“What college was that?” AJ inquired.
Honestly, Washington University at St. Louis was nowhere on our radar screen. We’d not heard much about this school, though I knew it was mentioned in the same breath as Rice, Northwestern, and other universities with which we are more familiar. St. Louis was not what you’d call a fashion hub, which is key for our daughter’s interests. It was waaaaaayyy out of what we considered our price range (then again, given the expense of college, what is in our price range?) So when they followed up with the oldest after a brief conversation at a college fair, we didn’t think too much of it. Then I spoke with a cousin whose daughter eventually chose to attend there. My cousin’s advice was something along the lines of, “You really should take a look at it. Their communication with our daughter has been great, and they are well-endowed. That was enough to spark our interest, and who’d have thought? They had the degree program she wanted.
One thing I’ve noticed with a college-bound child: your expenses for college begin long before you actually kiss that graduated senior goodbye. In looking at what are right now the oldest’s top considerations, we’ve concluded that her college road trips will probably be our family vacations for the next year or so. Her closest choice is 10 hours away. I stepped onto my undergrad campus sight unseen, but ideally I’d want a different experience for her. So Dad and I had to put our heads together and figure out how to get her around such that she can actually look at some of these places past what’s offered in the brochures. This series of fall orientation programs worked perfectly for our budget, if not for our schedule—Dad couldn’t get the whole four weekdays off. So, the kids and I hit the road.
The visit was similar to what we’ve seen in a number of campus brochures:
- Welcome/ orientation
- General assembly with administrative office personnel/ faculty/ student representatives
- Campus tour
- Social event with the opportunity to meet others from the University
- Sample class visitation
Unfortunately for us, the classes in her desired program were not in session the day that we were scheduled for orientation, so we missed out on sitting in an actual class. BUT, the blessing was that we did get to see the classrooms and view some of the handiwork of the students.
Rather than spend time with a chronological walk through the day, I’d rather document, if only for myself, the advantages and disadvantages of the school, from our particular point of view.
Advantages (in no particular order)
- Well over 80% of the classes are conducted with 25 students or less.
- Academic advice is plentiful. Each student is assigned a 4-year advisor, an advisor for their major, and several other advisors whose titles escape me. AND, if your major changes, your advisors change.
- All classes except the freshman year writing course are taught by professors as opposed to graduate assistants, doctoral candidates, etc. This was probably less important to her than to me, having had bad experiences with international grad students where all types of barriers became issues.
- You do not have to clarify a major until the 2nd semester of your sophomore year. In fact, many students have double majors, a major and minor, etc. We thought this was a HUGE advantage given that many schools, including both our alma maters, make transfers difficult, as my husband testifies when he no longer found accounting fascinating and transferred into the communications degree program. Making the decision of what you want to do with the rest of your life can be overwhelming for a kid who’s seen so little of life, and even those that think they know (like our daughter) can have a total change of heart after a few classes.
- Housing is guaranteed all 4 years. I won’t mention the experiences I had living off-campus for 4 of my 5 years, but let’s just say that I was relieved to think that our child wouldn’t be forced to find housing away from a dorm.
- Numerous opportunities exist to spend a semester abroad, an important consideration for our daughter.
- The school exists in a large city (though not too large). This was as much a consideration for our daughter as for us, but she is not a small-town girl, and we wanted all the options that cities offer in terms of extending the college experience.
There are a number of seemingly inconsequential benefits, but when thinking about comfort, safety, and calling a place home for 4 years, they make all the difference in the world:
- Several of the cafeterias, on-campus eating establishments, etc., stay open as late as 2-3 a.m. For a kid whose bio-rhythm runs very differently from the rest of the house, access to food at non-standard hours is important.
- There are numerous social groups and activities available. I have friends who’ve attended colleges where you had to be a part of this or that organization in order to fit in.
- The food was good, with lots of variety. The picky eater found her customary chicken nuggets and fries, and she was at home. Our son even found vegetarian entrees. (Did I mention that the school is now on his list?)
- Free cable if you bring a TV. Wow.
Our list of disadvantages, or rather, things to consider and pray about, was much smaller, but significant, none the less.
Places to pray and to ponder
- Her degree program is a small program in a small school. Though this University is prestigious, this program might not be the ideal choice compared to some of the programs we’ve seen at other schools.
- The definition of co-ed has changed since I went to school. I
stayed in a co-ed, off-campus dorm for 3 years. Co-ed meant that there were floors with young ladies, and floors with young men. This living arrangement, which raised my parents’ eyebrows 25 years ago, is now considered as “traditional.” The “modern” living arrangements were such that females and males lived on the same floor (though not in the same room). The images that sped through my mind…
- Neighborhood? The immediate neighborhood surrounding the University is everything I’ve come to expect of what attaches itself to larger/ more prestigious colleges—tons of shops, restaurants, and more opportunities to take a kids’ limited dollars than anyone could imagine. It’s a matter of a mile before the gentrification ends, and the hood begins. Could those highly secured dorms with the door alarms be in place for a totally different reason?
- Assimilation? I laughed inwardly during the tour as I noticed all the African-American families gravitating, almost in unison, toward the one African-American tour guide. I think as parents we all wanted to know the same thing in a predominately non-African American environment: what’s been your experience here? More specifically, how much of who you really are stayed at home in order to fit in here? In fact, I know at least two families wanted to know because we talked about it later. Yet, none of us asked. In my case, at least, I simply couldn’t find the words to ask a pointed race question amongst a racially mixed crowd. When I returned home, I later found this blog post while casually surfing the Internet; now I’d know exactly what to ask: Why did you choose this school? It might not have gotten me the answer I wanted, but perhaps I’d have more of a clue. Perhaps with a follow-up question I’d get my answer. In this day and age it’s crazy to think that just because someone has your skin coloring that his/her upbringing and life experience would be the same as yours. Yet, there are some races that we all run, and it would have been nice to know what hurdles exist in advance. I imagine that anyone potentially transitioning into an environment where most others are different goes through something similar.
This was our 1st visit in this level of detail. We met several alumni who now work for the University, including several who spoke to some of the racial questions and considerations we had. We met the head of the financial aid office—never a bad thing. I talked at length with another parent, a strange angel, who was on her 5th campus visit and had all kinds of unsolicited, but meaningful, advice. We missed seeing our cousin, but altogether, we left feeling as if this might be a strong contender for home for our daughter, and who knows? Our son, too?