Thursday, August 26, 2010

College tour brings life full circle

Spencer and Bonnie, on Spencer's first day of first grade.
My only child, Spencer, started his senior year of high school this week…which means that summer 2010 is officially over. Officially over, perhaps, but the memories of the Summer 2010 College Tour are still burning bright. We flew 6,204 miles. We drove 1,544 miles. We visited 11 colleges in 8 states. Spencer interviewed at 4 colleges. We experienced one celebrity sighting (more about that later).

And oh--I cried one time.

Of course, that last sentence really ought to end with the words “so far.” Something tells me there are many tears ahead in the coming school year. Most of them mine. What mom doesn’t experience her child’s senior year without weeping tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of sadness, tears of frustration and tears of wonderment…where did the time go?

Wherever the time went (and my waistline went with it, so if you find either one, call me!), Spencer’s time is now. Is there any better time than your senior year of high school? I don’t think so. And the summer of college visits was the official kick-off to it all.

Bonnie and Spencer
For those of you who haven’t experienced the summer college visit rite of passage yet, maybe the following helpful hints will come in handy when it’s your turn:

1. Call MasterCard and increase your credit limit. You are going to need it. Airfare, car rentals, hotels, meals on the road, mementos at every stop, etc. add up quickly. Think of it as proving to the financial institutions your credit worthiness—after all, you’ll need to call them again when it comes time to pay the tuition.

2. Contact General Norman Schwarzkopf and see if he is available to plot your strategy. I should have realized that this is serious stuff when the college counselor handed us a list of 23 colleges last spring and said “These are schools that fit Spencer’s profile.” What the heck are we supposed to do with 23 schools? How do you narrow that list down? How do you even find these places on a map? How do you get there? No kidding—we bought 3 huge maps, 4 college selection books from Barnes & Noble, and spent hours –hours!—researching on the internet. From that, Spencer narrowed the list down to the 11 colleges he wanted to visit. We broke those down into two separate one week trips. And setting up those travel itineraries, making reservations, getting it all organized , etc. took several weekends, 4 spreadsheets, and a wall sized grease board. Organization is your friend.

3. Try to build in a little bit of down time. Look, the entire experience can’t be all college visits and no play. At some point, you get slap happy with it all. There are only so many consecutive days of information sessions, campus tours, and college essay tips before they all start to sound exactly the same with no differentiation. Trust me: Each college will tell you they have outstanding professors, diverse student populations, low student: professor ratios, and the cafeteria food is always better than expected. You’ve been a family for 17 years, and you’ll be a family for a lifetime to come. As important as this is (and it is important), have some perspective about it all. No one has died (yet) in the college visit process. (Although we came close one day in Boston…..but that’s another blog.) Build in a couple of days of rest and relaxation and just enjoy each other and the moment. My favorite memory from this summer: The Lobster Roll lunch and fog horns at Half Moon Bay, California. And there isn’t even a college there!

4. Trust the process…and your senior’s intuition. Because all the colleges you will visit have outstanding professors, diverse student populations, low student to professor ratios, and good cafeteria food (they all told you this: you do believe them, don’t you?), at some point your high school senior will start narrowing the list based on what just feels right. They can see themselves on the campus. They are comfortable in the student union. That list of student activities resonates with their interests. Or maybe there is a Chipotle restaurant one block from campus. Somehow, he just knows that this is a place he is comfortable and can maybe see himself for the next 4 years. And so the list narrows.

5. Keep the options open. Your senior may know exactly where he wants to go immediately. Good for him—and good luck with that early decision process! But nonetheless, a good plan is to have a list of 6-8 colleges just in case. One that is the absolute #1, “life is perfect” choice that may be a bit of a reach. Two to three solid “I could go there and be perfectly happy and never look back” choices. And two to three “I can get in and I would be happy here, too” choices. And one or two “if all else fails” selections never hurt anyone, either. In this process, see recommendation #1 (“increase Mastercard limit”). Because each of these applications comes with a fee. (Sigh).

And finally...maybe the most important recommendation of them all...pack mascara and your best lip gloss. Because you never know when you are going to find yourself sitting across from Tim Matheson at 8 am at a Starbucks in New Jersey. When you are a parent on a college visit tour—and Eric Stratton from Animal House is a parent on the same college visit tour – then you know life really has come full circle. “TOGA, Toga, toga!!!!”

It’s Spencer’s time. And I’m glad to play my bit part in his show.

Happy start of school, everyone!

Bonnie Bell
Executive Vice President for People and Culture
Texas Health Resources

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