Looking for Mr. Right (Academically Speaking)

My younger daughter is a high school senior.  But she has been looking for colleges since she was a freshman in high school.  There have been passionate flirtations, come hither glances from more brochures than you want to imagine (honest to God, we could take over a landfill with the brochures for colleges she’d never heard of, and the colleges she is interested in have spent unbelievable amounts of money and resources  on her and her fellow seniors).  About a year ago she was pretty sure she’d met The One, the college that would make her life full of meaning and joy.  Or something along that line.

She has certain rock-hard criteria: small liberal arts college.  Not in California.  Not necessarily in a city (maybe even not in a city, but that’s negotiable).  Good record on sustainability and social responsibility.  Good departments for Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies, and American Studies.  Not cliquey. Diversity, outward focus, etc.

Last summer, before she took off for a summer course in Washington DC, she and her dad took a road-trip through the Northeast, visiting schools in New York (2) and Connecticut (3).  The visit to schools in Vermont and Massachusetts were scotched because of the Asiana Airlines crash, which knocked their schedule into a cocked hat, as the saying is.  She came home inspired and impressed, but not overwhelmed.  No school had yet knocked the One True College from its position in her heart.

So now it’s my turn to do the tour thing.  Like intrepid explorers we loaded up our pack mules with supplies and clothes for all weathers, and headed for the midwest.  (We did leave the flintlocks at home: TSA insisted.)  We flew into Des Moines last Wednesday night, slept near the airport, and drove to Grinnell, IA, the next morning.  Grinnell is a beautiful campus, and the kid did the full court press there: lunch with a student, class (Critique of Culture), interview, overnight in a dorm.  I stayed in a nearby B&B and took myself out to a good dinner (just because you’re an explorer doesn’t mean it has to be all privation).  “I could really see myself here,” she said, as we left.

Next, north to Minnesota, and Macalester College, in St. Paul.  It’s actually an urban campus, but once you’re there the notion of a city outside the door fades a little.  The campus is beautiful and curiously compact, using its space well; it’s also built with regard for the weather: gerbil tubes from building to building to building significantly reduce the number of times a student has to go out in the elements in January, which is a smart move.  I liked the emphasis on service and involvement, and the enthusiasm of the girl who led my tour (they split the kids off from the ‘rents, as our foci are often very different).  When we left, I got the feeling that maybe Grinnell had some serious competition in the “I can see myself here” department.

Sunday we explored Minneapolis, like you do, and had brunch with good friends.  We saw the sculpture garden and bummed around a little downtown, and were almost swallowed by a horde of purple-clad Vikings fans on their way to a game, and then on their way home.

And today it was Carleton, south of Minneapolis and north of Iowa.  Despite gray skies it was gorgeously autumnal (never underestimate the joy of a real autumn landscape for Easterners living in San Francisco), and the campus showed to great advantage.  Did the tour and info session, had lunch on campus, and then the kid disappeared into her interview.  And she came out almost an hour later, having gotten to yakking with the interviewer.  And, again: “I can really see myself here, Mom. It’s so beautiful.”

So there you have it: three schools, all alike in dignity.  Plus other already-reviewed schools.  Kid has many essays to write before all the applying is in.  Eventually, one of these schools will turn out to be Mr. Right after al…

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Looking for Mr. Right (Academically Speaking) — 14 Comments

  1. When I go to distant cons I sometimes share a room with Joan Slonczewski, who among her many other talents is a microbiology professor at Kenyon College. She told me that Kenyon did a study of incoming freshmen, and determined that their decision was frequently made early — as they came in the gate and rolled up into the campus. The visits, the tour, the auditing classes, all secondary to the decision-making process.
    So the school prudently poured a fortune into the front end. They erected a handsome stone-pillared entryway, they reseeded the quad and planted ivy, and so on. What impressed her, and me, was that the school was able to observe the effect of this in their freshman acceptance rate. What proportion of accepted freshmen actually opted to attend Kenyon? This number went up, after the stone pillar addition.
    When I told this story to my daughter I got scowls. However, I do note that her alma mater has a magnificent entry avenue lined with tall nodding palm trees.

  2. Ever since I read Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin I have wanted to go to Carleton. And mind you, I hate serious winter and was way too old to go back to undergraduate school when I read it. It’s a great book for many reasons, but it’s also a love letter to Carleton.

    • I will say that as we walked around the Carleton campus I kept mapping Blackstock over it. It was a distraction to the here-and-now of the tour, but a private amusement.

