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College Visit

June 17, 2016

For a Boomer Parent getting your kid into college is the last great putsch of parenthood. From the moment they first hit a baseball, scratched a bow across cat gut or got an “A” on the science project you made for them, all triumphs had one ultimate goal: getting into a Killer College.

Every possible ancillary resume point is sought, nurtured and exploited. Buying into “Leadership” groups, paying thousands to go to “Elite” sports camps, joining any and every Good Works opportunity was just part of a grinding effort to create a compelling “narrative”.

This decade-plus march to admission becomes a bonding/contentious family drama, penultimately catalyzed around the College Visit – the predicate to the (meaningless) interview, unrelenting recommendation begs, excruciating essay freak out, the “SEND” button being pushed on the app, and then the April Fool’s moment of Despair /KING OF THE WORLD when the electronic Judgment Day reveals whether being on the Fencing Team overcame a 3.2 cume and a 580 in Math (Spoiler Alert: It Doesn’t).

But The Visit is All Possibilities: all courtship, all appetizers of academia titillating families to be encouraged that the decade of unrelenting focus could actually pay off. For second tier colleges and below the dorm life, cuisine, new buildings, cool t-shirts, spunky tour guides and Cool Admissions Salespeople provide a series of mini-vacations for families. The top tier offer that too, but with less need to proffer alternative validations to the merits of pre-eminance they embody.

It’s like looking for a new car writ large. The Campus Visit is now a ritual of hope, fantasy and family transition. Even Yale and Harvard want you, (YOU!) to apply – (even with that C+ in Spanish) – hey, more rejections means more exclusivity – so Please, Please Apply (maybe the Vice Presidency of the Chess Club overcomes your 197 class rank). (Second spoiler alert: it won’t.)

Each rejection makes every school higher ranked, more exclusive, more able to find more applicants who want to go there who do not need financial aid, or have a GPA that pushes the colleges stats Up, further enhancing their desirability. All that encouragement often means dozens of visits, and double-digit numbers of schools applied to.

Our children’s admission process was the complete inverse of my own. Having gone thru a musician’s conservatory audition/admissions freak out and an athlete’s crap-shoot early decision dance I can own the Extreme Parent Enabling Syndrome that leaves all objectivity to the whims of hope and fear of the highest order . But today’s process is nothing, absolutely Nothing, like the Boomer Experience of casual, coincidental, laissez-faire  parental and high school focus.

My own experience was at the extreme edge of Greatest Generation parental “sink or swim” ambivalence. I was 16, living mostly on my own in Buffalo, . With zero guidance, a generation or 2 before the Internet, I bought thick books and went to the library for other paper research aids to look for colleges.

My “Guidance Counselor” asked where I wanted to go, I told him and he said “Great.” and ended our session. I had found three 5-year architecture programs that could get me licensed as soon as possible. I also thought it could be cool to go to the same school as my best friend, and thought nothing of that school being Harvard – except that it did not have a 5 year BArch program.

With complete ignorance, I went on The College Trip in the fall of 1972. My parents were in Westchester, I was in Buffalo. I had made all the calls, arranged for all the meetings, places to stay and transportation.

I bought a Greyhound Bus loop trip ticket first to Ithaca (Cornell), then Philly (Penn)’ thence Princeton, last Boston (Harvard) – finding places to stay in each. On my own I visited and talked to admission folk. No tours. No big talk to touring applicants by admission people. It was me, getting off a bus, finding the campus, finding the person, meeting faculty and getting back on the bus.

Going to a small private school, college recruiters actually came to my high school, and I showed them a portfolio of drawings. I was taking Art History courses at the University of Buffalo to enhance architecture school desirability, as did a great teacher creating an “Architectural Drawing” course with a class size of 1 (me). I was good at testing, had a few B’s but no C’s, some AP courses so the recruiters encouraged me to visit them, personally at each school. A protocol of private school privilege that has completely evaporated.

In absurdly stupid arrogance I had Penn as my safety school (a mindset that ignored the fact that having Louis Kahn as the architecture Dean might make it a good place to go), somehow Cornell and Princeton seemed nice, and I did want to go to college with my best friend, if she went there (in similar delusional out-of-it-ness her first choice was Princeton, but also had Harvard on her list).

The 3 architecture schools came first – the first 2,  Cornell and Penn treated me like a recruited athlete, so my ignorant ego swelled to absurd hubris as the trip went on.  After walking around Princeton I empirically determined it was “too Preppy” for me. In fully fed ego bloat I immediately told the recruiter at our interview (who I had first met at my high school) to “give my place to someone else” at the interview (yes, I was 17). His look of astonished disdain lives on, bright, in my memory.

4 campuses in 5 days in late fall of 1972 – culminating with a closed youth hostel in Boston and being picked up by a young Harvard faculty member on Mass Ave outside its dark facade and locked door with “Closed Monday” sign on it. At his invitation I spent the night at his nearby apartment. I was just off being captain of the Football Team, so I was relatively (stupidly) fearless of any physical risk, so I gratefully said yes to his truly kind offer. Knowing it was an awkward situation (if not dangerous) I spent the night fully clothed on his couch. My sense of invasion was aided after I took to the couch by my host’s boyfriend quietly railing against him bringing me home. At dawn I stealthily fled before they awoke, leaving a profuse thankyou note behind.

A great encouraging interview followed and the last loooong bus ride back to Buffalo ensued, and I awaited word from my list of 3 remaining Ivy League candidates. But the prep world of white privilege was still in full force in 1973, and I just flowed with it – not knowing it was unusual.

My friend was wait-listed at Princeton, but admitted to Harvard, so that became a prime candidate as she did not apply to Cornell or Penn. I was admitted to Cornell and Penn, but wait-listed at Harvard where I was surreptitiously told that I had “nothing to worry about”, as I was 3rd on the waiting list – and they normally took 30-40 off the list. Upon being finally rejected (as my friend was to Princeton) the guy that had visited me at my high school illicitly spilled the beans that they admitted 2 off the list in 1973.

It was a different time. I had no sense of triumph upon admission, was sad not to be with my friend (we are still dear friends now despite – or perhaps because – we did not attend college together). I have no idea whether the Great Push for an architecture license ASAP was a good idea or not, simply because everything I did was without perspective.

That’s common for 17 year olds. Parents are perspective for their children – if they are part of your life. But my parents never suggested that they might want to be part of my college visit trip, let alone part of my college decision process. It was just not part of what they did as parents – which was, thankfully, to pay the bills.

We paid our children’s bills too. But we received the great gift of presence in their lives: too much so, perhaps. But caring too much usually trumps caring too little. The risk is heart break for the over-caring, over-sharing Boomer Parent as children are never what a parent thinks they might be. But the downside of caring not-so-much is that my parents had no clue why I did anything. Oddly enough, my college thought process, devoid of their input or presence, led me to attend their beloved alma mater: Cornell.

It was a different time – and looking back makes it no less different.




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