University Life Begins
Chapter Cover Photo
Image of Atlanta Skyline After Dark

As I mentioned in the last chapter, I was going to find out that I had not chosen the correct college/university or college major but I had no idea that this was the case when I selected a college right after high school.  There had never been a doubt that I was going to go to college and get a four-year degree.  I knew that from 7th grade when I was barely thirteen years old.  It seemed like the only way I could hope to be successful was going to require getting into a great college.  

I certainly would not have been in band class throughout most of junior high and into high school, if I wasn't being told by my parents that I needed to be "well-rounded" to get into a great university/college something like an Ivy League college/university.  By well-rounded, it was meant that I needed to have extra-curricular activities to get into prestigious colleges.   Because I was shy and therefore not part of the school clubs or activities, it seemed like I had to stick with band class even though I hated it.  

As far as what I was going to study in college, looking back, it seemed that I chose Engineering because I was great in math and science.  Engineering is a field that uses math and science to design technical "things."  

I should add that I got A's not just in Math classes and Science classes in high school.  I got A's in Advanced Placement English class in high school as well.  The question about whether I would like to be an engineer was something I NEVER considered in high school or for the first two years of college.  My father had said that he recognized that but there was some miscommunication in that regard.  

I wasn't encouraged to pursue thoughts about what really interested me.  There is a sense in which this described not just academic subjects but every aspect of my life.  I didn't feel like I had anyone with whom to talk about what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do when I was growing up.  Independent thinking and self-discovery were not encouraged any more than having a valid but different perspective on the world was encouraged.  

Having a different point of view would be misunderstood by our parents.  It might come across as a challenge to their values even if that was not your intention.        

Anyway, as it would turn out, the Georgia Institute of Technology, aka Georgia Tech, which is a very prestigious university did not require me to demonstrate that I was well-rounded, as it were.      The thing about getting into schools like Georgia Tech is that it may not be hard to get into the school but graduating from Georgia Tech in one of the engineering programs is the most challenging task any student could face.  

Anyway, of course, I thought I was making my entire family proud.  I had a sister, Carrie, who was about three years younger than me, and a brother John who was 8 years younger than me.  I saw myself as the star of the family up until very recently.  I went straight from high school into college without hesitation or uncertainty.  This was what had been expected of me.

My father had gone to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, and gotten a degree in nuclear engineering.  He said that Georgia Tech is very prestigious, almost as much so as MIT (The Massachusets Institute of Technology).  I was accepted at Penn State for their engineering program also but Georgia Tech was more prestigious and while I didn't want to leave Connecticut, it seemed that any worthy college/university would require moving away.  

We arrived at Georgia Tech in August of 1984.  Parents are invited to join the students for orientation.  We all arrive some time shortly before classes will begin for the fall quarter - yes, we had quarters instead of semesters like some schools have (semesters occur 3/year and quarter are 4/year).  This was not even two months after graduating from high school in Southington, Connecticut.  

The south overall is much less populated than the north but Georgia Tech is situated nearly in the center of the city of Atlanta, GA. I had grown up in a town that had a population of roughly 30,000 to a city with a metropolitan population of about 5 million.

To call this culture shock would be an understatement.  

My parents and I arrived on the campus and we must have known where to go for orientation.  I remember the first thing we saw was the basketball stadium and another few sports fields followed by the fraternity houses and a few sorority houses after we got off the interstate highway in downtown Atlanta, where Georgia Tech is located.  As an aside, there were much fewer sororities because males go into engineering by a ratio of over 2 to 1.  

We were amused by the strange sign on a fraternity house banner that read "I Hate Georgia."  What?  

We had just traveled all the way from Connecticut to Georgia and for me, I am wondering if I will feel at all comfortable in this new place.  Anyway, as it turns out the reference was to the school rival Georgia State University;  thus "I Hate Georgia" means that they hate their rival.  It is a bit amusing to "hate" a rival or to personalize another nearby university as a hated rival.    

I could not help but wonder later how anyone could be going to school at Georgia Tech as a student and have time to play for any of the school's sports teams.  I would later find out that they have majors like Geology, aka "Rocks for Jocks" as a major that members of the school football and basketball teams can take while they are students at Georgia Tech... because even a genius cannot do all the assignments and pass the classes while participating in sports.  

