Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Washington Social Diary

A sudden snowstorm after a tour and lunch at Dartmouth. This is the Rauner Library.
By Carol Joynt

In households with children who are seniors in high school these past few weeks have been tense times. The hour of college acceptance – or rejection – is upon them. Whether the news arrived online or by snail mail, young people and their parents were made very happy, sad, confused, or angry. Congratulations to those who got into the college of their choice, or to any college at all; condolences to those who didn’t. Even if you came up bupkes, there are options. In American higher education there always are options. In other words, regroup, and the sun will come out tomorrow.

I’m paying close attention to the process because next year is our turn. My son is a high school junior. He’ll be applying to colleges in the fall, and unless he gets early acceptance at his number one choice, which means learning the news in January, spring break 2010 will be a tense waiting game.
Boston was the base for northern leg of the college tour. This is the harbor view from our room at the Renaissance Hotel, where we got a good rate, two comfortable beds and a 24-hour gym.
The lap pool at the Boston Renaissance Hotel.
The 24-hour gym at the Boston Renaissance. It helps to keep fit during college tours - all that walking.
Which has everything to do with how we spent the spring break that just ended. We embarked on the first leg of our college tour road trip, a ritual savored by so many parents for the time spent together with their darling soon-to-be high school graduate. Mention the college tour to almost any parent and you’ll see them light up. “It was a treat.” “We had good bonding experience.” “It was the most time we spent alone together in years.” I’ve heard many warm recollections about the college tour from friends and neighbors.

My son, Spencer, and I spent five days on the road and visited five schools: Dartmouth, Tufts, Brown, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. Earlier we visited Wesleyan. In the next few months we will do the mid-Atlantic, Southern, Midwestern and Western legs of our tour – when time and finances allow.
Breakfast each morning was at Flour Bakery at 12 Farnsworth Street. Sensational coffee, muffins and other baked goods.
Flour Bakery's many choices - we went straight for the blueberry muffin tops. No bottoms, just tops.
The still-to-be-visited list includes Georgetown, The College of Charleston, The University of North Carolina, Vanderbilt, the University of Michigan, and Stanford. Some of these schools are “reach” options, some are curiosities and some are “safety” choices. The list will be amended. He needs to add a few more “safe” schools and one or two more mid-Atlantic.

The rule is apply to at least 6, but don’t go beyond 10. Spencer wants to play lacrosse in college, which is fine with me. He’s good at the game, has played since 4th grade, and having a sport can be a beneficial focus for college men and women. It also edits the list of possible schools. Another factor that influences the list: he wants urban, or at least more nearly urban than not. He’s not keen on a suburban, rural or wilderness campus.
Dartmouth in late March. You have to like winter weather and bosky New Hampshire.
The ivy is still in its winter's sleep at Hanover, NH. Dartmouth is Hanover and Hanover is Dartmouth. The iconic college film, "Animal House," was based in part on Dartmouth. Chris Miller, one of the film's screenwriters, was in the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity as an undergrad. The school store does not shy away from the connection.
A view toward the Hanover Inn, to the right, which is run by Dartmouth.
Lou's counter lunch, home to a great BLT and lots of Dartmouth dish.
Here are some initial thoughts after one week on the road touring colleges. For one thing, I want to apply. After seeing and hearing what campus life is like circa 2009 I want four years on a leafy and secure compound of grounds and buildings with meal options, a BFF roommate, entertainments galore, famous guest lecturers, hours of learning, the increasingly requisite “semester abroad,” state of the art athletic facilities, yoga on demand, 24-hour libraries, and especially the long lists of electives. “The Psychology of NASCAR,” was a stand out, but by no means the most outlandish.

At the Brown campus gates, getting the drill on school history and life.
The info sessions are helpful but can become repetitive. The message? We want you. We’ll serve you. Nobody does it better. And, yes, we have financial aid. I actually fell asleep in one – on my behalf, it was after lunch and a long, cold walking tour - and hope the admissions director does not remember my face.

