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 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

It Truly Is A DIFFERENT WORLD: College Life Then vs. Now

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 (Lisa Bonet) 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 (Marisa 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 ebook 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 1’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 is 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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  • BobaFuct

    “Pay phones? No laptops in class? No laptops AT ALL?”When I started college in 1998, this was still the case. I wrote all my papers in the lab and used a calling card to call my parents. I got a cell phone in 1999, but was the only person I knew who had one. When I left college in 2005 (I took some years off), more people had laptops, but they certainly weren’t allowed in class.

    • mtn_philosoph

      I was an undergraduate in the early 70s and a grad student in the early 80s. I was elated when personal computers came along just prior to my grad school period and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. (It took awhile because they were freaking expensive at first.) I had the same reaction ten years later when Apple came out with the first PowerBooks (the first true laptops that most people ever saw). Still, despite all of that, I cannot even imagine why anyone would ever pull out at laptop during a class lecture in college. I cannot imagine what one would do with it or how it could possibly be useful and not become a total distraction. I went back to school and took some computer courses about ten years ago and even then, in the classroom lecture portions of those computer courses no one used a laptop.

      • sousaphone93

        Some professors (at my college, at least) ban laptops outright because for the exact reason you stated–they’re a total distraction, especially in huge lecture halls where no one can check on you. But in smaller classes, especially English or writing courses, people bring in their laptops so they can have the assigned readings in front of them without wasting their print quota. I guess it all depends on your professor and the subject matter.

        • mtn_philosoph

          OK now you’ve lost me — print quotas? I have no idea what you are referring to here. In my frame of reference, course readings were assigned out of books that you purchased in the campus bookstore at the beginning of the term. If the material in question was from a difficult-to-obtain book or a specialized periodical then the prof would typically pass out xeroxed copies of the relevant pages or published article legally cleared and authorized reprints of the material to everyone in class. Later on if you wanted to have the reading on hand in subsequent classes you brought the book (with the relevant section marked off with a little slip of paper inserted between the pages, i.e., a bookmark, in the original sense) or the xerox reprint with you. Or in lit. classes, the paperbound or hardbound novel or other published work.You still use (printed and bound paper) textbooks, right?*________________________________* A serious, not rhetorical, question.

          • sousaphone93

            In my college, you’re given a print quota for the year to print essays, homework, notes, etc for free from the library. You will be relieved to know yes, that we still do buy and use print textbooks and bring them to class although some classes offer e-book versions which typically are less expensive. But if a professor needs us to read material from a specialized source like you were saying, they typically scan the reading themselves and post it to the school’s online learning system for students to read it there (my school uses a service called Angel Learning, which professors use to post the syllabus, grades, and assignments and create discussion boards). If we want to have the reading on hand, we usually print it out or bring laptops to class but very rarely do professors print out copies themselves.

          • mtn_philosoph

            Oh, OK, that helps to fill in the picture. Now it makes sense to me. Due to the relative remoteness of my location it is a challenge for me to keep up with contemporary society. (Trends take *years* to reach here; I am not kidding.) I try to stay current but always feel like I am a few steps behind the rest of America. I am not happy about this and it occasionally results in some awkwardness. Up-to-the-minute social, cultural and technological trends are where I really lag behind everyone else but I keep working to close the gap. Thanks for your patience.

          • sousaphone93

            Oh, you’re fine! Don’t worry about it! I’m happy I helped you “keep up with contemporary society”. I also enjoyed your stories about your experiences when you were in an undergrad. I can’t believe how much college life has changed. I can only imagine how it will be another 20 years from now.

  • mtn_philosoph

    After Physics class in Spring of 1972, my friend and I decided to check out this new piece of tech that the school had just obtained. We had heard rumors about it. After showing our IDs and signing the log at the Physics Dept. office we were led down a back hallway to a locked office where upon being let in we beheld the most amazing thing that we had ever seen until then …. [drumroll] ……. an pair of electronic calculators!!All these years later I still recall the breathtaking sight of their glowing blue numeric displays. It was the first LED display (or LED anything) that either one of us had ever seen. We were understandably quite blown away. (You would have been too if you had been there.) These were desktop models that were plugged into the wall and each one was about the size of my current Wi-Fi router at home. The office assistant reminded us to make sure that the door was locked when we left. (You have to understand that at the time such devices were quite uncommon and also rather pricey, hence the security.) My friend and I both felt like we had just entered the Brave New World.