School functions as an intellectual outlet for me. More importantly, it functions as a form of escapism (funny how much others are willing to help out at home, or lower their expectations, when they know I’m busy with school work). I have been taking classes here at Ventura College (VC) for the last five years, and in that time I have made many friends and acquaintances. As a result, school has also functioned as a social outlet. When I signed up for the University Tour to UCLA, sponsored by the VC Transfer/Career Center, with 80+ other transfer hopefuls, I thought I would be part of a ‘social event’, which would work perfectly as fieldwork for my ethnography. All the grouping, giggling, and chattering of my fellow students on the bus confirmed my initial thoughts. The day’s events were so casual that Malinowski’s (1944) warning rang true: “Nothing is as difficult to see as the obvious” (p. 158). Upon reflection, the event that included free transportation, a campus tour, an orientation, and free food were not so casual after all. Malinowski’s functionalism helped me see that the tour functioned to uphold the institution of education in American society.
Initial Research Inquiries
Like most of my conversations with fellow students, I anticipated I would ask general questions about majors and college preference. These are topics that I feel comfortable discussing with my peers, and because I wanted to make sure that my day didn’t feel like a research project, I kept conversation light and neutral. I also expected to ask my peers how they prepared for transfer. I enjoy this type of forward-thinking, goal-setting topic because when I am off campus—in the real world—my age-peers (40+) discuss retirement, child-rearing, and ailments. From the perspective that transferring to university is a major life event in a democratic society that values formal, higher education, I would focus my observations of the day’s events to learn how community college students interact and how the transfer counselors that accompanied us managed the event.
Through observation, participation, and interviews, I was able to investigate the day’s events from an insider’s perspective, and at times, an outsider’s perspective. I say an outsider because 1) I am much older than my counterparts that were on the bus, and 2) I still can’t believe that I will be a college graduate, so the whole event was very surreal. I also performed follow-up interviews with some of the students. My dual-status made my fieldwork quite easy because all I had to do was be myself. Rapport easily established. Also, because the event required the group to stay together, I was not required to seek out conversation. I found my methods effective and apropos to the event. I brought a spiral notebook to take notes during the tour and my cell phone’s built-in camera made it convenient to chronicle the event. My cell phone’s voice memo app made it easy to record my follow-up interviews.
Fieldwork: The Bus Ride
The round-trip bus ride was fun and luxurious. Gauging from the 80+ transfer students on the bus, the average age was anywhere from 18-23. I was the oldest student, 44, and my age-peers were the bus driver and transfer counselors. As more students began to board, I began to recognize many faces: Mariann and Veronica from the VC Transfer Center, Cultural Anthropology classmates Gianne Braza and Aldridge Abundo, and co-worker Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Ramirez. This is where I met my first informant, Stella Kim, a music major. She is from South Korea, has been in the United States for two years, and plans to transfer to UCLA in hopes of being around other South Koreans. Rapport was immediate and we talked, giggled, and took selfies to post on facebook (she had to show me how to ‘friend’ her before I could post my picture on her wall). When Stella recognized Adam Brewer (informant #2) as he entered the bus, she invited him to sit next us. Adam is a political science major and would prefer to transfer to Pepperdine University to study law. Again, rapport was immediate as we talked about common educational goals and VC campus events. Our excitement and anticipation of the tour sustained our conversation all the way to campus.
The return trip on the bus was just as luxurious, but much quieter. Many students preferred to wear their headphones or take naps (I took a nap elated and relaxed because it wasn’t me driving on the 405). I am reminded that another reason the bus ride was relaxing was because Marianne Carasco-Nungaray, the transfer counselor, skillfully coordinated our schedule with the UCLA site counselor via mobile phone.
When we disembarked the bus, we were herded from the bus stop to the central quad meeting area in front of the statue of the bronze UCLA Bruins mascot. The open area, which was surrounded by large, stately trees and relatively modern buildings was alive and teeming with droves of passing students. The majority of the students looked just like VC students, age-wise, and style-wise. Dress and conversation was casual. If there were older people on campus, they were dressed professionally, which made me think they were faculty or staff, much like at VC.
Our tour guide was a double-major student, in political science (like me) and English. While she walked us around campus (backwards I should add) she shared a little bit about herself—studies, sorority affiliation, athletic involvement—and why she chose UCLA. We learned about the lore and legend of UCLA, were lead through a Bruin cheer, and through the halls of one of the many campus libraries. The architecture of the large-scale buildings was reminiscent of the Harry Potter stories and everything was surrounded by lush, manicured, green lawn. Overall, my impression of her presentation was that she was genuinely eager to make any one of us feel welcome.
