Shley Moncrief at work in her general chemistry class in UT's Rocket Hall.
This could have been a story about college students gone wild, about coeds dying their hair pink and drinking the night away. It could have been about slacking off in class and using beer bongs and never, ever calling home.
That's because it is a story of freedom. It's the story of a college freshman's first weeks away at school, and that's what college students do, right?
Sometimes. But that's not the whole story. It's also about dorm food and mixing with new roommates and - seriously, now - studying.
Eighteen-year-old Ashley Moncrief, of Ypsilanti, came to the University of Toledo this fall with a serious, studious mindset. She came seeking a degree, new people, and something less tangible.
"I want to learn more about myself and what my purpose is in general," she said.
While most of her friends stayed in Michigan for college, she left the state to flirt with independence. At a time of skyrocketing tuition nationwide, it helped that Ashley got lots of financial aid and scholarships that pay for most of her tuition and fees (now more than $15,000 a year for out-of-state students like her).
Sitting in the lounge area of her residence hall during the first week of classes, she fit in already. She wore the college student uniform: blue jeans, big blue backpack, with a cell phone in tow.
At this point, Ashley still hadn't actually checked her mailbox. Who sends mail these days anyway? Ashley's mom calls once a day to send her love, and e-mail is ubiquitous.
Ashley Moncrief, center, and friend Lauren Brett, right at the UT Club Fair.
It helps that Ashley took part in a program on campus during the summer, so she pretty much knows how to get around. But there are some things that take some getting used to. Like the food. It's not quite mom's home cooking.
"I don't really like the dorm food. But where else can you eat?" she said.
(Actually, mom's cooking might still be an option. Ashley received a care package of greens, mac and cheese, meatloaf, corn bread, okra, and sweet potatoes. "I ate it for like three straight days," she said.)
There's also the different daily rhythms of life as she deals with classes that include chemistry, bioengineering, calculus II, and a reading course. Keeping up means later nights than she's used to and weary mornings.
"I'm not a morning person," she said. Not that a later start would help. "It doesn't really matter what time I wake up, I'm usually tired."
It's the second week of school and Ashley's roommate, Sarah Kanode, is ready to have an intervention.
"She's always studying. Tell her to stop studying," she jokes to some visitors. "She's always at her desk doing homework."
Even the furniture reflects this. The centerpiece of the room is the big, black, cushy, not-standard-issue chair that Ashley brought, poised in front of her desk.
The rest of the room is what you might expect. At least four fans are buzzing away. (The dorm isn't air-conditioned.) The walls are bare, and despite a pre-college telephone call to discuss who was bringing what, the roomies still need some things.
"We need a rug. We need some furniture," Sarah says.
They do have some niceties: LCD television, mini-fridge full of goodies like orange juice and yogurt, a microwave.
Sarah is from Columbus Grove, Ohio, in rural Paulding County, a world away from Ashley's upbringing as an African-American in Michigan. Which is part of the reason Ashley came to UT: to get away, meet different people, start anew.
"I wanted to get an experience of moving out and moving away from my parents and just being independent," she said.
Same for Sarah, a physical therapy major whose best friend also attends UT. (Although around Labor Day, Sarah would move out to room with her friend, who she said was having roommate troubles.)
Of course, some things you can't get away from. Race is one of them these days. African-Americans make up 11 percent of the undergraduate student body at UT, and sometimes Ashley feels the burden of being one of them.
"In class, a lot of times I'm the only one," she said. "A lot of times you feel like you're representing your race, and you don't want to do that."
So being in class on time and making sure she's done her work is more important than you might think. She sees it as fighting common perceptions of blacks.
"You're careful not to feed into those stereotypes," she said.
This is what college is all about: warm, sunny days spent outdoors, free stuff to mooch on, and promises of fun outside of the classroom.
Ashley and a friend from class, Lauren Brett, make their way to the activities fair the second week of school - past their dorms, past the library, over the "War is Greed" written on the sidewalk, and beyond all the tents set up in advance of the big football game coming up.
Once at the mall, they're the most popular students on campus. Dozens of student groups are clamoring for them and offering more than just attention to get them to join their organizations. Can you say free grape leaves?
There are service organizations, bible study groups, ethnic clubs, the UT Order of the Phoenix (for Harry Potter fans), Americans for Informed Democracy, the UT Fire Dance Squad, a salon giving some guy a hair cut, and ... the U.S. Postal Service?
It's a smorgasbord of extra-curriculars, and they each sign up for a couple. Later, Ashley ends up attending a couple sessions of First Year Rocket Engineers and becoming part of the solid undercurrent on many college campuses embracing faith by joining a Bible study group.
"I haven't been real active with Bible study at home, so I decided I should try and start up again," she said.
For fun, Ashley says she likes to drop in at the nearby Rec Center for aerobics classes, hang out with friends and watch TV, and she went to her first football game to see the Rockets beat up on Western Michigan - at least until halftime, when the score was so lopsided that many students left to amuse themselves elsewhere.
The large classroom is terraced with long tables extending across the room on each level. Ashley is stationed up front, in the middle of the second row, scribbling something in a notebook before class even begins. Others chat before class or just stare blankly ahead.
The professor, dressed in blue jeans and a button-down shirt, whips out a laser pointer and begins discussing the first slide projected on a huge screen at the front of the room. His talk could be gibberish to the untrained ear: talk of "molarity," boosted by slides full of chemical formulas and symbols.
Welcome to college classes. They can be big and fast and ... hey, is that a cell phone ringing in the back of the room?
"What is that? Please turn it off," the teacher instructs.
Ashley likes her generally small classes at UT, but this one is an exception for her. She went to a school where her class was 500 students. Here, classes must accommodate over 4,000 freshmen.
"My chem class is really, really big," she said. "That's a new experience."
And it can be tough. Her first exam grade in the class wasn't to her liking.
"I was kind of depressed. I still am," she said shortly after getting the exam back. "As I was taking it, I was really shocked. It was 50 minutes, but it seemed like 15 minutes."
It's easy for Ashley to get anxious over her academics. Maybe she gets it from her mom.
"My mom gets worried about things. She worries 24/7. She's never gonna stop," she said. "This one time I came home and she said, 'Shouldn't you get to studying?' "
Ashley didn't say so, but her thought was: Things are different now. You can't control how I study at school.
Other things are different too.
"I think it's going to change my friends over time," she said.
It's already started with one friend who's started spending time at frat parties and drinking.
"She's kind of the wild child, experiments with everything," Ashley said. "She kind of changed in a week or whatever."
Going wild is not of any interest to Ashley.
"I've been in a situation where there's been drinking and stuff. I just say no thanks," she said.
"I really don't do that," she said. "I have no problem with it. They can do what they want to do, and I can do what I want to do."
And that's what great about college life too. There's something for everyone.
Contact Ryan E. Smith at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6103.
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