Student Life

Two Fridays / Five Yellow Jackets / Six Bulldogs

[ Tech ]

7:29 a.m. 

Devin Roach knows a shortcut to breakfast. The spiky-haired eighteen-year-old bounds into the budding morning from Armstrong Hall, a dour 1960s low-rise freshman dorm, and strides confidently across the empty courtyard before crossing the street and cutting through a nearby parking deck. “I’ve seen a few other people walking around with maps,” he says. “I feel like I’m in the know.”

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore

Devin has been at Tech for five weeks. When his plane from Albuquerque landed, he didn’t know a single person in Atlanta. But today he enters Woodruff Dining Hall like a regular, silverware in his back pocket, making small talk with the woman behind the counter. Devin loads up on biscuits and gravy and sausage links—what he calls “a man’s meal.” Then he scans the room. He recognizes the cliques—from the swimmers with shaved heads by the door to the more subtle tables of threes and fours that occupy the same space every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Devin flutters between groups, collecting experiences and acquaintances. He went through rush with a dorm mate but never pledged. He is a member of the Panamanian Students at Georgia Tech (he spent a summer in Panama), the Spanish Speaking Organization (he is fluent in a “ghetto” New Mexican dialect), and the Student Alumni Association. He says he even tried to walk on to the tennis team before he realized they practiced three times a day. “I just don’t have time,” he says.

Today Devin decides to join a mop-haired fellow freshman. They talk about football and roommates and computer games, before the boy leaves for an 8 a.m. class. At 8:15, Devin heads back to his room, slipping into the walk-in-closet-sized space to grab his toothbrush and a sweatshirt while trying not to wake his roommate. In the bathroom, he runs into another guy from class. The two talk about their Friday night plans. Devin has tickets to Georgia Tech Night at Six Flags, for which the university has rented out the entire park, opening it to students and faculty. Devin is excited because, as a mechanical engineer, he wants to build roller coasters one day.

But right now he has to catch the bus to his 9 a.m. chemistry class. Today he’ll get the grade on his first test. He isn’t optimistic. Tech is known for trying to weed out freshmen, especially in its competitive engineering programs. And even though the Institute has improved retention rates, past data indicates that around 6 percent of this year’s 2,575 incoming freshmen will not be back next fall.

8:28 a.m.

The bricks of string-bound papers are stacked into walls just inside the offices of the Technique, the student-run college newspaper. In the back, computers idle beside the deadline fallout of pizza boxes and take-out containers strewn with cold, flimsy fries and rubbery lettuce. In the old darkroom-turned-lounge, a green couch sags, cushions sunk where a reporter has slept. The editor’s desk is covered with proofs marked with green and red ink. But beside the proofs is the giveaway, the thing that would never, under any circumstances, be found in the office of a right-brained reporter: a massive textbook titled Fundamentals of Heat and Mass Transfer.

That’s not really fair to the book’s owner, the young man with the shadow of a mustache sitting at the desk, Technique editor in chief Vijai Narayanan. For the past three years, the mechanical engineering major has poured his spare hours into this paper, first as a freshman reporter, then as an assistant editor, then as a news editor before taking the big chair this year. And as there is no journalism program at Tech, he has had to train himself and his staff of fellow scientists to put out a newspaper. He says it has given him a chance to work on his writing, engage people and ask questions, and better get to know campus. “Plus,” he says, “I was looking for anything that wasn’t math all day.”

Of course, there are advantages to having engineers running a newspaper. For instance, they don’t need an IT department to service faulty computers. And in these dire economic times, what media outlet couldn’t use a leader formally trained in logistics?

Distribution is the problem of the day, here as elsewhere, and as Vijai delivers the bundles of the latest edition from the back of the Technique’s electric golf cart—the driver’s side door of which even the mechanical engineers have not been able to fix—he’ll be looking for optimal places for pick-up racks to better serve students. The Technique publishes 10,000 copies weekly, except during finals week, and it is available to Tech’s 20,000-plus students and faculty for free (partially financed by student fees). From these pages they can get the scoop on Tech’s appeal of NCAA penalties on its athletics programs or reports of students victimized by crime, especially when they wander off campus and into the west side of the city. Vijai also pushes the paper to be more satirical—a challenge with inexperienced writers getting paid only $10 per story.