The one that most got my attention was Columbia, because there the admissions spokesman went out of his way to paint four years at his school as all work and no play. That’s one way to deal with the record numbers of applicants. Keep the numbers down by scaring the students away. Also, he pointed out, Columbia students have to pass a swimming test to graduate.

Wear good shoes for the walking tour. They are brisk. While the info sessions are handled by admissions staff, the tours typically are given by students. They vary therefore from guide to guide. It seems the volunteers often are from the drama departments, or debate society, or are simply over-achievers.

Prepare to be intimidated by all their double-majors, clubs, sports, mentor programs and travels. At best they know the school and care and provide helpful information. At worst they are entirely into themselves and leave you confused.
The admissions office at Brown, waiting for the campus tour to begin.
A tour group of parents and prospective students, making their way across the Brown campus.
At Tufts our guide was excellent. She actually knew school history and had lots of colorful details about campus life.

At Brown, we had an adorable ditz, who while a senior and economics major still had no idea how many students are at the school. “I’m not good with numbers.”

The questions raised most often: Is there Greek life on campus? The schools try to play it down. Security? At every stop they will show you the blue lights and crow about their tight security. And, of course, the biggie – how many apply and how many are accepted? You don’t even want to know the answer.

Some schools require a tour appointment, generally made online. At others it’s possible to just show up and join the group. We found most sessions happened at 10 or 11 a.m., and 1 or 2 p.m. At each of the schools we visited the turnout was strong, reflecting that the high school class of 2010 are a bubble year.
"Alma Mater" welcomes visitors to Columbia University. The trick is to find the owl hidden in her robes. Note: think right and don't go any higher than her knee. The "hidden" owl in the sculpture by Daniel Chester French.
On our way to tour the Morningside Heights campus.
Checking in for the Columbia campus tour. The Columbia University admissions "info" session in the Roone Arledge Theater.
Road food is a staple of college touring. This is the hot dog at JK's in Danbury, Ct.
These children were conceived and born in the upbeat moment after the first Gulf War, and life’s not been boring.

My son was in grade school when Bill Clinton was president but still aware enough of the news to ask, “What is a blow job?”

He and his classmates were in 4th grade when the September 11 terrorist attacks happened, and now, a year and change out from graduation, they get to have a rotten economy devour their 529 plans.
The info session at the University of Pennsylvania before the campus tour.
A student guide gives the lowdown at Penn.
At Penn, actual ivy on the campus of the Ivy League, which in truth refers to a college sports conference officially formed in 1954 and neither ivy nor social elitism (that came later).
A kiosk of hundreds events and causes on Penn's campus. "Love" by Robert Indiana, a gift to the University of Pennsylvania from Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Loria.
The enormous Penn stadium on a gloomy day in late March.
Wharton - a renowned component of the University of Pennsylvnia.
Nonetheless, as parents, you smile through the tour, pay attention, and gaze with love at that young man or woman who will leave the nest too soon, all the while calculating how to come up with the approximately $150,000 to $200,000 for four years of private under-graduate tuition, factoring in housing, travel and other expenses. The bargain is “in-state tuition,” at a public university, which can be $60,000 to $70,000 for four years, but the recession has prompted some state schools to lower their in-state quotas in favor of more profitable out of state acceptances.

We’ll revisit the college tour in future columns. For now I’m focused on my son’s daily reports of seniors at his school who got in where, including impressive numbers at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Penn, Georgetown, U.Va., USC, Stanford and on and on. It gives a parent hope.
A visit to Philadelphia isn't complete without a taste of the most primal of road foods - a cheesesteak, in this instance at the acclaimed Tony Luke's. It's practically under Route 95.
NOTE: Back before the election we wrote about a few houses that reportedly were being considered by Oprah Winfrey as a Washington residence. One of them was Halcyon House in Georgetown. At the time the asking price was approximately $30 million. Now, it's been reduced to $19.5. We don't know if this is a sign of the times (likely) or a result of Oprah never having moved to Washington. The original column is at http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/149880
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.