Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Step on the Seal. And other stuff I learned on the college tour circuit

I've visited a lot of college campuses over the past few years.

It was fun at first. (Side note: I was looking at these colleges with my teenaged son as part of his college search process, so once I got past the shocking/horrifying fact that I was the parent of a teenaged son going through the college search process, I kinda got into the whole thing.)

While my kid was slouching in the back of the parent info session, I was the perky helicopter mom jotting down notes about the application process and average SAT scores (that my equally helicoptery husband would later input into an Excel spreadsheet).

I loved the student led campus tours where a gushing model specimen of collegiate-ness walks backward and spouts off fun facts about college life while at the same time pointing out interesting aspects of the architecture. Look at the ivy crawling up the side of that building! Did you know that 25% of our students study abroad? See that stained glass window?-- that was once Einstein's office.

Maybe four or five visits in, some of the fun facts and interesting architectural aspects started to bleed together.

Did you know, for example, that pretty much every college campus has a nearby ice cream parlor/pizza place/bbq joint where THE BEST ICE CREAM/PIZZA/BBQ EVER is served and you simply must stop there on your way out of town?

Every college cafeteria has a pasta bar.

Every place has some kind of elaborate etched into the brick walkway college seal or special archway that you must not walk across/step through or you won't graduate.

Every place is gung ho sustainability and yoga and 25,000 intramural sports and clubs.

The tour guides lie to you. About the ice cream parlors. And Einstein's office. 

After the blurry whirlwind of touring, a couple of tidbits stand out:

Most original dorm option (can't remember which school this was. Oberlin? Swarthmore?): You can apply to live with a handful of other kids in a Thoreau-like cabin way off campus, with no running water or electricity.

Fun fact that probably should NOT have been said by a tour guide: We were passing by a beautiful pond, and someone (Me) mentioned how nice the pond was, and the tour guide said, Yeah, but we can't swim in it because it has like, 30 strains of e-coli bacteria.

By the time kid number two came along, I was jaded and cynical about the college search process but trying to be joyful and rah rah about it for the sake of my child --who was looking at totally different schools from the ones we looked at with her older brother.

The first place we visited with kid #2, my husband and I were rolling our eyes and whisper-mocking the newby parents. (Did they not get the memo about letting your kid be the one to ask if there is a study abroad program at this school?

Answer: Of course there's a study abroad program at this school. There's a study abroad program at EVERY SCHOOL.

On the tours: more lies about not stepping across supposedly magical seals. More strolls through libraries and campus bookstores and chemistry labs and chapels and state of the art gyms.

RE: the cafeterias. Pasta bars are so 2011. Now the In thing is a panini press station.

Yesterday, my husband and daughter and I were sitting in the parlor of a yet another lovely admissions office awaiting yet another official college tour. Outside it was gray and cold. When we started out the door following after the student guide, the wind picked up. Even so, the campus was gorgeous, with its old brick buildings and crisscrossing walkways, and a stunning panoramic view of rolling hills and woods and fields.

The student tour guide was appropriately hip and peppy. He walked backward like a pro, spouting off the admission stats and waving at points of interest. Two minutes into the tour, we stopped and looked down at the school seal.

"You know," said our student guide, "Students can't ever step across that or they won't graduate." He went on to say something about the number of kids who participate in Greek life or who volunteer to do community service.

I had stopped listening to him. I was looking at my daughter, her hair flicking up in the breeze, her arms crossed, either because she was freezing or anxious or both.

I looked over at my husband, who had his hands thrust in the pockets of his not weather-appropriate hoodie, and wondered if he was freezing or anxious or both. Was he thinking about our older child in college and how the second semester's horrifyingly high bill would be due soon and how the hell were we going to pay for the next kid on top of it and maybe it was time to pull out the Excel Spreadsheet where we have our college savings plan charted out for the next 5 years and doublecheck it?

A few years ago, at a college info session--(Williams?), the speaker talked about the school's 4-week Winter Term. Because I was a newby at that point, I'd never heard of such a thing, but apparently, you can do an internship or study abroad or stay on campus and ski. Or you could take a class. Or make up your own class, based on your interests. Teach yourself Morse Code or read all  of the poems by Emily Dickinson.

My mind was wandering, imagining that. How cool that my kids would get to Do those things. Eat paninis and live in Thoreau-like cabins and study in France. What would it be like to take four weeks and just read Emily Dickinson?

And then it hit me, I COULD take four weeks and read Emily Dickinson poems if I wanted to. What was stopping me? And damn it, if I want to eat paninis or pitch a tent in the back yard and pretend I'm Thoreau or throw caution to the wind and put a trip to France on the credit card, I could do that too.

Back in the gray windy day at the lovely college on the hill, the tour guide was gesturing to the library.

"This is our seventeenth college tour," my husband whispered to me.

We hung back further from the tour. The wind picked up and everyone was relieved when we got to go inside a dorm and see a sample dorm room.

"Are these dorms coed?" asked a parent.

YES!!! I wanted to tell him.

"Yes," said the tour guide.

When the tour was over, we ate lunch in the cafeteria. Salad bar. Build Your Own Omelet Station. Create our own sandwich. Paninis.

We ate pizza.

Before we left town, we stopped for ice cream at the best ice cream place ever.

At home, my husband pulled up the Excel Spreadsheet of College Costs. I got online and ordered a panini press.


  1. LOVE IT. As a mom with two daughters graduating within a year of each other, I was cracking up. I haven't counted how many tours (am going to try not to until this round is over), but it's been a lot. Let me add one lie, "Of course, we are handicapped accessible!" We toured a number of colleges last year after HK's knee surgery, and trust me, few campuses are handicapped accessible, which is too bad.

    1. Ugh. What a dumb line. And I can't even imagine trying to make it around some of these campuses on crutches. Poor HK!

  2. This post made me laugh a lot. I am not yet a mom (*raises hand at being 25 over here*) but remember college tours well. My very first one my mom thought it would be a good idea to take my grandmother (why?!!!) but there were a lot of stairs, so really it ended up being a tour of me, my parents and the tour guide. Oooof.

    1. Aww Rachel. Well, you will be a pro-college-tour-parent one of these days. Of course by then, who knows what the heck kind of food will be served in the cafeterias. But it's probably safe to say that Grandmas still might not wanna come along : )

  3. SEVENTEEN?? Holy frack. I visited four when I was a prospective student, and even that many seemed to wear my parents out.

    Incidentally, my school had no special seal or archway or anything like that. As far as I know. But we were a very urban campus, and the cautionary statement was more likely to be, "Don't step across that street without looking, or a taxi will run you over." ;-)

    1. I only visited three as a pro-stud. No seals as far as I remember either. I think that is a new thing (otherwise known as one of the Lies)