Vijai rolls across campus, 400 acres in the middle of a mad metropolis, monitoring high-traffic areas like Brittain Dining Hall. The sign, though, reads “Bri ain.” In fact, T’s are missing from signs across campus. The 1960s student tradition of stealing the trademark T from atop Tech Tower administrative building has recently evolved to include the T’s on all campus signage, a trend that reportedly has cost the university $100,000 in repairs. But on his rounds, Vijai is focused on which Technique racks are empty, poorly labeled, or not labeled at all, racks that have been moved a few feet from the door into the corner. The problem stems from an ever-shifting campus, seemingly under constant construction.

He pulls up to the Carnegie Building, grabs a bundle, and walks inside and up the stairs, to a table outside a conference room, where a woman greets Vijai with a smile. The woman works in the office of the university president, and behind her is a meeting of the Georgia Tech Foundation. “We always like to have some Techniques on hand,” she tells him. He thanks her and tells her that he’ll see her next week. He has an interview with the president for a story.

12:06 p.m.

She’s been at it for six hours. Captain of the swim team, fourth-year Heidi Hatteberg was in the water by 6 a.m., in the weight room by 7:30, on the training table at 8:45, in Structures Analysis at 10:05, then running at 11. Now the petite Louisville native, brown hair pulled tight into a ponytail, moves quickly through the outskirts of Grant Field en route to the Weber Building, a squat structure on the south side of campus with tall, dark windows and an ancient-looking satellite dish planted out front. There she has a meeting with her adviser, Dr. Dimitri Mavris, to discuss her future.

Mavris is a distinguished faculty member of Tech’s School of Aerospace Engineering and has been Heidi’s mentor since she emailed him as a sophomore to share her dream of being a pilot. He invited her to a picnic at Stone Mountain for all aerospace professors and students, and she’s been building on those connections, that ambition, and a 3.67 grade point average ever since.

But with nine months until graduation, Heidi is nervous. She enters a vacant conference room and pulls out a chair beside Mavris at the end of a long table. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” she tells him. Then she pulls out a career fair brochure from a defense contractor offering to pay for grad school in return for a commitment to stay with the company. It is high-paying, government defense work—a job that many students would kill for. But Mavris takes a breath, pushes the brochure aside, and puts both hands flat on the table.

“This is a stable path,” he says of the brochure, looking into her eyes like a father to his child. “But I personally think you can do better. You’ll be in demand. There are very few women in engineering. There are few at the master’s level. There are none at the Ph.D. level. It’s supply and demand. And I don’t want to see you cash in too early.

“This is a stable job,” he continues. “This is for people who don’t have a very bright future.”

Heidi puts the brochure back in her bag and out of her mind. She talks about getting her grad school application together. He smiles and tells her she’s months ahead of the game. Then the two shake hands and he walks her to the stairwell.

As she leaves the building, Heidi is stirred from meditation by heavy sneaker falls on the walkway. “Hold the door open!” yells a young man sprinting toward her. He blows past, leaving behind a thwarted pursuer. Apparently the two are participating in a campus-wide outdoor zombie tag game. The chaser with a yellow band around his head is a zombie; the sprinter now safely inside with a yellow band around his arm, a target human.

Heidi laughs. She has some free time before her 3 p.m. lab. She needs to eat lunch and find a quiet place to study.

2:07 p.m.

The door to Room E283 of the Van Leer Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Building won’t open, and fourth-year Matt Jacobson doesn’t understand why. Fresh out of Digital Design Lab, the electrical engineering major was hoping to work on the circuit board he’s been building for class. But the lab is behind this locked door.

Shirt buttoned and tucked tidily into belted khakis, loafers with no socks, Matt checks his smartphone—which, he says, “dominates” his life—to see what else he needs to work on. He decides to tote his laptop across the lawn to Clough Commons. He enters through heavy glass doors. At the top, he passes the Starbucks that drains his bank account, climbing another staircase to a floor of cubicles, each containing a table and chairs beneath a dry-erase board for group projects and study sessions.

