By Bruce Newman

(MCT)

The jam session is inside the student union — the heart of every campus. And though it is open to anyone, on this night the trumpeter is a budding atmospheric engineer, the piano player is working on a Ph.D. in physics, the drummer is a doctoral candidate in biochemistry and the tenor sax player is pre-med.

PLACE OF DISCOVERY

College is where we go to sort it all out, to find the careers that we want, the friends that we'll keep, and to indulge the uncontrollable urges that we never knew we had. Confined to a dorm room that would make Solzhenitsyn weep for the gulag, teenagers living away from home for the first time will find a way to turn that solitary confinement into a sexual exploratorium.

College is where many of us discover we are not as smart as we always thought we were. Robbins got the first C of his life as a college freshman. "Even though I was working my ass off," he says. "I just thought I wasn't smart enough to be here." College is where we learn that W(ithdrew) is actually a viable option to an F.

Guaranteed: You will meet the craziest person of all time in college, and that lunatic will be the subject of stories you tell for the rest of your life. College is the first time in our lives when everyone else is the same age as us. Until college, we live with our parents; after college, we're surrounded by people of all ages. Not until the nursing home will we again be among a group of people with whom we have so much in common.

OBSERVATION POST

LIFE OF DECISIONS

But what to do? Pursue a career designing magical fairies, or building fighter jets? "It's a troubling question," English says, "but I don't have the answer. If you design toys and you do it right, you bring joy and wonder to kids." Or he can make weapons systems to defend the country. "There are moral implications," he says. "So it's a problem."

Their grim prospects may account for a slightly more subdued party scene in Yost this year. "Last year this place was like Weed House," says Lazaro, who is taking a year off after graduation to apply for nursing school and work on her modeling career. "I got high all the time just walking down the halls. And I don't even smoke! This year is much nerdier."

NOT A PARADISE

This revelation came to him in his freshman dorm. "I often referred to my roommate as the gorilla. It wasn't clear if he was human," Shlapentokh-Rothman recalls. "He often just communicated with grunts."

Robbins is not one of the layabouts his neighbor Yakov describes. He's is taking 15 units toward his major in Atmosphere and Energy Engineering, plus six more of music, even though 20 units is the maximum allowable load.

"I'm pretty much scrambling to stay alive at this point," he says.

SILLY YET SERIOUS

The other guy won the toss. But Robbins' ear can be seen bobbing in the foreground as the question — heard and seen round the world in a YouTube video — put Rice on the spot.

A few days later, a mock pro-torture celebration, dubbed "Condival," served up the kind of serious spring silliness found on campuses all over the country.

The event featured a WMD Bake Sale, where you could get Condoleezza Rice Krispie Treats, a "Cooked National Intelligence Estimate," and, of course, Yellowcake. Nearby was a Medium Security Guantanamo Bounce House, and a booth featuring "Waterboarding for Apples."

She didn't learn to play sax until after she joined the band. "You know how people say, 'I saw him and I knew he was the one'?" Glasrud says of the famously impudent band. "I saw them, and I knew they were the one. It was pretty much love at first sight."

Almost as soon as she got there, she detonated the college dream everyone else had for her. Glasrud realized she didn't even like rowing.

"People were always telling me I was so great, and I never stopped to consider, 'Is this something I like?' " she says. "Being great was all I really cared about."

As soon as she realized that, she was able to begin living the rest of her life.

MINI-CITIES, BIG BRAINS

Walk across a college campus in the middle of the night, and you will find an amazing small town, buzzing like a hive. Current college students think of themselves as environmentally "green," but they're among the nation's most energetic burners of midnight oil.

Reading lights and minds aglow, nocturnal strivers of all ages populate these miraculous mini-cities rippling with research, invention, science and technology, oratory, athleticism, music and art. And still these brainy burgs also survive drugging, drinking and partying, celebrations, sit-ins and freakouts. With two-color mascots proudly fronting funky school sweatshirts — Go team, go!