than my actual high school did. UOttawa, as corporate branding calls it, is a reflection of its surroundings. There are well-dressed undergraduates with earnest looks on their faces with aspirations of working on Parliament Hill part time. They will have you believe that the very survival of Canada depends on them alone. We have students from Toronto suburbs who look completely in awe that there really is a big city other than theirs, and even with a high-end shopping mall just one block from campus!

It’s a bilingual university, so there are a lot of students from Quebec and other French-speaking regions of Canada. There’s no school cheer or fight song, except for one that students at Carleton University further up the Rideau Canal sing as an insult, and its lyrics are not appropriate for publication.

One man band on campus.  Photo by James Morgan

One man band on campus. Photo by James Morgan

The streets and walkways on campus turn into a low-budget carnival. Various student services and not-for-profit organizations set up to raise awareness and enlist volunteers. Banks offer special credit cards for students so they can rack up more debt. Phone companies offer cheap cellular plans so students can call home and ask their parents for money.

Only one burger or hot dog per person!  Photo by James Morgan

Only one burger or hot dog per person! Photo by James Morgan

Barbecues are held by student unions and the administration, but it really isn’t a barbecue. Instead of steak and ribs, its hamburgers, hotdogs, and soda pop. Portions are always rationed to one burger or dog per person.

Student couples, obvious high school sweethearts who planned to attend college together, romantically roam the campus, turning the mundane act of getting an ID card into a hot date. But the likelihood of high school relationships lasting is usually slim. So many end around Canadian Thanksgiving in mid-October that the act is known (unkindly) as the “turkey dump.”

The lineups for city transit passes are ridiculous and to a historian like me, evoke images of lineups for food in the former Soviet Union.

Typical garbage day artifacts in Sandy Hill.  Photo by James Morgan

Typical garbage day artifacts in Sandy Hill. Photo by James Morgan

Off campus, vehicles overstuffed with personal effects line the streets in front of apartment buildings and rented houses. Parents walk around with tourist maps of the city with their sons and daughters following.The parents always look excited about sightseeing. Their children always look like they want their parents to go home. Students climb the hill on King Edward Avenue carrying their purchases from the supermarket and liquor store on Rideau Street. Utility poles, reinforced with many layers of posters, advertise student-friendly exercise classes, church services, and promise the most amazing music, dancing, and drinking ever. Garbage day in Sandy Hill reveals the refuse of higher learning with abundant beer cases and pizza boxes.

The beginning of the fall university term is always chaotic, but highly entertaining. It’s the best show in town for anyone wanting to just observe what’s good, and what’s absurd about human nature.

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