Obviously, I could not appreciate that yet.  I knew that Georgia Tech would be a challenge but I had no idea just how much so!  We were the best of the best in high schools across the country until we got to Georgia Tech.

I noticed how Georgia Tech fits into downtown Atlanta like a small hidden or forbidden community within a larger city that was filled with traffic, skyscrapers, and a huge metropolitan area.  Yep, this was a very new experience for me.  

Something inside me was feeling a sense of worry or fear.  This was a very different experience for me.  

For "orientation" they seemed to separate the parents from the new kids, the incoming freshmen, for the most part.  I'm not sure what the thinking was on that.  The parents were about to leave and have no involvement in what was about to transpire for the incoming freshmen class.  

Looking back, I am sure that I knew that I was on my own in a new way.  Don't get me wrong, growing up there were not many rules during high school.  I didn't have a curfew or anything like that.  I knew I was totally and completely about to be on my own.  

Anyway, I did see my parents every day during orientation.  I felt a bit embarrassed that I had fear and embarrassment about my social skills and my ability to make new friends.   

There were daily activities like the first day we went rafting on the Chattahoochee River and I suppose the goal was to help us to start to connect to others.  You don't have to travel far to get out of the city with the skyscrapers and find yourself in the country where you could go rafting.    That's where I really felt like a misfit.  I tried so hard to connect and I felt like I had to do that right away.  

I suppose at some point as part of this "orientation" both parents and the incoming students were told a truth that everyone needed to understand - not everyone who gets admitted to Georgia Tech is going to graduate. In fact, most students (more than half) were not going to make it. They would flunk out. At one point during orientation, they would tell you to look at the person to your left and then to your right. One of you is going to graduate!  

This is an important reality to remember in understanding the challenges that were presented by Georgia Tech and why we could all feel good about ourselves later if we were able to make it as a student at Georgia Tech.   

This wasn't high school where I could exist as a quiet outsider in classes, not speaking, being invisible.  This was like forced activities.  I suppose that was good.  It demonstrated right away, in my mind, that I was going to need help.  Of course, I didn't know on that first day of orientation that there was help available on campus to deal with shyness, social anxiety, and other related issues.  I knew that since I was going to be on my own, I needed/wanted friends.  

It's not like I ever previously imagined I was the center of attention.  However, if I was going to make friends I would have to appear normal and that's not how I was feeling.  This was the shame I didn't want to share with Mom and Dad.  

I don't know what the experience was like for Mom and Dad, they didn't convey much of what they experienced. They would be returning to Connecticut very soon so for what reason did they need an orientation?  

Anyway, things were good with us for the most part, that is with my parents and me.  I mean in life overall I always tried to gain their approval and admiration.  I wanted to make them proud of me.  That's why I got all A's growing up.  That's why I chose a prestigious university.  I also had no idea yet that my choice of a major was wrong.  

Now, during orientation, making friends, connecting seemed like a matter of survival.  

In one sense, surviving as a student meant not "failing/flunking out."  I had been preparing for this for at least the past 6 years.  Failure academically, here at Georgia Tech, for me meant failure in life.  

During orientation, we, the incoming freshman students, moved into the dorms and the parents stayed in a nearby hotel until they returned home after orientation. 

 I remember the profound sense of isolation that I felt. All my friends were way up north in Connecticut, along with the cousins with whom I had hung out. I just couldn't find anything to say to anyone. I mean I was feeling so "different." Previously I had been shy but I didn't feel like a "freak."  I know now that it was just a feeling and that anyone would feel overwhelmed in this situation.     

After the day's activities which were part of orientation, I found myself in a dorm room - ALONE.  It's hard to describe why I felt this way but I was scared.  It seemed like everyone else was "connecting" and socializing during the forced activities that are "orientation."  They also seemed to be finding things to do in the evenings when we were left alone.  I thought that only a weirdo would be roaming around the dorm rooms all alone.     

I believe the fraternities start having parties and beginning what will be "rush week" before classes begin.  

