Friday, July 1, 2011

Doing the Great College Tour Road Trips as a Mother and Professor

I thought that, since I am a professor and have taught at universities both in the US (Brown, UMass, MIT, and Harvard Exec Education) and in Europe (Sweden and Austria), going on college tours would not be especially illuminating.

I was wrong.

As a parent, the great college tour has become another "On the Road" set of new experiences with my daughter, who is a rising senior. Although she has lived in different countries and has been to more conferences than some academics, she, nevertheless, and wisely so, wanted to see a spectrum of colleges before she decides which ones to apply to.

Luckily, Amherst, where we live, is within 5 hours of driving to numerous colleges and universities and my daughter is very organized and efficient and plans on which days we will visit which colleges, using concepts that she has naturally absorbed from optimization and operations research.

Seeing colleges and going on college tours, one gets a perspective that one doesn't obtain from just being an invited speaker at a college or a conference and these road trips and college tours have been fascinating learning experiences for us and also filled with adventures and colorful memories. I have also spent, even as a professor, substantial time living in college dorm rooms (Cornell's and Syracuse's among them) since I have been heavily involved in high performance computing and would attend summers courses/training sessions at various universities.

We have done the Boston / Cambridge set of tours (many contrasting experiences) and most recently came back from visiting colleges in mid-state New York, where for miles we never saw any cars but did see (in addition to the signs) several horse and buggies driven by Amish with milk containers (they waved and smiled). We have listened to outstanding admissions officers who clearly know their institutions and who are passionate about them.

After some of the most comfortable beds we have ever slept in (at the Holiday Inn in Ithaca) we were awoken the other night at 2AM to a resounding smoke alarm and managed to evacuate from our 8th floor rooms to see some guests outside fully dressed and others just wrapped in towels. The firemen seemed to take a while to arrive but ultimately everything was cleared and we marched back up the stairs. We also met other families who were either on college tours or on college orientations (including one lovely family from Oklahoma who had been delayed for 8 hours in Detroit trying to make their way to Ithaca and had arrived at the hotel only at midnight).

As for those student college tour guides who manage to walk backwards throughout the one hour tour -- never missing a beat or spraining an ankle -- thanks for the enthusiasm and all the great stories! Also, thanks to the Admission Offices and staff who offer families cups of coffee (one even offered hot chocolate) and water. And to the college that offered us (my daughter accepted) ice cream sandwiches with chocolate chip cookies even before lunch -- thanks for such a welcoming and personal touch.

What has impressed me about some of the various colleges that we have visited is the flexibility in terms of majors and the variety and the exciting international programs that are offered. As a parent, I also notice the quality of the infrastructure, including the classroom buildings and the libraries, as well as to how well the buildings are maintained and how pleasant the libraries and the cafeterias are (and what their operating hours are).

I also always ask about safety and about health services -- would you believe that some colleges actually even delivered chicken soup to sick students?

As for some of the dorm rooms that we have seen -- from the ones that so pleasantly surprised us to one the other day that reminded me of some of the photos I had seen in The New York Times of overcrowded prisons in California -- they are forever etched in our memories.