Feature image from houstonisd.org.
Recently I’ve decided to take some time off and visit friends at different colleges — which usually means getting the grand tour of the schools they attend.
(Spoiler alert: it’s not as magical the second time around.)
Back when I was a high schooler visiting colleges, I think a lot of the college tour experience was really colored by the fact that I was still in high school, and college was a new and exciting place for me to explore. Everything was great and everything was awesome; in fact, I don’t think there was a single school I visited that I didn’t like.
Now, however — the magic’s worn off a little. Don’t get me wrong – most of the schools I’m going to mention are great in all respects. But no school is perfect, and I think seeing these schools in this more realistic light has taught me to appreciate them in new ways. It’s not quite the sparkle and shine and romance that I’ve felt as a high schooler, but a more realistic and more accepting appreciation of both a college’s benefits and flaws.
That being said, here are some small things about colleges that I wouldn’t have noticed (or would have blissfully ignored) during my high school senior college tour days. For instance…
Ease of use (or a lack thereof)
Now that I am a college student who is actually living away from home, I evaluate colleges by imagining myself really attending them. This means that a lot of the small quality-of-life details at a college really matter to me, because now I know what it’s like to be at college and I’ll have something to compare other colleges against. Also, I’ve noticed that it’s usually these small day-to-day details that matter the most to my overall happiness as a college student.
I visited Duke a couple of weekends ago. Like most colleges, Duke’s academic buildings are not freely open during all hours of the day. Some are locked, and some are card-access only. Which is reasonable, right? You don’t want the general public having easy access to highly hazardous chemicals, or delicate research, or potentially dangerous equipment.
Except many of these buildings require an ID card to be slid across a card reader, a la supermarket cash register.
In other words, you have to stop what you’re doing, take out your wallet (or whatever container you have for the ID), remove the ID from the container, slide it across the reader, put the ID back in its container, put the container back where it came from, and then enter the building.
This could be ameliorated if you have the ID on a lanyard, but unless you’re constantly wearing a lanyard (which most Duke students don’t do), it’s still a complicated sequence of steps just to get past a locked door. In cold weather, this can be a real pain (thankfully North Carolina usually has pretty mild winters). But if you happen to be on crutches or a wheelchair, this could be severely obstructing.
Many schools and workplaces now have a much simpler system where a scanner will scan for the presence of an approved ID anywhere from 6 to 8 inches away from it. These kinds of scanners will scan through bags and clothes, so that all it takes to get into a locked building is to pass a backpack or bag in front of it. In most cases, people don’t even need to remove the bag from their body.
Come on, Duke. You’re a beautiful school with a seven-billion-dollar endowment. Make your students’ lives a little easier, no?
Urban planning (or a lack thereof)
In high school, my parents took care of all the transportation for my college visits. If we needed to take the metro, they bought the tickets. If we needed to drive, they drove. So transportation was honestly one of the farthest things from my mind when I evaluated colleges.
When I visited Harvard, I had the exquisite pleasure of driving. And by exquisite pleasure, I mean splitting headache.
Nearly all of Harvard’s major thoroughfares are one-way streets. Nearly all of them don’t have traffic lights. Stop signs and pedestrian crosswalks are peppered irregularly throughout the cityscape. You’re constantly playing a game of reverse Frogger whether you like it or not, and there is rarely a moment when you can ease up on your brakes.
(Did I mention there are turkeys? Turkeys as pedestrians. It’s just as bad an idea as it sounds, driving-wise.)
I also had the wonderful privilege of missing a left turn while looking for one of the dorms. With all the one-way streets, pedestrians, and stop signs, this wrong turn probably added 10 extra minutes to my drive. All this added to the fact that around 200 septuagenarians decided to simultaneously jaywalk when I got back to the correct left turn made me an unhappy driver.
My passenger asked to take over shortly after, and probably for good reason. I’m pretty sure I looked (and sounded) livid.
