There are many roads to Hampden-Sydney College, even some literal country roads leading to our hamlet: Five Forks, Route 15, and the back way to Farmville, which is now officially called "Back Hampden-Sydney Road." Before paved roads were the norm, students sometimes complained that the longest part of any trip to the College was the journey from the Farmville train station to campus.
Lovely though these roads may be, the figurative roads to Hampden-Sydney are more interesting and more meaningful. Some of us came here on the advice of parents or grandparents. Some of us were struck by the beauty of The Hill during an otherwise torturous parade of campus visits. At least one Hampden-Sydney man arrived as a freshman sight-unseen based solely on the College's mention in The Preppy Handbook. There is also the rare breed of "older student": a young man who, for whatever reason, is not quite as young as all of the others. Raymond Owen '14 is one such student. His figurative path to Hampden-Sydney College literally took him across the country before coming back to the school where he knew all along he belonged.
He became interested in Hampden-Sydney when he was a junior in high school in Botetourt County. He knew Jonathan Cox '05, who was a year ahead of him in high school, and he had met Alex Snoddy, the stepdaughter of Dean of Students David Klein '78, at a summer program at Virginia Tech. Her enthusiasm for Hampden-Sydney interested Raymond.
"She was here and Jonathan was here. I got invited to a prospect weekend on Homecoming of 2001 and came down and had a great time with all the guys in Whitehouse. I went out to Dean Klein's house for a get-together he was having. I went to the movies with his daughter in Farmville. It was a really neat little weekend and very impactful."
However, he decided he was not ready for Hampden-Sydney when he learned how much writing would be required of him. "I wasn't ready for any discipline at all." Instead of enrolling on The Hill, he spent two years at a community college.
He was unfulfilled and eager for change, so he moved to Alaska, where he worked seasonal jobs. They gave him the flexibility to travel around the state and explore its beauty.
"It was really just a grand adventure. I signed up for a couple of classes at a university there but quickly realized I was not there to go to school. I promptly dropped out of school and worked and lived and adventured for two years."
"I did all sorts of jobs, anything that would get me through the next few months while being adventuresome and being as free as possible. Alaska is so seasonal that you can easily do three different jobs a year."
"After a while, I realized that I'm not very well-suited for Alaska because I get terribly depressed during the 24 hours of darkness in the winter." Just before what would have been his third winter there, he changed course completely and moved to Hawaii.
Raymond knew about a beach on the Big Island where he could live with a group of freespirited people (he hates the word "hippies"). So he spent what was left of his money on a one-way ticket to The Aloha State.
"On the Big Island, I just kind of jumped in with a band of hippies that I met on the beach.
It was like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys because there was a girl from Denmark named Wendy who wrangled everybody; it was a bizarre group of guys. My hair was down my back in full-blown dreadlocks and we walked around half-naked in sarongs."
Later, he and a group of these "free spirits" traveled to a remote valley on Kauai that is home to a secluded collective community.
Getting there includes an 11-mile hike along the Kalalau Trail, which is consistently rated one of the most dangerous trails in the country. This remote "hippie city" provided Raymond with a valuable lesson in supply and demand: "A roll of trash bags is gold because it rains so much. It's all based on what you need, what's in demand, and what's available. There are about 45 people there, so people have cliques and community roles. Some kids climb the trees to collect oranges, mangoes, and guava. There are kids who collect food. There are guys who fish. Everyone has a job."
The excitement for him was learning to adapt to life in this new community, but once he had done that, he grew bored and started thinking about returning to Virginia.
"I was looking for the same kind of freedom I was used to, so I started working in organic farming in Floyd County, Craig County, and Botetourt County. It was a lot like my experience in Alaska where I would work somewhere for three, four, six months at a time then they would cut you loose. I also worked at Roanoke Natural Foods during the winter. I learned how to homestead, how to milk goats, how to grow organic vegetables. I sold at farmers' markets for three years straight. I didn't have my own operation; I worked for others, including Brent Cochran '02. He runs the company I worked for, and I had no idea he was a Sydney guy until I came here and he sent me a Facebook message."
Life was going well for Raymond until he was interested in changing his direction again. The Roanoke area was in a teacher shortage and he loved the idea of working with kids. However, when many of his friends started getting teaching jobs for which he was passed over, he decided he needed to get his bachelor's degree. Immediately, he looked to Hampden-Sydney.
The summer before he enrolled at Hampden-Sydney, Raymond says he "was having an existential crisis" and called Demas Boudreaux '02, whom he had met at a July 4th party.
"At that party, I had told him that one of the biggest mistakes of my life is that I never went to Hampden-Sydney when I had the chance. I wanted to know what I could do to go there now." Demas called Jason Ferguson '96, director of admissions, who then called Raymond. "A week and a half before the semester started I was railroaded through the admissions process and the rest is history. I've done really well here. It's been everything I wanted it to be."
"What I was looking for was actually here at Hampden-Sydney. So, it was very gratifying to see this culmination of the immense learning I had done between community college and now."
"The first night I was here, I got invited to a Beta party-before school even started. I remember walking out of there and thinking, 'Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?' I came in wearing Chacos [sandals], shorts, and a longsleeve t-shirt and I was scruffy and had a dark, dark tan. I was out of my element. But I figured out the game and I am using it to my advantage."
At Hampden-Sydney, he works as a Writing Center tutor, is the entering president of the Future Educators Club, and writes for The Tiger, the student newspaper. He also works many hours every week at Jenkins Blue and Gray, a local convenience store.
Though he lives off campus, Raymond likes to socialize on Fraternity Circle and is even dating a woman from Sweet Briar. So, being an older student has not been a big issue for Raymond.
"Sometimes it's really odd, but if it doesn't come up in conversation, no one really knows. I guess I blend in pretty well. When you find out my age, a lot of things about my personality and my academic performance make a lot more sense."
Raymond believes there is an unfair stigma on waiting a while between high school and college. He sees tremendous value in working for a few years before college to sort out who you want to be and what you want out of life.
"It's good for you to have a skill and to see what's going on in the world before you go off to school. You'll have a much better perspective, despite the stigma against it. I think half of the kids I've met would benefit from experiencing the real world first before going to college. Kids don't know what to think in high school. They need some time."
Raymond admits he was not ready to make the personal commitment necessary to succeed in college.
"Honestly, I think the reason I didn't go to Hampden-Sydney in the first place is that I wasn't at the maturity level where I could say, 'I'm going to sit down and I'm going to write, by golly, because I'm going to get my education.' I wasn't prepared. High school was a joke. I don't think high school prepared me at all for what was going to happen afterwards."
Ever forward-looking, Raymond is eagerly preparing for the next part of his journey, though he will not be traveling far. After graduating from Hampden-Sydney next spring, he plans on getting his teaching certificate and staying in Prince Edward County to work in the public school system.
"I could go teach in an economically depressed urban area, but Prince Edward County has just as much need as anywhere else, and I love my house. I love my community. It reminds me a lot of where I grew up."
So Raymond's literal journey is settling right here on the edge of Hampden-Sydney where he can use what he has learned in Alaska, Hawaii, the Roanoke Valley, and on The Hill to improve the lives of children just getting started on their own personal adventure.
Raymond Owen may not have taken the most conventional route to Hampden-Sydney, but he now follows the same path as generations of other Hampden-Sydney Men: he is setting out to serve others.