New college try

The still-developing Soka University hosts its first sessions, with thoughts of building tradition and harmony.

The Orange County Register/August 28, 2001
By Marla Jo Fisher

Aliso Viejo --There were nearly as many construction workers scurrying around as students, but Orange County's newest university held its first classes Monday, attended by youngsters anxiously aware that they are the first to tread the soon-to-be hallowed halls.

"We feel the reputation of the school is riding on what we do," said freshman Michael O'Malley, 19, of Brea, who is among the 120 enrolled in the first freshman class at Soka University of America. "There's not a lot of history here, so we can build our own."

The university, dedicated to world peace and founded by a controversial Buddhist faction that wields great political power in Japan, officially opened its doors to the public Monday, instantly becoming the largest cultural institution in Aliso Viejo.

Members of the public can use the university library and hiking trails that traverse the perimeter of the 103-acre hilltop campus, modeled after an Italian village.

Many areas of the $220 million project remained closed as workers completed details such as planting trees and installing pipes. A larger-than-life bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi remained sitting on a trolley as college officials decided where it should be placed amid a grove of orange trees outside a classroom building.

Inside the building, professors weren't lobbing any softballs at students merely because it was the first day. Instead, all 120 students, divided into 10 classes, were placed on an ambitious monthlong program designed to get them thinking about issues such as how an individual fits into society, and how people are shaped by cultural differences. All students are required to spend their entire first month examining these topics, which university officials say is important to their goal of creating world harmony and understanding.

One professor wrote the class rules on his blackboard, including "mutual respect" and "no eye-rolling" while cultural differences were being discussed. For the first month, students will spend three hours each day in class, and then be assigned about six hours worth of reading each day from authors such as Descartes, Emerson, Aristotle and Henry James.

"It was a great feeling to actually get into the reason we are here," Nathan Gauer, 20, of Virginia said at lunch. He arrived nine days ago with the other students for a week of orientation. All students are required to live on campus in the new residence halls. Most don't have cars, and use a campus shuttle bus to go shopping and visit the beach.

For some, it was an adjustment to find themselves in an isolated suburban campus miles from the nearest urban amenities. "I miss the independence of being able to get anywhere you need to go by public transportation," said Emily Joffee, 18, who is from New York City's Bronx. "Here, you need a car to get anywhere, and I don't have my license."

Many students are affiliated with Soka Gakkai, the Buddhist organization that supports the university, choosing to enroll at a campus that supports their values. However, students are not required to practice any religion. Soka also operates a graduate school in Calabasas, north of Los Angeles, and had hoped to expand there until disagreements with neighbors and environmental groups led to legal battles that continue today.

Over the past week, every student was given a laptop computer and a key card, which can be used not only to open his or her dorm room but also to pay for everything on campus, including vending machines, washing machines and bookstore items.

"I think everyone here is looking toward the future-not coming to jump into something that's established, but to be part of building a new society," Michael O'Malley said. "I think we all want to be builders of that."

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