Also, the few two-way streets that they do have are tiny. A Chrysler 300 and a Ford F-150 would not have fit alongside each other, and so we had to let each other take turns. Can I ask why it’s a good idea for a broad, four-lane street to be one-way while a tiny road barely two cars wide is two-way? Because I haven’t the slightest.
Most people in the area choose public transit or walking (not bicycling, because I feel like that’d be an extreme sport given the street conditions) and they get along just fine. But it’s really, really obvious that Cambridge is built upon infrastructure that’s definitely older than just a few centuries, and to be honest, a lot of older urban schools are the same way. This can be problematic — big cities are usually difficult to navigate with cars, and without a robust public transit system it can take hours to walk everywhere.
Compatible Vibes (or a lack thereof)
It’s one thing to interact with a college’s students as a prospective applicant. It’s another to interact with them as a fellow human being. This is in no way a bad thing — for example, most people don’t treat a job interviewer the same way they treat their friends. But I felt that as a high schooler, I wasn’t really able to get an accurate read on the general “vibe” of a campus because the moment people found out I was a high schooler, I got special treatment.
So when I stepped onto campus as a student from another college, I feel like I was able to get a better feel of how compatible the general student population was with me.
For instance, when I had visited the UCLA campus as a high school senior, I got the impression that most of the students there were exactly like me: slightly geeky. Fast forward two years — I chose a different school over UCLA. I’m back on their campus because I have friends there, and I chat up a few random strangers.
It immediately hit me that I wasn’t quite their type (though this is my own personal experience, and maybe doesn’t apply to everyone else) — they had a very distinctly effervescent vibe. Something a little cosmopolitan but laid-back, something brassy, fun, summery. It reminded me of bubblegum and had a tinge of something patently celebrity.
And I couldn’t really figure out why, but that just wasn’t very me. It seemed great as an outsider looking in, but it wasn’t something that I could get on board with. In that moment, I was very happy that I went out east. My campus might not be close to the beach, and it might not be near a big city, but it was my wavelength of weird and I honestly don’t think I could see myself anywhere else.
Why does it matter?
Granted, I don’t think any of the three things I mentioned above alone are deal-breakers for any college, but I feel like they go to show that colleges aren’t always as great as they may seem.
Here’s how this “high school college tour” mentality actually screwed me over.
My freshman dorm at Cornell was a “riot-proof” relic from the activist era. What this meant was that the only way to access anything above the ground floor was via elevator (so that students wouldn’t be able to storm the top floors). The fire escape stairs led directly to the outside and were impossible to open from their exit; if you got someone to prop the exit door open for too long, an alarm would go off.
It was one of my greatest pet peeves throughout the year — if the elevators were in use, you were stuck (and with a building six stories high, this happened a fair amount). Again, this was in no way a deal-breaker and I wouldn’t have dropped Cornell because of it. But it was something small and practical that I definitely didn’t notice until I actually matriculated (many of Cornell’s campus buildings are riot-proof), and you can bet that I’d have been a lot happier without it.
College tours are important steps of getting to know a university, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that they’re not the end-all be-all. It’s not something to stress about if your tours don’t show you your dream school, and conversely it’s also nothing to stress about if you thought a school was your absolute perfect match and you didn’t get in. Because in my experience, there’s so much more to a college than what they show on the tours, and tours in high school often paint much rosier pictures of these colleges than what they’re like in reality.
(It’s kind of like evaluating someone’s attractiveness based on Facebook profile photos only. It’s usually not what they look like in reality.)
That also doesn’t mean that all colleges are actually miserable institutions, otherwise I wouldn’t be enjoying my time where I’m at. But maybe it’s a good thing to recalibrate your expectations, and not fall too hard for any one school before you actually matriculate. Because a lot of what any one person’s college experience ultimately ends up being depends on what they make of it, and it’s really hard to figure out what you’ll make of yourself in college until you’re actually — well, in college.
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