He finds a quiet corner seat and opens his Sony Vaio. Since the school has conspired against his doing work for class, he’ll take the opportunity to catch up on other tasks. For while Matt spends sixteen hours a week in the classroom working toward a degree, he spends the rest working for himself, developing websites for campus organizations like Engineers Without Borders (geared to helping people in developing nations), the Solar Jackets solar-car race team, the Interfraternity Council, and Enterprise to Empower, which promotes “social entrepreneurship”—among the buzzwords Matt wields readily—in Atlanta. He says going to school in the middle of one of the country’s largest cities affords Tech students a great opportunity to get involved in business. “On campus, the city can disappear,” he says. “But it can reappear if you want it to.”

At quarter till 3, Matt closes the computer and ventures onto the Clough roof, which is actually a large landscaped garden of tall grasses, shrubs, and small flowering trees. He points up admirably at the solar panels and lets slip another buzzword: “sustainability.” Matt says, as a businessman, there is plenty of profitability in making a positive social and environmental impact. “It’s going on everywhere,” he says. “And that’s the only way you’re going to make things happen.”

 3:17 p.m.

Leaning over a workbench in the muted light of an overcast sky that seeps into the studio through the broad windows of the Architecture Building, Morgan Rice holds her invention in her hands. The Illume is a simple, pocket-sized message board upon which one can scribble a note in black dry-erase, flip on the bright blue light inserted in the base, and broadcast to a friend across a noisy room. For now it’s just a prototype prism of clear plastic that Morgan laser-cut herself and wired with a small light-emitting diode, something she and a partner conceptualized and produced in three short weeks.

Morgan is a third-year industrial design major, continuing the family tradition of making things. Her grandfather, a Navy man back in Weaverville, North Carolina, a small town just north of Asheville, designed and built all kinds of contraptions. But Morgan is proud to be the first one in her family to attend a four-year university.

She chose Tech over Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina to be closer to her father, who has lived in Carrollton, Georgia, since she was five—two years after the divorce. She now works for his company, cleaning bathrooms and emptying trash bins at Stone Mountain, one of her two jobs.

The twenty-one-year-old was scrubbing toilets before class at 8:30 this morning. After this design lab lets out, she plans on meeting with the Christian Campus Fellowship, of which she is a member. Then she’ll cut loose with some friends at Six Flags.

 7:48 p.m.

The Tech buses pull into the Six Flags parking lot, passing other students who drove themselves, some pounding cans of beer behind their cars before making for the entrance, where members of the Marching Yellow Jackets await with brass and brazen spirit.

Devin enters having just received a text from a friend who says they’re in line at Goliath, a towering 200-foot-high roller coaster that rises over the entire park. He recognizes a few other groups, smiles and waves, but is thus far content to hit the first few rides sans friends. He starts at the Georgia Scorcher, a smaller coaster on a track of tight loops and twists that, in his opinion, could’ve used a few more elevations and drops.

Night falls. While waiting in line for Goliath, Devin’s pal Kirt expresses his anxiety about the ride—it’s his first time on a roller coaster in years, he says. Devin tries to calm his friend, pointing out that there are no loops on Goliath, just ups and downs. But something else is bothering Devin. As the pair prepare to board the ride, he tells Kirt about the chemistry test. He got a 65. “I’m going to have to study harder,” he says.

Finally it’s their turn. They sit down, arms up to allow the lap bars to be secured. There’s the hiss of the brake releasing as the car moves out of the gate and the ratcheting of the chain pulling it up the steep sloping track to the apex, 200 feet above the ground. From here, Devin can see the boundless skyline lit up against the backdrop night. The entire city is at his feet. Then a pause, a quick, deep breath, before the car plummets, Devin falling, laughing and screaming, 170 feet down into the shadows.


[ UGA ]

4:57 a.m.

The body is awake. It rises at the alarm, slipping out of bed and into shorts, T-shirt, tennis shoes. It knows the route blind through the dark dorm: past the open art history book on the desk; down the hall; past the bathroom, green Mardi Gras beads on a wadded-up bath mat; exiting past the pizza box on the kitchen counter. The body leaves Vandiver, where many athletes choose to stay beyond the required freshman year. At this hour, they merely need to sleepwalk across a dark and desolate street to get to facilities like the Ramsey Center, a sprawling $40 million rec center where students and staff come to work out, play racquetball, and scale the climbing wall. The body goes downstairs, through the mildewy locker room, to the Olympic-sized pool, and onto the starting platform, where limbs contort and spring forward. But it isn’t until the body hits the water just after 5 a.m. that Will Freeman’s mind joins the waking world.

