Campus Visit Season

It's college application season, and the New York Times style section ran a nice article Sunday about parents touring colleges with their children. It's mostly about the bonding that goes on on such trips, which is probably instantly recognizable if you're the sort of wealthy Northeasterner who is the target demographic of the Sunday New York Times.

I'm sort of on the fringes of that demographic, so what really resonates for me is a different part of the story:

Tom Likovich of Bronxville, N.Y., who was at Hamilton College with his wife, Ellen, and daughter, Alex, on a recent weekend morning, said the visits were a lesson in letting his daughter call the shots. Alex has forbidden him to ask questions during information sessions without vetting them with her first. This after clunkers like, "What do you guys do for fun on Saturday night?"

Alex had been mortified the previous day when, on a tour of Colgate, Tom, a former University of Colorado football player, tried to engage in some light male banter with the football team.

Ah, yes. This is the part familiar to faculty...

Our Admissions office arranges a couple of Open House events each term, usually held on federal holidays (the two for the fall are Columbus Day and Veterans Day), and they offer lunch with faculty members as part of the program. Admissions is an important part of the business, so I usually go to these (plus, I never pass up a chance to make the college buy me food).

The way it works is that they set up a few buffet lines in the field house, and a whole bunch of tables. Prospective students and their parents get food, and then sit down at tables, while faculty members and selected students pick up their lunches, and then sit down with some prospective students to talk to them about college life, and answer any questions they may have.

(I have a real gift for choosing tables occupied by future English majors, for whom I have very little to offer. I just don't have enough contact with the humanities departments to really offer them useful information. There really ought to be a better way to do this...)

This provides ample opportunities to watch parent-student interactions. About a quarter of the students do their very best to pretend that they're not associated with the incredibly embarrassing old people at their tables, who insist on asking questions about subjects they would rather see left alone. They answer questions in monosyllables, and never volunteer any information at all. I generally find this faintly amusing, and go on to have nice conversations with most of their parents. Which, I'm sure, is even more embarrassing than if we all just sat there in awkward silence, but I'm constitutionally incapable of doing that.

Of course, there are occasional parents who really do have a gift for asking awkward questions. The best of these was a couple of years ago, when one woman asked about housing options. A student volunteer from Admissions started chattering away about all the different housing options available for students, including the "substance-free" freshman dorm.

"But shouldn't they all be substance-free?" the woman asked, "After all, they're all under 21." Her son was clearly working hard at developing the ability to teleport himself out of there, and even the other parents at the table snickered and rolled their eyes. To her credit, the student from Admissions (who I was perfectly willing to let field that question) rallied to say "Well... cigarettes are legal. So if you don't want a roommate who smokes..."

It's not all stilted sitcom-family stuff, of course-- the students who are clearly mortified to be seen in public with their parents are a distinct minority. A great many of our prospective students are bright and interesting people who are willing to talk about their interests and expectations for college. Which is good, because they're the reason I'm in this business in the first place. While I'm happy to talk to the parents while eating my free lunch, I'd much rather talk to the students. Even the future English majors.


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