Ten days of unremitting bonding with Thing 1, up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, assessing and analyzing the merits of seven colleges and universities. Ten days in and out of hotels and friends’ homes, lugging suitcases and the odd shopping bag. Ten days of constant GPS programming, restaurant food, and pressed clothing.
I would dearly love to share the names of the schools which we visited but Thing 1 has told me I am a mother who “overshares” and to cap my pen. Besides, what I am going to write about is more important than their names. What’s important is the selection process itself.
The real challenge, for my expat Thing 1, is to successfully select a school in which she will feel “at home” thousands of miles away, across an ocean, from her family who will continue their expat lives in Spain. Her expat life will screech to a halt a year from now. Her final frontier: the United States of America, where she has not lived since she was a toddler. How to pick a school with enough cultural diversity, sophistication, and educational opportunities from a far?
The answer, of course, is that you don’t. You get in a car and drive a thousand of miles in a predetermined geographical region to suss the situation out. Or, you criss cross the country via airplane in your quest. Seeing is believing and in the end, your child hopefully has an idea of where they want to spend the next 4 – 5 years of their life.
All summer, to the annoyance of one and all, I quizzed friends, family members, store clerks, cashiers, doctors and nurses, on the higher education they received. Universally, they were pleased. Some went to state schools, some to prestigious universities. All were successful, gainfully employed human beings.
Doctor O.P. Tic was particularly helpful. A native of Hong Kong, he attended MIT as an undergrad and Washington University for his M.D./Ph.d. Herewith, his salient analysis, which guided us through our college tour:
“Remove your emotions from the transaction. You are not buying real estate. This is not about the nicest dorm room or the prettiest campus. Who has the best programs for you?” he said, rolling around on his chair, flickering back and forth between Thing 1‘s eyes and his drawer of lenses.
This might seem a little clinical to you but, having once been suckered by an ivy-colored brick sorority house with a library thirty feet away, I appreciated his candor. The lure of a quad can be mesmerizing, a Siren on the rocks waiting for you to crash your teenage self.
Dr. Tic continued: “There are two types of schools: boot camps and finishing schools. In boot camps, it is survival of the fittest. You either make it or you don’t. No one is helping you out. At finishing schools, they grow you in a hothouse, prune you, and when you are ready, they put you in a nice arrangement. You come out smelling like a rose.”
Slipping a pair of contacts into Thing 1’s eyes, he warmed even further to the subject, and said, “If you go to MIT, you stay up studying until 2 a.m. on a Friday night. At Stanford, by Friday you think you are entitled to a party.”
What about my alma mater U.C. Berkeley, I wondered?
Boot camp, definitely, said Dr. Tic. (Well, not for me, in the English Department but those in Chemical Engineering probably had a different perspective).
How about Brown, Harvard, Yale?
All finishing schools.
Johns Hopkins and Washington U? Hybrids, of which there are not many.
I asked Dr. Tic if he had any hobbies. He did not have any when he was in school but now he collects chandeliers (which explains why his office lobby looks like a Marriott). Chandeliers seemed like an odd choice. If he had told me he collected salt and pepper shakers, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it again. But after weeks of pondering his choice, it suddenly made a lot of sense: lenses and lighting, albeit in a different form.
In the end, we visited seven schools and only four made the final list. Several of the schools, in a display of gross political correctness, waxed on about either their on-campus imam or Islamic Studies program. This, in and of itself, did not disqualify a school per se but the pandering of the admissions officers to a roomful of WASPS embarrassed me. No one was trumpeting their amazing program in Hebrew studies or the New Testament As Literature. (To the brave tour guide who actually showed off the institution’s church – way to buck the trend, my friend).
Then there were the obsequious parents waiting in the lobbies while their children were interviewed. One woman contorted her face into such an obscene smile greeting the student interviewer, you would have thought she’d met Queen Elizabeth. For a moment, I thought she was actually going to curtsy. Where were the normal people? At the same Ivy, one father wanted to see if he could squeeze his son, a rising high school junior, in for an interview after that of his daughter, who sat cringing on the leather banquette. This First World attempt at line cutting eclipsed anything I’d seen heretofore in the Third World. The interviewer’s smack down was firm and polite. ( But these exchanges gave me pause: just how do I come off as the parent?).
The tour guides themselves were a pretty geeky squad, all of whom could walk backwards, were not able to show us a dorm room, and advised that if you wanted air conditioning to tell the school you had an allergy.
I nixed one school from the list just because it used the word “queer” to describe the gay/lesbian/transgendered community on its official walking map. Where I grew up, that word was always a big verbal no-no to describe that particular group. Used correctly, it meant the same thing as “odd”, as in, “My grandmother’s outfit to my wedding, combat boots paired with a sheer negligee, was a bit queer”. My sister told me later that perhaps it was a word like the “N” word: certain groups can use it but not others. I’m all about language parity so that did not sit well with me. Plus, the bookstore was downright creepy. Have they not heard of the American concept of merchandizing???? There was only one Diet Coke in the lone refrigerator unit – not a good sign.
Thing 1 jettisoned a prestigious institution after a student, in a post-tour forum, confessed to being claustrophobic in the winter in the middle of the New England forest. Thing 1 was also not a fan of their creative academic “plan” either and quipped, “To be honest, it seems a lot like camp.” For my part, I’d made the mistake of lodging four miles down the road at a Holiday Inn Express*, which was fine, except for the adjacent spooky “Bates Motel” crammed with tar-covered road construction workers. Prior to the road trip, this school had reigned #1 so I am overjoyed not to have to pay a quarter of a million dollars for “camp”.
The last school fell because, really, it was the school I wanted to go to and it was a long way from a major airport. There were also no family or friends nearby. And if you are an expat, this makes a difference. Where to go for Thanksgiving?
In the end, this decision is between Thing 1, God, and some random admission officers. I can only offer to proof her essay and prod her father to meet the financial aid deadlines (an exercise in futility since we will receive none). Tomorrow morning, after a candlelit breakfast, Thing 1 will head off for her last year of school in the darkness. It will be the last First Day of School with her siblings. She is ready to go. This last year will be just one crystallized drop sparkling in the chandelier of her life. May it be one of the brightest.
*No restaurant or minibars available. Just an FYI. Some have a refrigerator unit/store in which you can buy beer and milk. Alas, none was available in Deliverance Junction.