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore

For seventy-five minutes, the broad-shouldered sophomore from Atlanta is just another black swim cap in a bubbling soup of fifty swimmers. During the season, Will spends twenty hours a week in this water, in the weight room, or climbing the aisles of Sanford Stadium training for the 1,650-yard freestyle, the swimmer’s mile, in which he was a U.S. National finalist this past summer. Along the way, he squeezes in fifteen hours of class every week. Will is undeclared, just as he’s undecided on what he wants to be when he can no longer be a swimmer. He is twenty years old. Right now all his brain has room for is stroke-breath, stroke-breath.

Out of the pool, Will hustles to catch up with three female teammates down the hallway who are gossiping about a friend’s string of drunken texts from last night. At 7 a.m. breakfast, he sits between them at the table and smiles nervously as they tease him about being a big shot.

After breakfast, Will mounts his red scooter. Helmet on, he zooms past the students, parking feet away from Stegeman Coliseum, the sleekly renovated, forty-seven-year-old gymnasium where the basketball team plays. In the coliseum’s weight room, the workout resumes. Will picks up a kettlebell beside a female swimmer, a tall, short-haired brunette. He bends and lifts, pausing briefly to see if she’s looking.

8:15 a.m.

She pulls the bus to the front of the Visitors Center, a former dairy barn that is now one wing of the Four Towers Building—the towers being nothing more than empty white grain silos on the southeast edge of campus. Then she turns on the smile honed over a summer internship at WRDW News 12 in Augusta and welcomes the group of high schoolers and parents to the University of Georgia: “Hi y’all. My name is Hannah Drum.”

Hannah herds her group onto the bus and drives them nearly three miles across campus, north to Broad Street to the landmark Arch, the frame of a cast-iron gate that once separated a much smaller campus from the surrounding town—a barrier that is both physically and figuratively long gone. Today almost a third of Athens’s 114,000 people are students at UGA, and that percentage is going up. This year, out of about 18,000 applicants, Georgia accepted 5,500 new freshmen—its largest incoming class to date. The university is also by far the city’s largest employer, which means another 9,800 Athenians make their living directly from the school, to say nothing of all the restaurants, bars, and stores that cater to students. In effect, Athens is the University of Georgia.

But more than a century ago, when that iron fence still stood, Hannah tells her tour, one student vowed never to pass through the gate until he got his degree. That started a superstition among students that if they walk beneath the Arch before receiving their diploma, they will not graduate. Hannah leads her tour group around the iron pillars, past the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, a stately brick structure with a columned entrance that was built as a library before the Civil War. The group shuffles through the grass-covered commons that, Hannah explains, were the original outdoor classrooms of an institution geared toward agriculture when it was founded in 1785. Now students graze with tablets and cell phones tapped into a vast wireless cloud.

In any given year, around 23,000 teens and parents take this tour. But Hannah has never been one of them. In fact, she had never set foot here before the first day of orientation. From age ten, she knew she wanted to be a broadcast journalist, and having her mind set on a big school, in-state, with a strong journalism program, it didn’t take long for her to fix on UGA. She knew she wanted to pledge a sorority and quickly picked the goal of becoming president, which she now is. As a freshman she joined the close to 150 students applying for fifteen to twenty spots as a tour guide—more for prestige than $7.25 per hour. She will graduate in May, precisely on schedule. She knows the job market is rough, especially for journalists. Somehow, she doesn’t seem worried.

11:16 a.m.

Abid Fazal is just coming out of his biochemistry class. He woke up before 8, as he does most days, to drive his thirteen-year-old brother to school.

