By Bruce Newman

(MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The campus coffeehouse is overlit for jazz, but not for studying, and no one at Stanford's CoHo seems to even notice as Amrit Robbins begins to blow ripe, pealing notes from his horn. Robbins stands on the bandstand like a reveille bugler, but the melody of Nat Adderley's "Work Song" floats softly from his trumpet, reverberating through an orchard of glowing Apples.

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.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to jam with the cool kids at Stanford, but it doesn't hurt. "When they welcome you to freshman orientation," Robbins says, "part of what they tell you is that you're better than other people."

And yet, for all the things that make undergraduate life at a place like Stanford seem rarefied, it's also feels a lot like college on any other campus in America. Even if Stanford administrators think of it as an institution of much higher learning, when you're a college student it doesn't matter where you are: All you've got is four years to figure out who you are and — ready or not — who you're going to be.

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.

In college, for the first time in our lives we go from home cooking to no cooking. In some Stanford dorms, even the mediocre cafeteria food is cut off on Fridays and Saturdays, requiring creative survival strategies. "I make boys take me on dates," says Ginille Lazaro, a part-time model and the resident assistant at Yost House, a residence hall on the western edge of campus. She graduated June 14 with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity.

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

Not that Robbins — a politically liberal Indian-American trumpet prodigy from Maine — has much in common with senior Eva Glasrud — an Iowa Republican recruited by Stanford as an Olympic rowing hopeful. But the two of them shared a double room earlier this year on the third floor of Yost. The dorm's third floor also served as our observation post for the past month as six college students hurtled toward the end of the academic year.

The school doesn't actually permit coed housing in the dorms. Glasrud — a free-spirited 22-year-old senior majoring in psychology — says "the sexual harassment police" eventually got wind of the arrangement, and forced her to surrender the room to senior Blake English .

He's a mad genius from San Diego, who likes to use his room as a round-the-clock workshop. English has devoted his last two years of college to designing toys for little children, and remote-controlled airplanes with potentially lethal application on the battlefield. His flying Flitter Fairy was a 'Product of the Day' at the recent New York Toy Fair, and should start appearing on store shelves in the next few weeks. English might be the class of '09's first millionaire.

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."

Like a lot of college students in no hurry to confront the moral dilemmas of the real world, English and Glasrud will stick around for another year — or two — after graduation in Stanford's "co-term" program. The master's degree has become the great job market evader for graduating seniors.

"I've written more letters of recommendation for graduate school this year than ever before," says Tina Seelig , author of "What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20" and executive director of Stanford's Technology Ventures program. "What people should be learning in college is how to think and make choices. How to solve problems to which there are no answers."

College seniors nationwide are confronting a job market that has so far produced jobs for fewer than 20 percent of them, down from 51 percent two years ago, according to a survey of the class of 2009 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

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

Just down the hall from Lazaro lives Yakov Shlapentokh-Rothman , a junior math major, who splits his time between solving quadratic equations and pronouncing his last name for strangers. Shlapentokh-Rothman thinks college should be conducted on a loftier academic plane than it is.

"Stanford is not some paradise," he says. "I don't feel it's true that the vast majority of students work terribly hard. It's not that they're approaching college as a social experience. It's more of a hedonistic experience. I mean, it's Stanford, everyone should be doing great things, but that's not true at all. A lot of people here are semi-wastes of space."

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."

There was also considerable grunting at the recent Exotic Erotic Affair, Stanford's longest-running annual dorm debauch. Robbins and his girlfriend, Pooja Bakhai , attended, although they didn't observe the standard dress code of one article of clothing for men, two for women.

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.

A sophomore so musically gifted he has already played at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland, Robbins is a soloist with the Stanford Jazz Orchestra. But college has set him on a quest to save the world from global warming. He'll spend this summer working on a Romanian wind farm.

SILLY YET SERIOUS

The youthful idealism that set campuses aflame in the '60s has vanished so completely from college life that the raised fist has been replaced by a cheerful fist bump. But political protest isn't completely dead. Robbins played rock-paper-scissors with another student recently to decide which of them would confront former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — who was marking her return to the Stanford campus, where she once was provost — with a direct question about Bush administration torture policies.

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."

Matt Sheehan , a junior political science major who was one of the organizers of Condival, lived in Yost as a squatter last quarter — observing another time-honored college tradition to remain close to his friends. Foremost among these was his girlfriend, Glasrud, who plays saxophone in the Stanford Band.

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."

She and Sheehan play Ultimate Frisbee on the same club team, but that wasn't the plan when she arrived on the sports-crazed campus as the top recruit for the women's rowing team. Glasrud was unofficially ranked No. 2 in the world among high school rowers, and came on a full-ride scholarship worth about $50,000 a year.

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!