The counselor discussed the different academic majors, differentiating the highly competitive ones, and the transfer admissions process. Anecdotal tips were given for application essays, print and online resources were explored for access to scholarship and student financial aid information, and on- and off-campus housing was discussed. She also made sure to stress the student attributes that admissions looks for—high GPA, motivated, competitive, involved, engaged, driven. Before we left we were encouraged to make an appointment with the transfer counselor when we returned to VC the following week. We were encouraged to ask questions, and by this time, there were several more counselors with our group that offered to share advice.
On our way to the campus cafeteria we were once again part of the mass droves of students. The short walk up the hill allowed us to break from the pack or regroup as we pleased. When we finally made it to the cafeteria we broke up into different groups to gather-hunt subsistence. After scouting my options for provisions, I grabbed a tray, assembled a few dishes of delight and found a table by the window to eat alone. While I ate, I scanned the cafeteria and tried to identify individuals from my group while eavesdropping on nearby conversations. I immediately recognized group of five young females that were commenting on the freshly prepared foods they had managed to forage. After they mistook me for a UCLA student, they asked if I wanted to join them once I told them I was part of the same group. I did. We chatted about our impressions of the school, our majors, and planned our next foraging expedition.
Each student I spoke with shared how they voluntarily signed up for the campus tour. Stella attended the campus tour to confirm if she would like to attend as a university student. She was looking forward to continuing her studies in musical performance. Even though she missed her family, and her mother’s home-cooked meals, she wanted to stay in California. While strolling on campus she spontaneously exclaimed, “there are a lot of Asians here.” Adam’s goals were also focused on his personal desire, which is to become a lawyer. Lupita was blasé about the tour. She had toured the campus previously with her father and older brother (when her brother was considering transferring to UCLA). She is preparing to transfer as a statistics major and plans to be a sports statistician. She confidently plans to attend UCLA or UC Berkeley, where her brother is now attending. According to Lupita, her identity was based on her education; she could not envision her adult self without a university degree. During my follow-up interview with Gianne, she explained that as an English major, she plans to transfer to UCLA to study nursing with the hopes of attaining financial stability and meaningful work after graduation. Even though she faltered academically during high school, she has regained her focus in order to achieve her goals. As a political science and international relations major, I plan to transfer to UCLA because I want to be able to apply for a master’s program abroad in order to live, study, and work abroad. I chose to major in political science because it has given me a lens in which to understand domestic and global issues. I feel it will prepare me to fulfill my life-long dream to live in another country (or countries), and it will allow me to take my family with me.
UCLA is a formal, institutional setting which promises opportunity to those who seek to contribute to society in positive, meaningful ways, and obtain eventual financial stability in their social roles as adults in a democratic, capitalist society. The informants believe that their motives are personal; they each seek different professions, and each believes that their professions will benefit them individually. However, the individual cannot be removed from its community. The individual’s actions affect their community and society as a whole. Conversely, community and society affect the individual through enculturation. Interviews with the informants clearly indicate that they were enculturated to honor formal education, and use it as a means to succeed and contribute. Malinowski (1944) explains that education (universally) is a cultural response to growing; it prepares individuals for their social roles (p. 107).
Functional analysis dictates “we understand the behavior of another person when we account for his motives” (Malinowski 1944, 71). The same can be said for a group. The sponsored, guided tour perpetuated the process of enculturation in a way that pleasing, fun, and hopeful. In this way it was “extraordinarily effective because it took [sic] place primarily through informal, nonexplicit means” (Bonvillain 2013, p. 99).
According to Bonvillain (2013) “in many societies, children undergo critical rites of passage as they move from the social role and status of childhood to those of adulthood” (p. 113). Although the transfer hopefuls that participated in the tour were not children—many community college students already maintain adult roles like jobs, education, and family—going to university is a critical rite of passage for those who wish to prepare themselves to be in society in positive, meaningful ways through higher education. I had hoped to connect anthropologist Victor Turner’s liminality and communitas to the event as a rite of passage, but there was no intensification, nor was there any ceremonial re-integration (Rite of passage, 2014). As a graduate hopeful, I suppose the intensification will begin when I transfer, and the ceremonial re-integration will happen at graduation. In the meantime, I will uphold the institution of education and use it to better myself, and my community.
Bonvillain, N. (2013). Cultural anthropology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Malinowski, B. (1944). A scientifictheory of culture and other essays. Chapel Hill, NC: University of
North Carolina Press.
Rite of passage. (2014). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from
Cultural Anthropology V02 (79122), T/R 12:30
Dr. M.T. (Gigi) Fiumerodo
November 13, 2014