Abid and his brother live with their parents in a three-bedroom apartment off campus. Actually, the family lives with Abid, as they have since he persuaded them to leave their native Pakistan and return to Georgia, where Abid was raised. The father travels for work as an accountant, leaving Abid to care for his brother and mother, who doesn’t drive because she is recovering from surgery. That, seventeen hours of class each week, and keeping his grades immaculate for a shot at Johns Hopkins med school occupy his days. As he walks, the twenty-year-old’s back is bent beneath a book bag stuffed thicker than his lean torso.

He refuels at the Village Summit dining hall among the science buildings on the east side of campus. Abid pays $3,590 a year to eat three squares, Monday through Friday—just under $20 a day, which would be a bargain if he actually found time to sit down to every meal. Today Abid gathers lunch: grilled chicken with cheese and Buffalo sauce (no bun), a salad (no dressing), watermelon and strawberries, tea and water. His friend, Debashis, who is about a year older than Abid, has ordered pizza and oatmeal.

The pair sit down and launch into a roundup of two worlds: Debashis talking about dropping a class, Abid reminding him that he gets only four drops; Debashis jazzed about his tickets to the football game against Boise State, Abid lamenting that in his haste to get to biochem lab, those were the only tickets he forgot to buy; Abid asking Debashis about his decision to go into “bioterrorism” (“It’s biodefense!” says Debashis. “Very different wording!”); Debashis changing the subject to a spoiled batch of homemade cider and the fact that it’s weird that, of all things, he follows University of Virginia basketball.

“I need another hobby,” says Debashis.

“You could pick up a new minor,” says Abid.

Debashis stares across the table.

“No,” he says. “A hob-by.”

Abid fishes his iPhone from his pocket. 12:03. Physics lab starts at 12:20. He heaves his bag over his shoulder, says goodbye, puts up his dishes, and rushes to the bus. This weekend he plans to take his mother to the mall. She likes the Asian restaurants at the food court. Then he’ll try to gather classmates and get a jump on a project for Arabic class. 12:11. He gets off the bus and makes for a shortcut through a parking lot, then across Cedar Street and into the Physics Building. He’d like to be at least a little early.

2:38 p.m.

The thumb-sized photos on the contact sheet look like they were shot through a mug of beer, a result of forgetting to use yellow on the negative. And even as the photographer and developer, Elizabeth Magoni, runs through the steps of producing a second sheet, her mind is somewhere else.

In the pitch-black darkroom:

“Are you going to the Party?”

In the adjacent processing room:

“It’s going to be insane!”

Waiting by the printer:

“There are going to be like . . . 2,000 people there!”

The Party is a costume bash put on by Phi Slam—Phi Sigma Lamda. Tonight’s theme will be duct tape—where attendees are encouraged to incorporate strips or yards of the stuff into their attire. And since the frat’s mission is to “provide an alternative to the college drinking scene,” there is to be no alcohol, which appeals to Elizabeth, a leader at the Wesley Foundation United Methodist Student Center who pledged not to drink on campus. “It’s just a bunch of guys who love to have a good time and love Jesus,” she says as her second contact sheet comes out.

The art students standing around the printer smile and politely nod.

Elizabeth picks up the new sheet and bites her lower lip in frustration. “Darn,” she says. “This time I forgot to turn off the white light.”

4:32 p.m.

Nekabari Goka clocks out at the International Student Life offices, where he is an event coordinator, and slips over to the Greek Life offices in the basement of the Tate Student Center, a student union across the street from the football stadium in the heart of campus.

When Nekabari was a sophomore, he pledged Kappa Alpha Psi, one of four UGA houses in the Pan-Hellenic Council of historically black fraternities, known for the signature red and white canes they wield at campus step shows. In just two years, Nekabari has risen to the position of Polemarch, chapter president. As such, he is recognized when he walks across campus, tight polo accentuating an athletic build and tucked into immaculately pressed slacks, hugging folks and shaking hands and petting puppies all the way to the door of the Kappa Alpha Psi office. There, photos are taped to the walls—fraternity brothers, present and past, at step shows and participating in masked initiation ceremonies.

So what does he have planned for a Friday night? “I’m going to go out with my fraternity brothers,” he says with a knowing smile. “And wherever the night takes us . . . well . . . that’s college.”

6:46 p.m.

