It truly is A Different World: College life then vs. now

A Different World is a spinoff of The Cosby Show that signaled the beginning of Marisa Tomei’s career and the end of Lisa Bonet’s. Originally centered around Denise Huxtable going to college, everyone quickly realized that, despite all her cool outfits, Denise didn’t actually have a personality, and Bonet and Tomei were gone from the show after just one season. The show endured however, shifting focus to snotty Southern belle Whitley Gilbert and loveable dork Dwayne Wayne, along with their various roommates/friends. It aired from 1987 to 1993, then in syndication, and is now on Netflix.


It’s strange watching a TV show about college life set in the ’80s/’90s, and I am a little amused/amazed at how different college life was back then. Using card catalogs? Pay phones? No laptops in class? No laptops at all? I’ve only finished season 1 and 2, but it truly was a different world back then. For example:

Making a Personal Phone Call

Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”

Then: Using a payphone

Over the series, characters make their personal phone calls on the payphones around campus. For example, Denise often called back home to ask for money and beg to get back on a show with better ratings. Often characters would have to call collect, and there would be minor annoyances if a dorm mate was hogging the phone for too long. But everyone was cheerful enough to take each other’s messages.

Now: Use a cellphone

I can’t speak for all campuses, but my school has completely gotten rid of landlines in dorms altogether, much less payphones. Since almost everyone has a cellphone, there’s no need to pay 50 cents up front to call home. AT&T will screw you over on the bill at the end of the month.

“That’s it. I’m not calling Grandma anymore. I don’t care how sick she is; I’m getting charged too much.”

Tracking Down a Book from the Library

Season 1, Episode 8: “If Chosen, I May Not Run”

Then: Interrogating the librarian and hoping to track down the current borrower

In this episode, Maggie (Tomei) needs a specific book on economics for her paper and enlists Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis), who works at the library, to track it down for her. Unfortunately for Maggie, the book has already been checked out and is being passed around campus like an STD. Jeez, who knew so many people on campus needed one measly book on macroeconomics? Maggie spends all episode desperately figuring out who has the book as the deadline approaches for her paper.

Now: Finding an e-book or rush ordering a copy online

If only Maggie went to college in present day, she could have found out if there was an e-book edition. Hell, if the book was popular enough, Maggie could have tracked appropriate excerpts online. And if worst came to really worst, she could have forked over $200 and her firstborn child for an overnight shipment from Amazon.

“Oh honey, don’t cry! At least Mommy got an A on that paper!”

Finding a Date

Season 1, Episode 15: “Dr. Cupid”

Then: Putting personal ads on the radio

Dwayne Wayne’s (Kadeem Hardison) inability to get a date and his cheesy pickup lines made up a majority of season one’s jokes, especially the harebrained schemes he would come up with in hopes of attracting a girl. In “Dr. Cupid”, Dwayne uses his radio host gig to read out personal ads for Darren Walker, who is really him. Unfortunately for him, no one at Hillman was dumb enough to fall for the ad except for Whitley (Jasmine Guy), who sent her friend Millie (Marie-Alise Recasner) to double check it wasn’t someone gross like Dwayne. Likewise, Dwayne sent his friend Ron (Darryl M. Bell) to check out his responses, but Millie and Ron end up falling in love so Dwayne, for all his crazy schemes, still spends Valentine’s Day alone.

Now: Using Tinder, OKCupid, PlentyOfFish, etc.

If Dwayne was a college student today, he probably would have been on every hookup and dating website known to man. He would have swiped right for every girl within a twenty mile radius, and if he still didn’t get a response, he would have pulled out the Darren Walker alias to increase his chances. Although he probably would have ended up publicly shamed on Catfish if he got caught.

“You did not look like this in your profile pic, Darren.”

Working in the computer lab

Season 2, Episode 4: “Dream Lover”

Then: Work in a dingy lab and hope your paper doesn’t get eaten by the slow computers

We get a couple glimpses of the computers and word processors Hillman College had, and it’s amazing how far technology has come. In “Dream Lover”, Whitley panics when she temporarily loses her paper on the hunk of plastic masquerading as a word processor. Thankfully, Dwayne is there to save the day and manages to recover the file on the disk. Speaking of, what exactly is a “flo-ppy di-sk”? That concept is so foreign to my Millennial eyes.

Now: Work in a dingy lab and hope your paper doesn’t get eaten by the fast computers

Technology has come a long way: we went from basic word processors to computers where you can stream music, videos, and pictures of cute kittens. But there’s still a risk that your computer will randomly decide to crash and delete all your hard work. Technology has come far, but it hasn’t come that far. One advantage A Different World has is that they have a Dwayne to come to the rescue if they need computer help.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck with a telemarketer who keeps calling back at dinner time.

Susan Velazquez

Susan is a recent college grad and writer who enjoys all things from the 1980s, snarking on dumb television, and reveling in celebrity gossip. Oh, and she has serious interests like reading historical fiction, getting involved in social issues, and consuming French fries.

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