I took my high school junior to visit some colleges in the midwest about a month ago, before Covid-19 took hold of the world and shut down schools and universities. We visited small liberal arts colleges that were strong in science and music. She’s undecided in terms of her major and I think that’s great. I wanted her to see some places where they didn’t expect her to know what she wants to do with her life. Some places where having different interests is considered an awesome thing, not a sign of indecisiveness or immaturity. So I put my alma mater on the list. Why wouldn’t I? It’s the perfect college. Or is it?
If any of you know me in real life, you know that I love my college with a fierce loyalty. I am not alone in this. I belong to a Facebook group for people who went to this college during the 80s and across the board I can tell you that we all feel this way. We can still hear the crunch under our feet as we walk down the center of campus. We remember what it was like to drive up the hill for the first time and see the stone gates. We all cried at graduation when we stood on the steps of the music building and sang the college songs. Most of us have gone back for reunions here and there, some every year. My husband, also an alum, proposed to me at Sunset Point. My license plate is purple and white, my college colors. I graduated 30 years ago next year and it feels like yesterday. When I meet someone who also went there even if I never knew them, I know them and they know me. It’s that kind of place. I was ridiculously excited to go back.
I learned that you can’t go home again.
We left after school and got to campus around midnight. It was dead. The students were on spring break. If you’ve ever been to a small liberal arts college on a school day, it’s full of people walking under trees, backpacks slung over their shoulders, saying hi to every other person they see. When the college is on break, though, it’s got a different feeling altogether. It wasn’t good. And it was raining.
We got to the admissions office early. We were the only ones there. Then a boy showed up with his parents. And one other kid with her dad. We got a tour guide who was nice enough, but was one of those kids who was involved with everything. And I mean everything. She played a sport, she did student government, she was in orchestra, she had just studied abroad in China and Ghana, she was writing her senior comps in honors, she had stayed for two summers to do science research with professors, she tutored kids at the Boys and Girls Club, she was applying to graduate school in public policy. After the tour, we met two other students who were just as impressive. The admissions officer said that this was typical. My college used to be a place that took diamonds in the rough and gave them a place to grow. Now it was Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue. They didn’t care that my husband and I had gone there. They didn’t really seem to try. They were a little bit arrogant, if I’m being honest.
I posted about our visit to my college on the Facebook page. Right away, I got strong opinions.
We were a double legacy and our son got rejected.
I regret taking our kid to see it. She didn’t get in and was devastated. Said she didn’t feel like she was as good as me.
We had to rush out to make it to our next tour at the college down the road. My college’s arch rival. Opinions here were equally interesting.
I had friends there. We would hitch down and party. Remember waking up in some weird places there.
I believe that’s grounds for dismissal under the 80s bylaws?
I’ve been there a couple times recently. It has a lot of good things going on. However, it doesn’t have our academics and rigor.
That last one got me. I was proud of my college’s academic standing. It wasn’t a party school. Kids worked hard there. It was cool to be smart. I didn’t want her going to a fluff school. It hurt to hear those things. I had to sit with that feeling for a while. I had to look at my own college with an open mind. At the end of the day, this is her college search. Not mine. I want her to have a college that pushes her to learn, but one where that learning is fun. And that looks different for different people. I’m not even sure my college would be my first choice if I were looking today.
Long story short, I loved the other school and the three colleges we visited during the rest of the trip. More importantly, my daughter loved them. People were friendly, there were kids all over campus, the music and science departments were amazing. We ate lunch with our tour guide who was just as involved in things on campus as the one from my college, but she had a different attitude. She seemed like she genuinely enjoyed her time there, not that she was doing things to sound impressive or include on a grad school application. She seemed like the kind of kid you’d want to be friends with. It was a school that had the joy of learning and being together that I felt when I was 18 years old at my college.
And ultimately, that’s the kind of college I want my daughter to pick. The reputation of the school doesn’t really matter. It’s not the test score or the GPA of the accepted freshman. It’s about a college that’s excited that you’re there, excited to welcome you to their community for the four years that you study there and for the rest of your life. For me, that was my alma mater. For her, that will be a different place.
My college isn’t the college it was when I was there. And it probably shouldn’t be. A college is a living, breathing thing that changes with every new class that sings on the steps of the music building. Some of the buildings are gone and only a handful of my professors are still teaching. The college I went to isn’t the college for my daughter even if it were exactly the same today. She has her own path, as she should. I’m keeping an open mind and I hope she does too.