I Went West And I Went Early, or Gunn Hall and the Advanced Academy’s Gift to Me

A part of me died Saturday, January 17th, 2016. I was one of three winning captains present at the last Decathlon, holding up the victors’ trophy, with a final personal record of 2-2. For me, on Saturday, January 17th, 2016, a part of my life finally came to a close. I had played pool in Bottom Lobby one more time (lost the last time on sinking the 8 ball early), celebrated the end of one of the most terrific parts of my life, and one of the best decisions I ever made, and I drove away from Gunn Hall one more time.

If you’re reading this and you’re an Academite, a graduate of a program too fantastic for words, you know just what that meant for us. What the future holds for us, and what we celebrated this last MLK Day weekend. Your heart skipped a beat when Dr. Sethna’s voice cracked on the word “bittersweet”. And bittersweet it was. For everyone else, let me give you a view into our soul. Let me show what the Advanced Academy of Georgia gave all of us, why we are so loyal to one man and an old, not-that-great dorm, and why to a man/woman, we will all for the rest of our lives call the Advanced Academy our home and our family.

I could give you the spiel on the website, the nuts and bolts of the program. Founded in 1995, the Advanced Academy is an early enrollment program designed for exceptional students who have not yet finished high school but are ready for college anyway. Students gain admission to the University of West Georgia (UWG), and are dual-enrolled either in their home high school or the local Carrollton High School, and take college courses like normal college kids. They complete the classes they need to graduate from high school, as well as courses of their choice, furthering their higher education not only early but on their own terms. Academites all live together in the antique (literally, it’s one of the oldest dorms on campus) dorm Gunn Hall, a building for much of our existence dedicated to us. Inside those cinder block walls, we lived, we loved, we bonded, and we formed the community of Gunn Hall.

Parents were always wowed by the (very carefully selected) volunteer student ambassadors, the emphasis UWG professors place on their students, and the breadth of options offered to their children. Between advanced academics, innumerable opportunities for personal growth in everything from clubs to undergraduate research, and the carefully assembled team of staff, including hand-picked Resident Assistants (RAs), administrative staff, and university personnel who ensured the safety and opportunity for success for their children. And it was all great. We all owe a great deal to that opportunity, but I’m going to have to come back to it, because that’s not why so many of us came to Gunn Hall, and that’s not why we loved it and stayed so loyal to such a square little Building. (Yeah it’s the Building. That is among the highest praise for that old structure we all called home away from home).

We came to Gunn for Gunn. There’s no other way to describe the unique community between those walls. Sure, we probably wax nostalgia about it unnecessarily. Sure, it still had that attribute of high school where you make friends with the people you encounter day in and day out because you see them so damn often. Sure, we were all smart, (varying degrees of) emotionally unstable, bored teenagers given what most would consider an unconscionable amount of freedom. When we’re honest with ourselves, we remember fire alarms that we all swear can be set off with stern enough glares, weird internal air flow that made the building end up with odd pressure zones in different bits holding doors closed extra hard, and a kitchen that was probably actually more dangerous to cook in than anything else we did. We were all flawed, unstable, and probably mental on more than one count. But for all its flaws, Gunn Hall was the essence of the Academy.

There is a saying about high school and college friends, half of which I just mentioned above. Well Gunn Hall really was both halves of the saying. We all saw each other day in and day out, but by God did we want to. I’ll never forget the meandering, often heated discussions in Top Lobby (paper is 3D, just sayin’), the intense chill factor of pool and ping pong games in Bottom Lobby, or the incredible fun of movie nights. We hung out in each others’ rooms for hours at a time, losing all track of time and not caring at all. Study nights, collaborative projects, and extra-curricular shenanigans all occurred within those magical walls. Boys became men, and girls women. And Gunn Hall, the unique, singular community that is the Advanced Academy made it happen.

When I remember Gunn Hall, I remember a lot of things. We put on our own dances and social events, attended to by the vast majority of present Academites. We did crazy, stupid stuff. There are stories like the PB&J Table Debacle and the Great 2010 Rebellion, programs like Archie Bunker’s Neighborhood and Breaking Stuff. There are the triumphs and chaos and wanton debauchery of the annual Decathlon event. But that’s not what I remember, and that’s not what I care about.

