What Students Really Carry Back To School

Back-to-school stories are click fodder. They allow for marketers to feel they are directly addressing a group of easy marks. After all, when is your life more insecure than on the cusp of a grade change or a trip to college? The world, then, is in upheaval, you hunt for answers, sometimes in the pages of periodicals that offer wine aerators and coffee subscriptions as potential sources of meaning. But I was thinking: what are students really carrying back to school? And is technology as invasive as we really assume?

To find out I performed a journalistic exercise that many former school newspaper folks are familiar with: the man-on-the-street. I took to the OSU campus with Ritika Shah, a writer and news director of Lantern TV who shot some photos and approached students with me on campus.


“My phone is my life,” said Haris Malik, a senior in Chemical Engineering. “I don’t carry a laptop. I have an iPod from seven years ago with all my music on it.”

Most of the hardware he uses is in the ChemE labs he frequents. His freind, Sana Nisar, a sophomore in Public Health, carries a Macbook Air that she uses for note-taking. Neither of them had anything particularly fancy, just a few tools they used on a daily basis. Malik’s most exotic piece of tech? A TI-89 calculator that was as big as a a paving brick.

Aaron Carpenter, top, is a freshman in Mechanical Engineering. He came to school with his Microsoft Surface. He also had a cellphone that he didn’t show us. He uses the Surface to take notes and thinks it will be helpful for text books, but he isn’t sure yet. After all, those were his first few days of school.

I’ve been out of college for over 15 years, which is a bracing thought. The biggest difference, besides the version of Windows Carpenter was running was a move away from physical textbooks. Many of the students we spoke to carried a few books but Sara Collins, for example, read the text in a tiny window on her Macbook.


Collins, a freshman finance major said she could do most of her work on the iPhone. “I usually have my laptop with me, though,” she said.


One outlier in our research was Adil Peerbhoy, a juggling undecided freshman, who only carried a Samsung Character from 2011. Peerbhoy said he couldn’t afford a smartphone but he didn’t miss it. “I’d like to be able to use social networks,” he said, but he felt his phone worked well and that he didn’t need to upgrade.

I almost felt bad for him. To have to suffer with a phone from 2011 is an injustice no modern social-media user should experience. But he didn’t mind. It’s just a tool, he said.


Finally we talked to Franz Ross, a senior in Film Studies. Ross works for LanternTV with Ritika and he’s working as a professional video journalist, or at least the closest to it he can get in college. He carries pounds and pounds of gear – cameras, tripods, and lights – on a daily basis and files stories on the trustees, OSU sports, and student events. In short, he’s working while in school. What’s unusual is that his tech intake is no different than any of the other students we interviewed. While technology is integral to his job, he doesn’t carry unique hardware or devices. He carries the bare necessities.

Education is changing rapidly, but the tools are the same. There are still books, folks still carry pens and notebooks, and some students decided to sit out the purchase of expensive tech entirely. Are they better off? More focused? More efficient? That’s not clear. What is clear is that the average student can safely ignore most back to school flyers in the local paper. All they really need are the basics and, as needs arise, better stuff can be bought. We’re living in the future, but not too far in the future.