Alumni Column – Reflections on Real World and the “Real World”

Jung H. Pak '96

When the Senior Class Council, of which I was a member, was approached by the Student Affairs office in 1995 to help launch a new program to help seniors adjust to life in the “real world,” we thought it was a great idea to call the event “Real World” in homage to its namesake, the MTV hit reality show. Just four years old in 1996, MTV’s “Real World” was one of the first reality shows and seen as a vanguard of a new frontier in television and mass media. That year the show’s producers placed seven young strangers from diverse backgrounds, race, gender, sexual and political orientations in a luxurious home in Miami, FL. Among the cast members was Joe, a business student at Fordham University in New York City and aspiring entrepreneur, who struggled to maintain his relationship with his long-time girlfriend even as he fought off the temptation of living with the female members of the cast; Cynthia, a somewhat prudish student at San Jose State, who attempted to maintain a modicum of normality amidst the craziness of living in a house with big personalities; Dan, a graduate of Rutgers University, who started a modeling career and confronted the challenges of being homosexual; and Melissa, a native of Miami, who welcomed the opportunity to escape her traditional Cuban family and to enlarge her range of experiences and relationships. The premise of the show, according to MTV, was to reveal what happened when “…seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens, when people stop being polite, and start getting real. The Real World.”

Critics at the time reviled the series as anything but “real.” They pointed out that in the “real world” young people just starting out do not live in mansions or luxury condominiums replete with hot tubs, pool tables, and designer furniture, nor do they receive their dream jobs on a silver platter. Needless to say, “real” people do not live every waking moment followed by a small army of camera crews, producers, and publicity agents. Cast members were included among the critics, stating that their life in MTV’s “Real World” seemed like life in a fishbowl.

Hamilton, New York is no glamorous city like Miami, as we all know. Neither is it like Los Angeles, London, or Paris, where other MTV “Real World” seasons have been situated. Of course, Colgate dorms are not furnished with hot tubs or designer furniture. However, Colgate could seem like a fishbowl, a place where 2,700 strangers are thrown together to live, learn, and play, without the burden of mortgages, office politics, and retirement accounts. The fishbowl feeling was exacerbated by a sense of isolation that is part and parcel of attending a small liberal arts college in an even smaller town, miles away from urban life. So we seniors welcomed the idea of “Real World ’96” to explore not only career paths, but also how to navigate the “real world” of finding apartments, contributing to Roth-IRAs, and negotiating salaries and benefits. We sought to mine the experiences and wisdom of alumni to arm ourselves with the tools to survive and to thrive in the “real world” where “people stop being polite, and start getting real.” Alumni, we believed (and I still believe) were the links to the past and the present, and the ushers to the future.

I was fortunate to have participated in “Real World ’07,” this time as an alumnae panelist. I was gratified that the program that I had been fortunate enough to have helped formulate had persisted beyond my participation as a Colgate undergraduate and had increased in vitality and usefulness. As I observed the dynamic interaction between alumni and students, I realized now what I did not fully comprehend 11 years ago. The purpose of Colgate’s “Real World” was to expand the realm of the “real world” for both alumni and for students. Alumni and students were learning from each other, brainstorming, and collaborating. Alumni were even engaging in conversations with each other about their careers and possible opportunities, exchanging business cards, and promising to continue their discussions. The “Real World ’07” weekend emphasized that life takes twists and turns, and that it is not scripted like MTV’s “Real World” or other “reality” shows today, with fabricated conflicts and controversy in carefully controlled environments. Reality is not a fixed concept but instead is a work-in-progress, constantly shifting, transforming, morphing, depending on the catalysts, stimuli and the cache of information.

Chase Carey, class of 1976, poignantly articulated the one unchanging lesson. With a long career in television programming and operations, and currently, as the President and Chief Executive Officer of DirecTV, Inc., Mr. Carey is keenly aware of the role of technology and the media in the 21st century. He reminded us, however, that even though technology is important, we must not forget that the human element is the most important. Colgate’s “Real World” program is an attempt to create the critical linkages and relationships amongst students and alumni. The program cultivates and nurtures the “human element” to expand the realm of the possible. Now, that’s “real.”