Honesty at the College Visit

This weekend saw yet another college visit for Middle, who is now in his senior year of high school.  It occurred at a major urban east coast university and naturally, the place was festooned for the thousands of visiting prospects and parents, who were respectively excited and terrified.  Before the breakout sessions for the Admissions/Aid and then the various individual academic schools within the university structure, there was the obligatory reach-‘n-grab for all manner of flyers, pens and cheap lanyards as the herd milled past the tables set up in the arena concourse.  For all of the obligatory rah-rah however, there was a session of clarity and honesty in the early afternoon and it was eye-opening for the handful who were in attendance.

Middle is an arts kid – creative and talented, someone who appreciates the poetry of E.E. Cummings more than the need to subtract – and in his element, he’s a wonder to behold.  All of the paternal gush now aside, we joined dozens of students and parents for the Theatre Department’s information session.  It was hosted by the Theatre Department’s Assistant Chair as well as the graduate theatre program director, each with years of experience running this nationally recognized program and it occurred in the front rows before a stage undergoing transformation to the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon.  The department chair spoke about the program and it’s structure, as well as the various concentrations and where the graduates were getting work.  He then however, commented that if the students were hoping to come here and then simply make it into the big-time, they were suffering from a notion that was preposterous; they would work diligently and hard to learn a craft that might earn them a weekly wage of $150 to start.  As he discussed the capabilities of the various adjunct faculty, he told of a graduate who had been on Broadway but was now back and teaching as her mother was helping care for the graduate’s child since the typical Broadway salary didn’t allow for the burden of childcare expenses.  I glanced at Middle, who was silently digesting all of the information that was more telling of reality than he’d get from the glossy brochures that inundate the mailbox.  The two of them also acknowledged that they were glad that it was far more affordable for the in-state kids and they didn’t blink when a mother later asked about the state residency requirements; this woman was a heavily-accented immigrant who would be willing to move to make this work for her child, even if it meant that her child would have to wait a year for the opportunity.

When it was over, we joined a group who were waiting to make personal comments or ask questions.  I thanked the gentleman for his candor and he remarked that he very much understood the issue of tuition.  When he himself was in high school, he had the opportunity to attend a college for free and his own father decreed you will go here.  He then touched his index finger to his thumb to make a small circle that he placed before his eye, and commented that it made a huge difference for him, allowing him to take advantage of opportunities that paid nothing yet provided real dividends for his career.  Middle stood nearby listening, taking all of this in and it was invaluable since it wasn’t coming from the ‘rents.

The old reality of college – the best seven years of my life, as Bluto Blutarsky once commented – is dead.  I don’t know where Middle will ultimately wind up or what he’ll do and I know that the decision will be hashed out in the coming months.  But there were three lessons that I believe he took with him from the sessions.  The first is that beneath the glossy exteriors and play to the emotions, this is a difficult first lesson in finding the balance between the dreams and the adult realities of the present-day world.  The second lesson is probably more important, and that is that this is a decision that will be made with the parents; indeed, the folks might just be more far-sighted than he realizes as he comes to terms with the reality that you can’t have it all, despite what it proclaimed in advertising.  The third lesson is that it’s not just his own Mom and Dad who are asking hard questions, ones that he simply doesn’t yet grasp as a teenager.

This coming weekend will see yet another college visit and this time, we’ll go as a family and bring Youngest along. He’ll be bored at moments and that’s fine, he’s old and disciplined enough to suffer well for the short duration.  But my hope is that even years away from this decision, he’ll take enough in to see the process so that he’s not so swayed by the marketing that’s printed to sway the kids.  Because last week, he – now in seventh grade – looked at a brochure sitting on the kitchen island and stated man, I wanna go here ’cause everyone looks so friendly.  Yes, the boy’s coming along.

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