My niece started visiting colleges this past week. Abby is a well-rounded high school junior with a high GPA from an excellent, challenging school system. An asset to any college lucky enough to get her (Yes, I’m completely unbiased!), she has an impressive and diverse list of extracurricular activities that includes music/choral performance in a tough music program and editor-in-chief of the high school’s award-winning yearbook. She’s just not sure of her career direction yet which makes determining the colleges to visit a bit more difficult. Her first visit included Vanderbilt … a college with Ivy League aspirations as well as a 9% acceptance rate, gorgeous campus in a much warmer climate, the potential for highly engaging, challenging classes and an annual tuition around 60K.
The college/university search process is not an easy one. My son went through this not so long ago. The biggest difference between the cousins is that Jarod KNEW that he wanted to study film since he was 10 years old. His career goal had been defined, so he embarked on a more direct approach to identify the post-high school educational location that would best support his aspirations as well as the environment he could thrive in. Determining business and film was the goal, he made his choice. And he never looked back.
It’s interesting. The thought process and criteria that become important in selecting the university — or program — that takes you to the next level. And, as I listened to Abby describe her trip, I couldn’t help but think back to my own choice and wonder.
What IF I had chosen differently? What would that one small change have meant for my life today?
I think back to 17 year old me … I recall that girl very vividly. Prior to the summer of my college visits, I’d been pretty certain I would attend Indiana University and study theatre. I’d grown up visiting the campus. It was my parents’ Alma Mater. And, the theatre program was exceptional.
But the guidance counselor at the school where my mom taught suggested I consider some smaller schools. He thought maybe small town me might be better suited to a smaller campus. That instead of getting lost in the crowd, a smaller school might help me stand out and experience opportunities a large school might not accommodate. And, at 17 despite my growing independence, I was influenced and curious about his suggestion.
I visited several campuses, including DePauw University — which I decided was too Greek too fast for me since I didn’t want to decide my friends and lifestyle before I knew anyone during the first week of school — and Kalamazoo College — which I very, very quickly determined had too rigid a curriculum calendar for me. I visited Bradley and met two great friends while I was there. We hung out the whole time. My parents loved it but I left and didn’t look back … Can’t remember what turned me off there but I knew it wasn’t the right fit.
I visited Butler University. It was the top contender in my mind. Butler was just outside the up-and-coming city of Indianapolis. I’d visited Indy a lot, what with my grandparents living there. I’d been very interested in Butler’s programs … access to a big town would have been a bonus. But … it poured down rain during my visit and the campus seemed dated, drippy and tired. Bottom line, I didn’t find what I thought I would.
Next came Albion College. Albion reminded me of William & Mary in Williamsburg, a gorgeous old campus filled with history. Lots of old buildings, a beautiful quad, a Greek system that began second semester and did not require its members to live in the sorority houses, and a strong theatre program.
See, I’d wanted to study theatre … I’d auditioned for scholarships at the International Thespian Society and received several great offers, but none from any nearby universities. And I had just enough doubt to hold me back … to suggest I should choose a safer path where theatre was a sideline vs. a focus. And, Albion College offered accessibility to all the opportunities and programs I wanted — plus, it was far enough from my hometown to help me exert my independence.
There was something else, if I’m honest. Something that sticks in my mind. The final stop in our tour was the Methodist Church, located centrally on campus. Up in the front was a beautiful large wooden cross suspended from the ceiling … reminding me of one of my favorite hymns. The day I visited that campus was beautiful … the sky radiant and the temperature perfect. The stars seemed to align. And the rest, I guess, is pretty much history.
My education and experience at Albion College were excellent. I made wonderful friends. I performed in numerous theatre productions with leading roles. I joined a sorority and held an office every year. I worked as a tour guide and Residential Assistant. As an out-of-state student, Albion sort of pursued me. I received a great scholarship. And, I made the most of every moment, even though I didn’t get to every football game as I’d planned. I took an off-campus semester in Philadelphia. I truly thrived during my time there.
Albion gave me the college experience I wanted, despite the fact that it was located in a nothing town. Somehow — even before the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — when the first Mac was only just released, I didn’t get bored. I was challenged, and I had fun. I graduated top of my class and made the most of everything I could.
Yet, I still wonder …
Albion was — still is — a liberal arts college. I had my eye on Communications and sort of stumbled into an English Major as well. I loved pretty much all of my Communications and English classes and the professors. But, when it came to finding that elusive career after graduation, I struggled. Career placement wasn’t Albion’s strongest feature at the time in the field I had chosen. Oh, I found my footing eventually, but it wasn’t easy.
I wonder …
If it hadn’t been raining, what might Butler and the thriving town of Indianapolis have offered me? What might I have discovered in those hallowed halls? Did I shut the door too quickly? Did I thwart destiny or make the wrong choice?
As I listen to Abby talk about Ball State — one of her other campus visits — and the fact that she didn’t think there would be enough to do there, and as I listed to Jarod tell me how he’s considering an apartment next semester since the dorm food and hours don’t always accommodate his schedule, I wonder … Is it different now? The college experience I wished for my son … that I hope for Abby, is it “out of date?” What teenagers want and seek now seems so out of sync with what I wanted and what I found. I’m learning that “the college experience” is different for everyone — each of us seek something very personal. Each of us find something unique.
Albion had The Keller, where I studied and hung out with friends eating fries and chicken strips. Now it has a Taco Bell and fancy, updated buildings. It’s not the college I knew. It would not be the college I chose today …
So I wonder. What would that One Small Change have done? How would my life and its course have altered? Did I make a tactical error? Was the college experience I found the best I could have had? Did I give up on my dream too quickly?
My son is set to graduate in three years — he says he doesn’t need or want the fourth. Abby is focused on four years somewhere, followed by Grad School — doing what, she’s not yet sure but she’ll figure that out. Times and the selection criteria are different. But the discovery and growth that comes from “the college experience” are mind-blowing. They changed me … they shaped me. However you chose to live it, you leave different from how you arrive. I can see my son growing and changing … it’s fascinating, being on the other side and watching it happen.
How might I be different with four years at Butler? One Small Change in my path. One giant shake-up in my now?
As I listen to Abby, I can’t help but wonder. So, if she asked me, I’d say … It’s a giant decision. Don’t base it on the weather. Base it on how a school might help you, guide you and support you as you shape your dreams and your future. Explore … discover … take your time.
Most importantly, I’d ask her: What do YOU want from your post high school experience? Chase the school that offers that — whatever it is. It’s okay if you don’t know everything right now. You fall through a few rabbit holes on your way to Wonderland. But once there, dig in. Embrace what the college has to offer. This choice, the friendships and the experiences you have there will impact the rest of your life.
No pressure … It’s an exciting time. I’ll always be here to support you and promise to send you cookies. Good luck.
— Aunt Jenni