On the Road: The Path Less Traveled … a Journey to Higher Education

A collection of college brochures designed to lure. (A. Hinkle photo)
A collection of college brochures designed to lure. (A. Hinkle photo)

It was past midnight on a cold and windy March night (which pretty much describes every night this past March). There I sat, on the couch in complete darkness, the computer screen on my lap aglow with images of that which I coveted … expansive green lawns, endless blue skies and luscious tables groaning under the weight of gourmet-worthy victuals, all shot from a camera drone hovering somewhere overhead while the soft strains of soothing jazz underscored the action.

This, my friends, is college porn. And it’s what a lot of moms and dads with kids the same age as mine are obsessed with these days. Like their less wholesome namesake, these “virtual tours” are generally short on plot, but boy, those visuals. Dazzling angles, clean editing, and well organized dorm rooms made to look larger than life thanks to a fish-eye lens.

In this episode, a perky digital co-ed led the way from the corner of the screen, enticing me to click on arrows to enter the Hogwarts-worthy science hall and Carnegie-esque library to see where the next great minds are making the next great elixir and writing the next great American novel. The vision of the promised land included assurances that parents eat free on campus whenever they visit their offspring.

Free? At $65,000 a year for tuition, room and board, feeding mom and dad seems like the least they could do!

Yes, this is my reality at the moment, and quite frankly, it’s all a little overwhelming — especially in comparison to what it was like back when I worked my way through the hallowed halls of higher education.

A month after I graduated from high school (you read that right) I applied to exactly one school, filling out the application front and back, writing a page and half essay, enclosing my high school transcripts and dropping it in the mail. It took about an hour. Today, terms like AP, Regents, SAT vs. ACT, to essay or not to essay, the Common App, cumulative average, weighted scores, Super Scoring, FASCA, CSS … are all enough to make one’s head explode.

As if that wasn’t enough, we recently dove into the deep end of the applicant pool. Two weeks ago, on a beautiful spring Sunday (finally), we took my daughter, Sophie, and a classmate and headed west where we found ourselves streaming into the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan along with thousands of other 2001 babies and their guardians. High school juniors all, from the City and the wider metropolitan area, hoping to collect just the right pamphlet from just the right table that will point the way to their future.

Welcome to the 2018 New York National College Fair where reps from hundreds of schools were waiting to meet us.

But first, there was some serious competition.

Right next door to our exhibition hall, Beautycon beckoned. It was an event that promised a decadent cosmetic cosmos in the form of a four-day face-fest filled with lipstick samples, eye shadow demos, foundation tutorials, brand name products, social media stars, and celebrity fireside chats.

Apparently even Hillary Clinton made a brief appearance. At Beautycon? Really? It certainly must’ve been a happier visit to the Javits Center for Hillary than Election Night 2016. Way happier, for several obvious reasons, not the least of which was having plenty of makeup this time around to mask the collective disappointment of a nation.

But I digress. Inside the Javitz Center, the college fair was a mob scene, despite the lure of Beautycon. Though my daughter and her friend made it perfectly clear that they would have much rather gone to that show, it wasn’t happening.

As we descended the packed escalators to the exhibition floor, fully grown adults played the roll of cheerleaders at the bottom of the escalators, handing out newspapers with college search advice and plastic gift bags to gather literature, all while yelling phrases of encouragement like, “Whose ready for college?” “Let’s get excited!”

I felt like I was entering an Amway sales conference. I’m not sure how successful their efforts at rallying the crowd were. These were teenagers giving up their Sunday morning to be in a convention center at 9 a.m. Half of them still had their eyes closed.

Down on the floor, the lines formed quickly and Sophie sighed deeply at the prospect of joining them. Particularly and predictably popular with hopelessly endless lines of eager young students were any and every SUNY school. Close to home and the only truly “affordable” option in the lot, I understood why. Also boasting mega-lines were the powerhouse sports schools.

We would not be joining either of them.

One thing this process has taught me is that my kid takes the road less traveled, or rather the line less stood in. Those faraway schools that offered something a little different in a place less expected were our preferred choices.

UC Santa Cruz with its strong astronomy program and positioning on the Pacific was a top contender. We also swung by the Ohio University table, my alma mater, to say hello to our admissions friend who we met up with during our homecoming visit last fall. It remains a top choice, not only because of the many offerings along the lines of science and dance, her main interests, but because they have an awesome program where she gets in state tuition because I’m an alum. We also took the opportunity to stop by the tables of universities in Dublin, London and Paris, which, even with their “out of country tuition fees” are still a bargain compared to schools in this country.

Then I saw it. After a couple hours, Sophie was starting to glaze over. Soon, the anxiety kicked in. Thousands of bodies crammed into the narrow confines between the rows of tables took its toll. This kid hates crowds (eliminating the need to stand in any line for New York City schools). Seeking escape, she searched out a quiet space under the escalators where she recouped.

I eventually convinced her to do one last lap before heading downtown for lunch. It was on that circuit that we came across the gap year tables. Gap years purport to be a good option for the kid who isn’t quite ready to jump into college and could use some time to find him or herself. I’m still not sure if that’s my kid or not, but there was definitely a different vibe here. A laid back collection of chill ex-pats manned the tables, their pamphlets and posters extolling the virtues of perfecting Spanish while teaching kids in Guatemala, or the benefits of building schools in rural Africa.

Then I noticed him. In the midst of the gap year counselors was a totally relaxed dude with a hipster beard. He wore a vintage Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts, the classic uniform of someone living off-the grid, and he stood wise and silent, like a Yoda for academic alternatives. I wanted to know what his story was and I told him so.

Turns out, he was a representative for Gap Year Travel, an outfit out of the UK that specializes in adventures around the world combining conservation, teaching opportunities and animal husbandry with cultural activities, culinary arts and social enrichment of all kinds.

“I’m from western Scotland,” he said with a lilting accent, “But honestly, I haven’t been home in more than a year. I went from Bali to Thailand for five months, then I was in Cambodia, then China where we volunteer at a panda sanctuary. I stopped home for about four days before I got back on a plane to come here for this.”

“And college?” I asked.

He just grinned.

Forget gap year, this guy was taking a gap life.

Which gives me something to consider. Hanging with pandas and bottle feeding lemurs? Yeah, I could see Sophie doing that for a couple months — and then jumping into college as planned. I think a gap year would fine as long as it doesn’t become a career.

But between you and me, I’m worried. She already has the uniform — a fine vintage Hawaiian shirt picked up at a second hand store in Honolulu when we were there to tour the University of Hawaii in February.

Well, ultimately it’s her life, and as they say in the London Tube — “Mind the gap.”