It was probably the second evening of orientation when I found myself outside a dorm building where I saw a barbeque, they were cooking hamburgers and hotdogs, on a grill.  Anyway, I saw a couple of guys that I had seen that day during the orientation activities.  Actually, it seems like there was only one person that I felt was approachable.  So, I awkwardly tried to socialize - kinda - inserting myself into the conversation he was having.  

I discovered that he and another guy were going to go to some of the frat parties on campus.  Somehow I found the courage to ask if I could join them.  Before long we were walking off to a few of the frat houses.  In looking back, I only remember the one frat house that I ended up pledging.  It was the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternity.  This wasn't the only fraternity that I visited during the "rush week" but it was the one I pledged.  

Deciding to pledge a fraternity was just the first action I took to address the problem of making friends and connections in this new environment.  

I suppose many readers have some idea of what a fraternity party might be like.  Some elaboration is in order.  Around the first week of classes each fall, fraternities have what is called 
"rush week."  This is where the fraternity has parties.  Undoubtedly, they have a beer keg.  I am sure they had stronger alcoholic drinks as well.  You might be thinking, "gee, that would have helped you relax, Bruce."

I wish I had thought of that.  I would come to be known as a "good" person who did no wrong over the years of my time at Georgia Tech.  I don't want to get ahead of myself in the story, though.  Was that because I didn't drink at this time or throughout most of my years at Georgia Tech?  That's probably part of the reason.  Also, I had been known to not have "experimented" with any illicit drugs.  That's also probably part of why I was seen as such a "good" person.  

I'm not saying that to brag.  I remember someone playing "Only the good die young" by Billy Joel and someone said I will die very young.  That's what I mean.  

Anyway, I can only offer you an insight into how ZBT does their rush week and how people become pledges.  

During "rush" (aka rush week) the brothers at the frat make you feel like you are very special!  It's a form of love bombing, though the phrase "love bombing" is used in a more nefarious way to describe actions by a cult or by narcissists.  So, anyway, this might have made this experience easier for me since I was needing to feel like I fit in and that I am connected with some group.  

When you agree to pledge, by indicating so to at least one member of the fraternity, they ring a bell and make lots of noise yelling and cheering.  So, within a week, I went from feeling like a weirdo roaming around the door room rooms and halls to being the center of attention in a big crowd.  It was tempered by the fact that they didn't put us on a stage or anything and the attention soon shifted back to the party and recruiting other pledges.      

If I had seen this coming, this experience of suddenly becoming the center of attention in a crowd, I probably would not have acted.  So, it's a good thing I didn't think about it.  I had seen others agree to pledge, though.  It's confusing.  The very notion of being the center of attention anywhere, ever, was an alien experience to me - something I had avoided previously.  In fact, I was too shy to speak in classes of 25 or so students even five years later when I had come so far in overcoming my shyness.   

After Rush Week

Things change after "rush" and as classes are getting started.  Suddenly, you have been transformed from the person who was treated like they are so special to being treated like a lowly pledge.  I don't mean they did anything bad.  It's just that the dynamics change.  As a pledge, there are things you have to do.  This will culminate in a final "initiation" when we finally become members of the fraternity.  

We were given a pledge paddle early and you are required to wear a suit or jacket and tie to classes for part of the period.  You are expected to show up at the frat house every day and kneel down holding your paddle up to ask for permission to enter in a ritualistic fashion.  It was out in the open so it wasn't hazing or anything nefarious.  however, for me, I didn't want to be the center of attention anywhere.  So, I would dress normally for classes, not bring my paddle to classes like everyone else but I would get it at the end of the day when I was expected to show up at the frat house.     

We did all our studying and homework at the frat house unless we had to do something on the mainframe computer stations or if there were reasons to be elsewhere for study groups or lab work.  

I remember some movie in which the pledges were hit with the paddle as part of the initiation and they are instructed to say "thank you, sir, may I have another."  That didn't happen to us. There was nothing nefarious that happened during the initiation.  

There were secrets that we were expected to keep but they weren't the kind of secrets that you hear about existing in secret societies.  There wasn't any hazing either.