Monday, May 18, 2009

Visiting Colleges

It was fascinating visiting colleges this fall with my daughter after having visited hundreds of colleges myself as a college counselor. I read the student newspapers, looked at the graffiti in the bathrooms, the comments on the student doors. I looked throughout the lunchroom to kept a mental note of how many kids had their baseball hats on backwards or what groups of kids seemed to be sitting together. I looked to see whether trash was picked up, weeds pulled and routine repairs made. Were there buildings with water stains on the ceilings that seemed to be there for a long time? I listened carefully to the kids there…did they say “like” every other word? Could they express themselves? What did they wear? How many kids were at the gym, in the library, in the pub? I thought I had this nuanced view of the colleges I visited.
Soon after beginning each visit with my daughter to these same schools, I looked over at my daughter and saw by her expression that she had made up her mind. She was seeing many more things than I had from eyes that understood them more than I ever could…they were 17 year old eyes, not 51-year-old eyes. She could pick up, by the pocketbooks the girls carried or the brand of jeans the kids wore, some things I was blind to. She could interpret subtle differences in the language that I could never hear. She is in a culture that, as much as I try, I will never truly understand.
I was disappointed when, at one school that I thought she would love, she said immediately after the tour began that she thought the kids were snotty. Snotty, what do you mean? The tourguide seemed articulate, friendly, interesting. We hadn’t talked to a single other student. "Let’s go to the dining hall for lunch," I suggested. "No, dad, let’s leave."
At another college, we stayed overnight in the town and ended up playing ping pong in the basement of the campus center building. She met this boy who lived in the town next to ours who to my daughter seemed so normal. This college suddenly moved to the top of her list.
Being in the business, I probably went overboard trying to stay out of the process with her. She decided where to apply and I never saw any part of her applications. But I think her process was sound and thoughtful. Were her decisions overly affected by initial impressions? Of course, but they were valid. She could see things (like the kid in the Sixth Sense).
She in the end was choosing between a highly selective liberal arts college and the honors program at our state university. She was leaning toward the state university, because she had heard of the reputation of the small school (Swarthmore) was that kids were always working and she did not know how she would handle that pressure. She also knew she would have to take out loans at the smaller school and, due to a merit scholarship, would have money for graduate school if she went to the honors college.
She visited both colleges overnight and sat in on classes. she came back and said she was going to Swarthmore. “Dad," she said about the other school, "they didn’t talk in class. It was the teacher and one or two kids talking.” How could I argue with that logic? She wanted to participate in her class discussions, not just with the teacher but with the other kids in class. Without a moment's hesitation, I wrote the deposit check and mailed it in.

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