Posted on Wednesday March 28, 2012

Dear Reader, you will know that late last year I enrolled at the University of Massachusetts (with two ‘t’s) (shortened to UMass, pronounced ‘youmaaaass’ – you’ll need to pinch your nose during the last syllables), in order to complete my degree somewhere within touching distance of the centre of the world, New York.

UMass is one of five colleges/universities in the broader Amherst area. They work together under the surprisingly evocative banner ‘Five Colleges’, allowing students to take subjects from two or more members as part of their load. UMass is by far the biggest, with over 25,000 students. It’s also the only public university, so has no qualms about accepting riffraff from Down Under.

Coming from Southern Cross University, the campus appears massive. On my first visit, I tied my rented roan Hyundai to a hitching rail at the Visitors Centre, grabbed a map and my newfangled compass-thingy from the saddlebag and started walking towards the International Programs Office. Twenty minutes later I was still walking, and the hill was getting steeper, and the day hotter. Buzzards began circling in the air above me. I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the IPO, and the street names didn’t seem to match those on the campus map, so I cast aside my direction-finding boy pride and fired up the GPS. Below and hold, I’d strayed off-campus and was closer to Death Valley.

Even though the GPS’s Karen has an Australian accent, she’s actually an American in disguise. Instead of saying “Geoff, you’re a total dickhead, mate. Chuck a U-ey and head a couple of ks that way”, she politely directed me onto Chestnut Street (or was it Elm? It was surely feeling nightmarish), and ten minutes later I was at the IPO. Which was actually visible from where I’d tied up the Hyundai in the first place. I put my confusion down to my brain still being in Southern hemisphere “sun=North” mode.

But it is a big campus: about two miles in diameter, and covering 1,450 acres. (If a quarter horse* can run 47.5 miles per hour – that’s slower than a wildebeest but faster than an elk** – how many minutes would it take to cross from A to B and back to C? Discuss). What makes the campus even larger is the heavy use of on-campus housing. Young Chuck and Brianna are encouraged to take the path to adulthood in gentle steps.

Although the campus was founded in 1863, few of the buildings show the grace and elegance of those of nearby Amherst College or Mt Holyoke College. The library is particularly malignant: twenty-six floors of sheer-sided ugliness, intentionally visible from almost anywhere on the campus.

The UMass library tower

Look hard though, and there are small pockets of beauty – human-scaled old red brick halls, a secret garden, a set of broad steps like an Aztec sacrificial altar. I was lucky to be guided to some of these by another alien, a fellow student from Iran, who has a ‘photographer’s eye’ (and a camera to go with it).

Unfortunately, ‘Big University’ didn’t translate to ‘Big Studio for Geoff’. Like most undergrads, there was no room at the inn for me – the few studios available were given over to the grad students. I thought about donning a dress, stuffing it with a cushion and pretending I was pregnant with a Divine Presence, but figured this might not translate well into American, and get me evicted rather than into whatever manger might be available.

In the end, my studio in far-off Holyoke worked out fine. How I enjoyed the opportunity to lug my 80-pound woodcarving up and down its stairs each week and take it to and from the Studio Arts building for a crit session! And now I’m back in Oz-land, how I miss it all.

* No, a full horse can’t run four times as fast as this

** A blak elk, uninterfered with. Red elk, and those with batteries tied to their genitalia are slightly speedier.