Those of you following me on Instagram know I’ve been on a working vacation. I say working even though I haven’t put words to paper, and I say vacation even though there have been few beaches. Instead, I toured college campuses on the East Coast with my family so my son can get a better idea of what he’s looking for in a college.

He has three major criteria: 1) a good computer science program. 2) a small school and 3) a swim team he can compete on. This means we’re looking at mostly small liberal arts colleges with STEM departments and Division 3 swim teams. It’s very different from my college search, which amounted to “a big engineering school.” My wife was the same way, so it’s no surprise we ended up at the University of Wisconsin and Purdue, respectively. Our kids both wanted the opposite, so there’s your teenaged rebellion.

Big Ten schools are what I think about when I think about colleges. East Coast schools are therefore hard to wrap my head around. First there are the names, which sound like stuffy Englishmen or houses at Hogwarts: Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Bowdoin, Amherst, Williams, and Rochester. Red-brick Neo-Classical buildings form a central grass-covered quad, and from there, buildings spread out with the most modern buildings at the edges. Admissions offices are always former houses in the Queen Anne-style and there must be a rule to have a tall steepled building, either a secularized chapel or a rotunda’d hall with bells chiming every the quarter hour. “Because that’s how they told time in the olden days or something,” said the tour guide with an Apple watch.

Every school starts the tour with a representative from the admissions office who talks about the school’s commitment to students finding their own path through the school’s unique course-selection philosophy. They make much of the diversity and inclusion programs, student centers, physical and mental health resources, and acknowledgements that the campus stands on land taken from native peoples.

The school “commits” to fund 100% of the tuition gap between full price and demonstrated need. Without loans! Cynical me wonders how the sliding scales of demonstrated need are put together. (Trust us, it’s totally fair!)  

Then you are shuffled off for a campus tour led by a student guide, usually a sophomore or junior, who tells you about each building as you pass, shows off the library, the dorms, cafeterias, and one flagship building that is usually the most recently constructed (either an environmental studies, business, or science center, which shows you where the school thinks its future focus should be). Many were putting in geothermal taps for the campus, and the guides were proud to talk about how small the school’s carbon footprint is and how long it will be until they are carbon neutral. The extroverted guides encourage questions, which are sparse, and my wife thinks up questions to ask because she feels bad for the guides. Ironically, once one question is asked, someone else gets the courage to ask another.  Finally, at the end, your guide explains why they chose to attend the school in question. It’s always because they felt at home. We clap, head back to the car, and drive on to the next college for a slightly different variation on the formula.

I sound cynical. I’m not. I’m sure the colleges are trying their best to attract students and speaking to their needs and dreams with an eye to appeasing the parents who will be likely footing the bill. The sales job is to get a student to make an emotional connection to the place while assuring their rational brains they can achieve all they desire at the school.

There are differences in how campuses feel and though it’s not fair, the guides are often avatars for the school’s typical student. My son quickly sussed out which campuses appealed and which didn’t. Surprisingly, I was usually on the same page with him because I picked up on the vibes too.

I sometimes feel like I missed out on a liberal arts college experience, which is pure crap, because my university had the same opportunities, I just didn’t take advantage of them because I was 18 and I had a different set of priorities and Wisconsin was the best school for 18-year-old me. My son is not me, with a different take on the world and how best to plan a future. I believe that’s the point I’m trying to make. It’s not getting into MIT that will make all the difference in my son’s life (though I was impressed with MIT and think he would do well there in a way I wouldn’t when I was his age), it’s about finding the right fit that will challenge him enough to grow while being comfortable enough so that he feels he’s found a tribe of curious old souls like himself. 

Nine states, 1700 miles, and seven campus visits, with a few detours along the way. Is anyone else going through the college selection journey? Any tips or advice? Leave a comment, and let’s talk!

Reader Goodies

I’ve been making my way through the Becky Chambers catalog, and this is a title that many reference as something beginning authors should NOT emulate until they know what they’re doing. Chambers knows what she’s doing.

This is a story told in vignettes about life in the Exodan fleet (a collection of the last humans to flee a devastated Earth) in her Wayfarers (Long Way to Small, Angry Planet) universe. It details the way of life for a self-contained, nomadic fleet culture that is no longer nomadic nor self-contained. It explores what it means to be part of a culture, looking at it from both inside and out, whether you love it and never want it to change, or if you can’t wait to get away into the larger world. While the chapters tell different stories, they combine in a larger plot that enters around the murder of a major character and the repercussions it sends through the fleet.

I love Chambers’s beautiful storytelling, with a real focus on humans being human, though sometimes I find her characters somewhat naïve. This isn’t blood n guts SF, it’s a gentler SF where violence is something abhorrent and feared by its characters. There’s a ton of classic SF goodness underpinning the story with an obvious ton of thought about how a closed-system society works and what the ramifications of where those choices can lead.

An easy, breezy read, but I’m still thinking about it weeks later.

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