Welcome to New Sneakers Factory—what fourth-year Bryan Blaylock and his bandmates call the basement of their rented ranch, the one with the keg and the beer pong table out front, nestled in a wooded neighborhood just off South Milledge Avenue, one of Athens’s main arteries. Down here, among the Christmas lights, the amps, and the scattered beer and whiskey bottles, New Sneakers rehearses its contribution to a legendary Athens music scene that has produced national acts from R.E.M. to Drive-By Truckers. That tradition is part of the reason Bryan came here from Texas—along with the fact that he couldn’t get into USC in Los Angeles—and he is proud to be part of the latest generation of Athens musicians.

At the moment, only Bryan and drummer Thomas Avery (a guitar major at UGA) are present. Bass player Brian Stewart, a recent grad, got off work at 6 p.m. and should be here momentarily. Guitar player Hodges Berry, a senior, works till 10 and will miss practice. Bryan doesn’t have a job—his parents in Dallas are picking up the tab. But even he is not immune to the pressures of the impending postgrad world. “It used to be easy to sleep through class,” he says from the basement couch, feet bare, hair disheveled. “But now I take it seriously.” He points out that these are classes geared to his major, marketing with an emphasis in the music business. “These are the things I want to learn.”

But for now, New Sneakers is Bryan’s life. He spends his time practicing, performing, planning gigs and road trips, promoting, and patronizing local venues like Amici and the 40 Watt, as he was until 2:30 this morning.

Stewart arrives at 7:25, and Bryan slings his red Stratocaster over his shoulder and steps to the mic. The band has a gig tomorrow, a party for their fraternity. They rehearse original works—jangling, rootsy tunes with lyrics about deceitful girls and the futility of work in a song called “Work.” Even short a guitar, Bryan throws himself into the songs, swaying, smiling, and jumping up and down as if onstage and not in a musty cellar. After an encore of the Beatles’ “Come Together” around 9, the boys conclude a decidedly productive Friday night practice.

Bryan says he’ll probably just watch a movie. “I’ve been out every night this week, partied pretty hard,” he says, a bit hoarse. “I need to save myself for tomorrow.”

10:17 p.m.

In college it’s generally frowned upon to show up to a party before 11 p.m. Of course, for an alcohol-free Friday night at a notorious party school, one might think it unfashionable to show up at all.

But tonight there are 3,000 youths who don’t care.

Traffic is backed up for almost a mile on South Milledge Avenue. Running against the line of vehicles is a queue of people snaking toward the distant thump of techno coming from the wooded area beyond the road. Headlights bounce off neon duct tape in the partygoers’ clothes, from simple duct tape bow ties, armbands, and vests, to elaborate suits of gladiator armor and multi-colored-tape petal skirts. At the gate, uniformed police stand, arms folded, while a couple of tape-togaed Phi Slams high-five. A girl in a tutu is dancing up and down the line, screaming, “It’s so awesome!”

Elizabeth arrives at 10:20 with two friends. She is not decked out like the others; she wears a plain navy blue dress with a simple necklace made out of rolled-up white tape and paper clips. Still, she radiates a quiet enthusiasm as she scans the crowd.

Past the gate, frat brothers greet the hot mob with bottles of water and Fruit by the Foot before diverting the flow into a tunnel of black plastic. The passage narrows, packing shoulder to greasy shoulder, strangers’ breaths on sweat-drenched necks waiting in a windless bottleneck. And yet there is no pushing, no complaining, no scuffles over who cut in line. Just a palpable anticipation growing with the volume of the beat. Finally people trickle out of the chute and into a sea of moving flesh, bouncing, gyrating, hundreds of arms reaching toward the sky and a giant duct tape disco ball. Six thousand eyeballs turn to a DJ perched in a tree stand above the pit to see what comes next.

But Elizabeth stands still in the middle of the rolling mass, arms and eyes down, working the keypad on her phone. As the night wears on, she slips to the outskirts of the pit, the din subdued enough that she can conduct a phone call, holding a finger in her ear. Before long, a young man appears. His name is Nathan. He is a Phi Slam and a fellow Wesley Foundation leader. They listen as the entire crowd sings along to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” with one voice that overpowers the PA. They laugh as a boy is taped to the tree below the DJ and starts dancing. And yet at times, while they talk, the party seems to disappear altogether.