Twenty-eight summers ago, my family took me on a college-shopping trip. Much of our recent vacation was a re-enactment of that journey, with the college-shopper this time around being my 17-year-old son Teddy. The memories of that long-ago journey overlaid this one, giving it a faintly surreal feel.
We started with Georgetown University, which is only an hour from Baltimore, where we were lodged. This was a highly-anticipated moment for John and me, since it’s our alma mater and we had not been back in several years. When we drove across the Key Bridge we more or less spontaneously broke into song, starting with the Alma Mater and segueing seamlessly into the fight song, which is the most awesome fight song EVER.
Once we parked, Jake and Emily struck off on their own while the rest of us went to the Admissions Office for the information session. (That’s how college visits mostly work–an info session led by officials, followed by a campus tour led by a student.) The session was overcrowded so the little people and I waited in the lobby, where I enjoyed talking to the student at the desk about how things have changed and some of our past escapades.
Georgetown is a noisy place, with airplanes flying overhead regularly, lots of people, and delivery vehicles chirping as they try to back up (The only roads are access roads–it’s not a driving campus.) So although the tour was by far the most comprehensive in terms of the buildings we saw, it wasn’t the best because we had a really hard time hearing our guide. Things that struck me: Georgetown has the world’s largest student-owned and operated business; it encourages internships and has many available all over the country; it places emphasis on studying abroad. Getting an opinion out of Teddy is like drawing blood from a stone, but I know that he approves of its awesome location in our nation’s capital. If I were going to pick, I’d send him there. But I’m not going to pick because I am not a helicopter mom.
What do I remember from my own visit to Georgetown was my father sweating through his shirt and therefore having to keep his jacket on in the intense heat (we were luckier with our weather this time and missed the Knoxville heat wave too!); being told that there were Masses offered every 45 minutes all day long (this time around we also heard about the rabbis and imams on campus); and that it was my favorite from the moment I set foot there.
Our next stop was Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. We drove up from Baltimore for their afternoon session and tour. Teddy and I went to Nassau Hall for the info session while everyone else went in search of snacks. It was a grand location for an information session with a lot of history–it was briefly our nation’s Capitol. Emily and Jake joined us for the tour (and brought the snacks!) while John rested and let the little kids play behind the Frist Student Center (yes, it is the Frist you think!).
It was a really good tour and I think all of us were impressed with the beauty of the campus. Also notable are the residential college system (think Hogwarts) and the upper-class eating clubs. From my first visit I remember thinking that the campus was beautiful but the town was too small, and my opinion remains the same (30,000 people in the town). They told us back then that New York and Philadelphia were close and accessible by train, and they said that again this time, only they admitted what I suspected from the first, that people mostly don’t do that.
We drove straight from Princeton to New Haven, in preparation for our appointment at Yale University first thing in the morning. That visit started out extremely well, with our finding two parking places right on the street in front of our destination. Emily and Jake took Lorelei and John, William, and I accompanied Teddy to the information session, which was held in a lecture hall to accommodate the crowd. For the tour, we were divided up into smaller groups so that we were able to hear our guide very well.
Me, I don’t like campuses with actual city roads crossing through them, but Teddy didn’t seem to mind. Yale’s architecture is the prettiest–which I remember thinking when I saw it last. It’s modeled on Oxford so there is lots of stone. A highlight of the tour was one library which houses the rare book collection, including a Gutenberg Bible. The main library is styled like a cathedral, with a large collection of secular stained glass (Yale was determinedly secular, which naturally turned me off. No mention was made of religious opportunities on campus, although there is a large Catholic church on the street where the tour began–the only non-Yale building on the street.).
Teddy liked the “shopping period,” a two-week time during which you can attend any courses you want before you commit, even coming late and leaving early. Yale also does the residential college bit. I like the sound of that better these days–it didn’t appeal to me when I was applying to colleges. New Haven was downright scary back then, which was a major downer. I can see that it’s been revitalized quite a bit, but I understand that it’s still considered a high-crime city. But, hey, D.C. was the murder capital of the country when I attended Georgetown.
So, finally, we headed for Harvard University. It wasn’t one of Teddy’s favorites to begin with, and the tour didn’t change that. He and I went to the information session while everyone else went to find parking ($27!). The session was held in a theatre also used as a lecture hall, and was unique on the trip for having student commentators along with the admission official–a good tactic, I thought. The rest of the family were wiped out and thoroughly tired of colleges by this time, so they did not come on the tour with us either.
Our guide was fine, but the tour covered the least territory of any that we went on. At some colleges, there is a definite sense that they are trying to “sell” themselves. At Harvard, you feel that they know they’ve already made the sale, because they are, you know, HARVARD, so they don’t try as hard. The points that stood out to me about Harvard were negative points. They are so secular that they don’t mention religion and so “diverse” that they don’t officially sanction any single sex organizations. Cambridge is great and lots of fun I’m sure, but you are constantly crossing streets and I just don’t like that. The architecture leans brickward which just isn’t as pretty as the stone on other campuses. They de-emphasize studying abroad or doing internships during the school year, because who would want to miss a semester at Harvard? And you only take 32 classes to graduate!
So where will Teddy go to school? I suspect he will narrow it down by 1) Where he gets in and 2) Where he gets the best deal financially. We shall see. After my college tour, I made exhaustive pro/con lists (Georgetown won!) but still ended up applying to all of them (plus Brown, which Teddy did not want included on his tour–he is also considering Vanderbilt and Notre Dame). I got into Georgetown early, was wait-listed at Brown and Princeton and outright rejected by Harvard and Yale. Which was a blow to my ego but for which I am forever grateful, because I feel like you just don’t say no if you get into Harvard and I am so, so glad that I went to Georgetown.
When Emily looked at colleges, she loved Spring Hill right away and knew it was the place for her, just like John and I knew about Georgetown. So I asked Teddy, “Did you get a special feeling about any of them? Did any one place make your soul sing?” He responded, “Mom, I’m not a girl.”