Like other parents with children in their junior year of high school, I have recently spent a good amount of time driving my daughter to visit colleges. Not a ton of time, but a good amount of time.
We have sat together through a number of information sessions and strolled a number of campuses – sometimes arm in arm, sometimes at a distance from one another. I have watched her closely – not because I am trying to read her mind to determine whether she likes what she’s seeing and hearing, but because I’m trying to read her posture. How present is she to this strangely important and mostly public experience of looking at the buildings that house higher learning and communal living while listening to a current student tell disjointed facts and stories? How present am I?
I have to admit that I am not as present as I perhaps should be. I actually prefer our time in the car, where we have spent many hours together, more hours than we usually spend together now that she is so busy with school, sports and social life – sometimes talking, more often not as we careen up and down the Northeast highways, arguing about who controls the radio and whether I mind if she sleeps her way through some or all of the ride.
In the car, we have snacked on pretzels and dried fruit and we have stopped for coffee and ice cream. We have talked about her life as it is now. We have not talked (much) about her life as it will likely be when she goes to one of the places we have visited. That’s because in addition to having no idea where she will go to college, to this point we can’t imagine how she will choose, assuming she is fortunate to have a choice. We have tried to discuss our impressions of the colleges and universities we have seen and learned about, but our impressions are admittedly superficial.
“I feel like they’re kind of all the same,” she said after a recent visit. She was on to something. The experience we had at each place we visited was remarkably similar. At each place, we checked in at the front desk of the admissions office and were invited to sit in a room with other prospective students and their parents. There, we were offered coffee or water and left to peruse beautiful brochures, handouts and booklets touting remarkable statistics and painting a picture of uniquely enticing programs. Someone exceptionally cheerful then entered the room and invited us to move into another room to watch a powerpoint and listen to more stories and statistics.
Each information session lasted around an hour and touched on the program, the campus, student life, diversity and inclusion, and the admissions process itself, including how to apply for financial aid. Each speaker told us about their personal reasons for choosing this place to pursue a Bachelor’s degree and shared details about their achievements in and out of school, typically including an interesting research project, an experience in another country, an enriching connection with the local community, and a great time with friends and professors alike. From there, we moved outdoors, en masse, to follow a student tour guide who walked backwards at the front of us or alongside us, talking and pointing along the path.
Perhaps the similarity we found during our visits was due to the fact that we had chosen to visit fairly similar schools. In fact we chose to visit the same schools that many of her peers in high school have also chosen to visit. Sometimes even on the same day. Which led us to think about the ways in which we, like the schools we had visited, were failing to distinguish ourselves, too. Did we do anything at all out of the ordinary while on campus? Did we dress in anything other than the don’t-stand-out uniform we and others wore – the black winter coat, blue or black pants, sneakers or boots? Did we sit in the front rather than in the middle or the back of the auditorium? Did we ask questions that allowed us to deepen our understanding or knowledge? Did we make a personal connection with anyone there?
If we do any more visits, and I hope we do, we will try these new things: 1) my daughter will choose the place to visit; 2) my daughter will research the school and put together a short list of things she wants to find out about during our time there; and 3) my daughter will try to connect with a person her age or attend a class so that she can get a better sense of what it might be like to actually live and learn there.
Now that she has her license, she can drive us there, too. As for me, I will do my best to be a good passenger – to stay awake in the car and be attentive to the journey she’s on.