“I Am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe is the story of Charlotte Simmon’s freshman year at an elite college. Charlotte was the top of her class and chose to attend the fictional Dupont College because of its academic reputation and the scholarship she was awarded. Charlotte came from a very poor town and was not fully prepared for what college was going to be like. Charlotte’s time at school puts her in contact with many “types” of people – her spoiled princess roommate, a star athlete, a writer for the newspaper, and a fraternity man (although this might be a case where I accept the use of “frat boy”). From the beginning of her time at Dupont, Charlotte’s values are constantly mismatched with those around her. Charlotte has a rocky start in college but eventually finds her footing.
I first read “I Am Charlotte Simmons” when I was a senior in high school. I was so excited for college and was reading everything I could get my hands on that related to “college life”. I remember thinking how unlucky Charlotte was and how unfortunate it was that she did not like college and had a terrible year. But I also remember thinking that the book was merely a work of fiction. I enjoyed reading it, and quickly set aside to devour another story about college and to dream of my future college life.
The second time I read “I am Charlotte Simmons” was the summer after my first year of grad school. I had completely forgotten about it, but when I saw it on a shelf at a secondhand bookstore, I remembered it from many years ago. As I read it again, I wanted to cry. This story was practically a combination of mine and my best friend’s freshman years. I hadn’t known it at the time, but high-school-me was very much like Charlotte. I avoided many social activities in high school because I didn’t want to be around people drinking. I was the first in my family to go to college and while I was not from a rural area like Charlotte, there were ways in which I was unprepared for “the college experience”. All my reading in high school did not make me ready to go off to school and be surrounded by people with much different values than me. My best friend’s experience was not much better. While I debated whether or not to try a sip of alcohol at a party that I had basically been dragged to, my friend was dealing with issues very similar to Charlotte’s romantic encounters, including dating a star athlete at her small elite college (but with an ending more similar to Charlotte’s trip to DC).
After getting over the fact that the book could have been very well named “I Am The Author” or “I Am The Author’s BFF”, I started thinking about the story in terms of the classes I had just taken and the training I had been through as a Hall Director. A lot of my classes forced me to reflect on my time as an undergrad. One of my professors even asked us to write about our first year at college and apply student development theories to ourselves. While I didn’t go as far as applying student development theories to the book, I thought about how important fit is when entering college. I had seen so many students at my graduate school that did not fit in with the school’s dominant culture and would have thrived at one of the other institutions I went to or was familiar with.
Now I am reading “I Am Charlotte Simmons” for a third time and thinking about the upcoming school year as a new professional. One of the things I was told very early on at my new job is that we have a lot of first generation students coming from impoverished homes that might not be prepared for college. Charlotte was definitely ready academically but not emotionally. In the novel, her best friend goes to an in-state school and “goes with the flow”. While I’m sure the culture was different at that school, I don’t think it was THAT drastic a change that Charlotte experienced.
The students that I am dealing with are from a very different background than Charlotte. I might almost be more prepared to deal with a Charlotte than some of the students I am told I will encounter – students who have lived in inner cities, seen their friends shot, and possibly have children of their own at home. Not too sure what to say to that…
Have any of you read this book either for fun or as part of your job? What did you think?