It is both comforting and realistic to have a college memoir written by someone who wasn’t all together comfortable with college. In Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, Susan Allen Toth writes about her days at Smith. Toth, then called Susan Allen, left Ames, Iowa, to attend Smith College in 1957. She achieved great academic success there, but she didn’t always love it. Smith wasn’t warm and fuzzy, and Toth was on a scholarship at a time when Smith apparently housed all the scholarship kids together. (That wasn’t necessarily unusual at the time.)
Toth wasn’t particularly comfortable at Smith. Upon arrival she was miserably homesick and, as a poor scholarship student, painfully aware that her clothes weren’t up to snuff. She felt heavy pressure to be happy and love it, which is a tall order for many college freshmen. She had enjoyed great academic success in order to get admitted to Smith, and at times she seemed almost overwhelmed by her own expectations of success. She had got what she wanted when she was admitted to Smith, but actually being there wasn’t all that amazing.
There were no major dramas to overcome, but there was a lot of hard work. Massive amounts of studying and an almost total emphasis on academics are at the core of this thoughtful memoir. The all-women environment was also key to Toth’s experience. Lots of her classmates were dating and had serious boyfriends, but Toth kind of drifted in and out of it. Romance wasn’t a vital component or measuring stick for her college experience. Toth’s depiction of the dorm environment and the women around her ring very true. There is very much a sense that this is how hard working, motivated women interact when there are no men around.
Toth’s book is written from a distance of about 15 years and after a PhD and a divorce. She still doesn’t feel like a success, but she has gained perspective and an academic career. Her reflections about her time at Smith should give lots of college students some reassuring perspective that it is okay to feel insecure, pressured and not particularly happy as a college freshman.
I really liked this book, which had been sitting on my “to be read” shelf for years.