I cared about the camaraderie. Gunn Hall was a community like none I’ve experienced before or since. One of my favorite memories has nothing to do with breaking rules, or crazy stupid stunts. It is a memory of Friday, January 16, 2014. It was my second Decathlon, and my friend Casey had returned for the event. (They graduated the year prior.) They and I stayed up all night in Ian’s room, catching up, playing games, having long-winded political discussions, and generally being Academites. Then when we realized we had pulled an all-nighter by mistake, we went to IHOP at 6 am, had a gloriously large breakfast and returned to Gunn to crash on the couches in Top Lobby for the two or so hours remaining before Decathlon restarted. Nothing crazy, just friends and peers enjoying each other’s company.

I cared about the people Gunn attracted. Students, as a rule, were self-selected, exceedingly intelligent, and very driven. Now, they weren’t always focusing all that drive on their academics, but I have never seen such a confluence of energy, intensity, and capability in such a small group of people. In Gunn you made friends for life. Many of the friends now with me at my current university came from the Advanced Academy, including my roommate for the last two years and my role-playing game group (I’d say Dungeons and Dragons group, but I’m not sure we’ve ever used those base rules more than once). I still keep in touch with a fair few more that chose different paths. I care about the staff, who always did their level best to give us what we needed when we needed it. None of them were perfect, but you knew they had their best intentions at heart by and large.

I cared about our founder Dr. Sethna. He is one of the best men I have encountered, filled with boundless energy, always willing to work with his students for long hours, and devoted to his work. He created the Academy, nurtured it, and was always a star presence when he visited. How many active university presidents at their retirement party will take a dare from a student to play a carnival game that involves strapping oneself to a bungee cord, running down parallel tracks, and trying to place markers as far as you can?  The answer is now zero, since Sethna did retire, but by God that was glorious. (He also didn’t sleep but that’s only a theory.)

Gunn had an attribute, one I made a point of mentioning to prospective students: it gave you absolutely nothing. Nothing was handed to you. You were presented with opportunities and if you so chose, you could take them or leave them. That was the deal. What Gunn gave each and every student that came through its door were opportunities, and they were plentiful. There never was a “typical” Academy experience. Everyone, no mattered if you stayed for a year or two, left UWG, or stayed on as a regular student, wrote their own story and created their own adventure. Your choices drove your Academy experience, in your curriculum, in your personal experiences, and the stories you get to tell for the rest of your life. And it was the same way for everyone. In that sort of situation, Gunn created a unique community, a self-selected group of intellectual peers, given (practically) free rein on a university to live, learn, and explore.

Gunn had its flaws. Personalities clashed. The program was regularly a political football for University administration and the Housing Department. Every student was a teenager, and with that came the stupid stunts all teenagers make, except exaggerated by the extreme concentration of intelligence and disregard for authority Gunn tended to accumulate. Living in Gunn tended to exaggerate any mental instabilities, gave you an arrogance that some regular students claimed allowed them to spot an Academite from a mile away, and rarely if ever was a truly supportive environment for its hardest, strangest cases. And there were many.

But Gunn and the Academy rose above that. They rose above where the students came from, what they wanted to study, and where they wanted to go to form a community. They created a unique space in the educational landscape. I daresay the Academy radically affected the lives of every student it touched, and the vast vast majority of those for the far better. It was a space to learn and to grow, and to do so in an environment intended to be such a space, for the advanced student to really spread their wings and fly farther and faster than they might ever have otherwise. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am unrecognizable even to myself from the growth Gunn inspired in me. I was exposed to a diversity of thought, viewpoint, and opinion I can’t imagine anywhere else. It showed me how to grow up, how to be an adult in a diverse community, and how to live a life worth living. I will always look fondly back on my time in the Building, on the friends I made there, and the stories we will always rib each other about forever. I Went West, I Went Early, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

As always, thank you very much for reading. Please feel free to comment, share, and enjoy. – GP

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One comment

  1. Gunn, I will never forget what a truly marvelous-yet-crazy place you were for me. I never once regretted my decision to become an Academite, and I’ve never felt so proud to be a part of such an amazing group of alumni as I did during the final Decathlon. I’m not sure how to even describe the intense feeling of belonging. I don’t want to imagine what my life would be like right now if I hadn’t gone West – I would have missed out on some of the best people in my life.

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