  3. I went to one of those: Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Washington, to be precise. Since I was there they’ve added a slew of [ethnic/cultural] Studies programs — weirdly, not including “American” — but otherwise Whitman is very much in the same academic niche as the institutions mentioned above, and I recommend it highly to anyone looking for the classic liberal arts experience, very much including the service/social awareness component. Also since I was there, Walla Walla has acquired a bustling new trade in wine and wine tasting, as southeastern Washington state has sprouted an astonishing number of well-regarded craft wineries. (Much to my amusement, you can now occasionally win trips to Walla Walla on The Price is Right….)

  4. Reed College in Portland, Oregon might fit her criteria. It’s a charming, eccentric place, academically excellent, and the winters are lots better than Minnesota and Iowa.

    • As a born-and-raised Portlander, from what I’ve picked up (which includes acquaintance with a handful of local Reed grads), the word “eccentric” in that characterization should be in three-foot Day-Glo™ letters. Also, my impression is that it might be more accurate to describe Reed as “surrounded by Portland”; by many if not most accounts it’s kind of an insular institution. Lewis & Clark College, in Portland’s West Hills, is nearly as respectable academically and rather more outward-looking.

      In fairness, I should note that Randolph is quite right about Reed’s academic reputation; scholastically, it’s probably the most selective of any of Portland’s several notable colleges and universities.

      And on the other other hand, the mention of Reed does remind me of this bit of Castle fanfiction, which describes a similar process of searching for Mr. Right to that chronicled above….

      • I’m a Lewis and Clark grad. The campus is stunningly beautiful built around an old manor house from the early 1900’s. The modern buildings just seem to grow out of the hills and forest, most with overlooks of east Portland and the Willamette River. L&C is primarily liberal arts but with increasingly respected science and math programs. Semi -detached law school. Lot’s of lively political discussions and community action programs. Worth a look.

  5. The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, has a reputation as “that hippie school,” but when I spent a quarter there as the Daniel J. Evans Scholar, I never worked so hard and most of the students worked equally hard. One student didn’t work at all and sneered at the very idea of doing any work, which I found puzzling, since he was paying to go there and was a grown up. I trust his portfolio reflected his zeroness.

    But that’s the thing about Evergreen — if a student is self-directed, the student will make up a program and mentors will help with the guiding.

    If your daughter does relent about Northiness as opposed to Eastiness, she might consider TESC. Olympia is a nice small city and the Evergreen campus is out in the woods. It has a rep for community and social responsibility.

    And you would not believe the lengths designers will go to make you think that the Evergreen Geoducks has something to do with birds instead of a giant clam that looks like a horse penis.

  6. The number of colleges (as you have surely seen from the tidal wave of catalogs) is infinite, and although your daughter may not believe it there are a good few institutions that would suit her fine. I am sure she will find one.

    • The kid has been researching colleges for almost two years. She has looked at colleges I knew of (Reed! Vassar! Wesleyan!) and colleges I’d never heard of. She will find something great. Then we’ll have to figure out how to pay the bills, but that’s another story entirely.

      • My daughter got enough brochures and catalogs to fill a dumpster. She got to where she was rejecting colleges for quite arbitrary reasons, just to winnow down the herd. (No colleges in states beginning with the letters M or N!)

  7. Brenda, you have me smiling with her criteria for catalogs. Mad, I had to go within driving distance of my family, that was the rule we lived by. I made all wrong choices, I suspect, but I did attend a couple of very fine schools, Butler University and Ohio Wesleyan University. OWU usually makes the top three of Midwestern Ivy League lists, but no clue whether it would fit her needs. It is in a tiny town, and within a half-hour of a big one. That was a good mix for me. It was doing trimesters when I was there, very intensive. I believe it’s gone to semesters now, thank heavens. I loved it but was always tired.

    Butler University is twice the size, easily, and within Indianapolis, an up-and-coming, bustling place. My niece graduated from University of Indianapolis (which meant nothing to me, but is the premier school in the nation for physical therapy) with her doctorate and has stayed in Indy. I left because I veered into a BFA, and Herron School of Art, the fine arts affiliate, only started at the beginning of the school year. My Dad didn’t want me there badly enough to lose two years to their admitting cycle.

  8. Like my daughter, I wanted a small school. My mother was a snob about state schools (not that U Mass wasn’t good enough for me, but it wasn’t good enough for her idea of where I should be going to college). And while at that point I would have been happy to put a hemisphere between myself and my home, I put a two-hour drive, and that proved sufficient. And from the moment I stepped on to the Connecticut College campus I felt at ease and oddly settled. Despite this I still had my eye on Swarthmore (also beautiful–but in the long run I’m happy I didn’t get in), and thereby wound up at what I think was a great school for me.

    I will say for the kid: she says she’d be happy with any of the three schools we saw last weekend. Good attitude, that.