By Robin Noble
What I liked the most about touring schools with my daughter were the take-aways I never expected.
Our circuit included four schools over two spring break days in Southern California. It was a trip full of cool, strange moments, nearly all of them revealing on a gut level.
As parents we tend to prepare for tours methodically, getting itineraries arranged, reading up, readying questions. This is our role, and it’s important. But, when planning a trip, take a moment to prepare yourself for something much better. A true memory maker and bonding opportunity, school touring can be one of the most joyful parts of your child’s liftoff.
Moreover, the trips give a glimpse into the next phase of your relationship: two adults on a quest — one who has been there, and one who is on her way.
It was close to midnight when we arrived at San Diego International Airport. I forgot my phone at home. Hers was out of battery and econo-cars don’t come equipped with GPS. Luckily I had printed driving directions, so she co-piloted us towards the Hampton Inn, just over the railroad tracks and one left turn beyond Déjà Vu, the self-proclaimed “Largest Strip Club in California.” I observed her wide-eyed gaze and that’s when it hit me: my girl has spent her life in a tame small city. San Diego would be a big change of venue.
Olivia was in charge of scheduling our campus visits and getting directions. (Again, printed!) The tour time on University of San Diego’s itinerary said “10 arrive 30 minutes early.” I scanned it and read 10:30. Oops. We had just arrived at The Mission — a famed San Diego breakfast spot — when she realized we should be parking at USD. With a mad dash we made it just in time to join the back of a departing tour.
If you’ve ever been to the University of San Diego you know why it was okay that our one serious scheduling error occurred just before this tour. The tranquility and beauty of the campus is epic. The atmosphere is laid-back. And the weather: 72 degrees, sunny with a light breeze. We were relaxed enough to be thoughtfully observant.
Olivia is interested in studying business, so seeing San Diego State University was a must. Ever the planner, she had packed some brain saving granola bars. Rolling directly out of USD, we munched, navigated and found SDSU’s multi-story parking garage, and then trolled 10 minutes for a spot.
We arrived in time for an information session, which was the most refreshing presentation of the entire trip. At SDSU, students lead the session, answer the questions and present their experiences. The tour was similarly well done, with a backward-walking student expert who was nicely unpolished. On campus we sensed friendliness, with students saying hello or smiling wistfully at our group. That meant something to me.
After SDSU we were so empty all conversation ceased. We had planned to go back to The Mission but instead made a beeline for In-And-Out Burger. Reenergized, we took our Colorado selves to the beach. It was late afternoon and college students were everywhere — sunning, surfing, flirting and, yes, drinking. It was a Monday. We didn’t say much, but gazed out at the cold water and just relaxed. I wouldn’t, but Olivia took a plunge in the waves.
By the next morning we agreed that this trip was not about food. We slept an extra half hour and hit Starbucks on our way to Claremont McKenna College. Like USD and SDSU, the uniqueness of this campus came through immediately. We saw one student making her way to class on a wobbly unicycle, backpack bulging. She looked determined, hard working, even indomitable as she turned her wheel up the hill.
The information session was a one-hour, no-visual, no-podium talk given by a much rehearsed admissions counselor. She took pains to encourage applications, assuring students that “you are much more than your SAT score!” This felt a bit disingenuous to me, thinking of CMC’s 12% admission rate. It felt great to my daughter, a strong student but so-so test taker, who glanced over at me and smiled eagerly. I smiled back.
Our final school visit was Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles that afternoon. Another gorgeous campus, Loyola Marymount supplied us with a likeable tour guide who spoke honestly about things he loves (screenwriting classes) and things he would change (more school spirit). We walked for what seemed like miles, listening as one mother took over the Q & A while her son stared into the distance. It was nice when Olivia and I got back to the car and could download the other things we observed.
With four hours before our flight home we headed toward a nondescript strip mall. That’s when we saw it (cue the dramatic music): Beautiful Nails. Frivolity was the only missing ingredient in our trip so far, and this stop nailed it (literally).
Our SoCal university tour answered the questions my student anticipated: how different schools manage majors, the surrounding cities, technology, alumni love, study abroad, dorm life and much more. But there was no presupposing the nuanced insights she got, which may or may not be 100% accurate, but nonetheless set the greater impression.
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