Chapter Eight, The Mother-Son College Odyssey

8:15 AM: I’m sitting in a common room at Swarthmore. It’s early. No one is around. Eli is sitting in on a calculus class—his first experience of a college class aside from our local community college, Cabrillo. The admissions tour isn’t for an hour and a half. Right now, everything is locked up tight.

On the morning news on the way over, we heard about possible flooding in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the aftermath of yesterday’s storm. The National Guard is on standby. Sandbags are being stockpiled. We may be in for more of an adventure than we thought.

I’m sitting alone in a carpeted lounge on a comfortable, tasteful couch. There’s a baby grand piano in the corner and oil paintings of past Swarthmore presidents on the walls. Tall wood-framed windows line the walls. I’ve only been here 20 minutes and everything about the place screams “money.” This is obviously a very well endowed place. I think of the budget cuts destroying the UC system back home and find myself in a kind of culture shock.

It’s cool and crisp outside and it’s supposed to warm up as the day goes on. The brutal rainstorm is over and everything on this campus is budding—the pink magnolias most noticeably.

The Swarthmore campus is beautiful. 400 acres, an arboretum. A stunning outdoor amphitheatre where freshman are welcomed and seniors graduate. I’m reminded of the vastness of the UCSC campus, except of course there are no redwoods here.

I’m wired on coffee. I don’t drink it, haven’t for 20 years, but with the late nights and early mornings and the need to be alert, driving long distances on unfamiliar roads, I decided I needed the fortification—and Abby made me a strong cup of coffee. It tasted great but now my eyes are bugging out and my stomach is roiling.

Eli just texted me to let me know he got into his class okay. I’m struck by how technology is making this trip so much easier than it would have been ten years ago. Eli and I will never get lost or be unable to find each other. With our cell phones and texting, it’s a synch to communicate. The portable GPS my mother bought is coming in handy; the maps I picked up from AAA lie unused on the bottom of my suitcase. Roadmaps are becoming obsolete.

9:55 AM: The college info session is about to start. Eli just got back from the class he sat in on; he’s excited and happy. They were going over the same material he’s covering in school at home so he was at ease in the class. Mostly, he was impressed by the bulletin board of math comics outside the room and the design-your-math-tee-shirt contest. “I like this better than Columbia,” he whispered. “How hard is it to get into this place?”

“It’s hard,” I answer. “Why did you like it better?”

“I like that I could hear the birds singing.”

Clearly a hands-on tour is a good idea. Eli’s going to have a lot better idea what he wants when this trip is over. Large or small? Urban or rural? Liberal arts or straight science? Protected ivy tower or engaged with the world?

10:05 PM: We’re finally settled into our hotel room in Meridien, Connecticut, just seven miles from our next stop: Wesleyan College. We had a great tour at Swarthmore. Eli felt very much at home there. “It’s like Kirby,” he kept saying. He enjoyed the blend of intense academics, small classes and a loyal student body who clearly love to have fun. Another favorite aspect of Swarthmore: you can major in Engineering and still be part of the regular school population. You don’t have to apply to a separate school and declare that you want to be an engineer from day 1. You can be a biology major and have an engineering minor. Or an engineering major and a music minor. This seems to be unique—at least so far. Most schools have their engineering departments separate from the liberal arts program—and you have to apply to them, specifically, from the day of your initial application. And Eli doesn’t want to just do applied science. While he’s interested in aspects of engineering, his interest in math and science is a lot broader.

Swarthmore definitely got an A+. It has need-blind admission (the fact that you need financial aid doesn’t figure into the admissions process), there are no loans in their financial aid packages, they have a huge endowment, and there’s funding from the school for any club you want to start or activity you want to sponsor. As long as you invite the whole school and advertise widely on campus, you can get funding to do create whatever you want. Mostly, I think Eli liked the freedom and flexibility within which he could explore his interests at Swarthmore, the intellectual rigor, the playfulness we saw demonstrated everywhere, the quirkiness of the students,, and the beauty of the campus. “I’m definitely applying here,” he said.

When the tour was over, we drove an hour and half to Bethlehem, a defunct steel town, to visit Lehigh. Two schools in one day was a stretch. We grabbed some lunch and walked into one of the amazing buildings on the Lehigh campus. “It looks like Hogwarts,” was how Eli described it and I couldn’t agree more. The architecture was amazing.

The info session was held in a huge lecture hall, which wasn’t particularly conducive to the notion of intimate professor-student relationships. Engineering is big here, as are sports, sports and more sports, and Greek life. Our tour guide was a graduating mechanical engineer who was also a jock who liked to party. I was ready to leave after ten minutes, but Eli wanted to complete the tour, so we did. When Eli asked how the student body leaned politically, the tour guide said, “conservative.” Eli thought that might be fun. “I like to argue,” he said. I love how open he is—how he can find the positive in any environment.

We left in the late afternoon, pretty much agreeing that Lehigh probably wasn’t going to make the cut on Eli’s final list. If he needs safety schools, they might as well be closer to home in California.

As we pulled out of the parking garage, I ate a handful of chocolate covered expresso beans (in lieu of a nap), and then we headed out on our three-hour drive to Connecticut, getting lost twice (briefly) around Newark airport. Eli did AP Bio homework while I listened to the news. A couple of hours into our trip, we stopped at a Borders–found through the wonders of my iPhone, and bought a Michael Crichton novel, Prey, on CD and listened with baited breath for the next hour (stopping the CD periodically so Eli could explain the science to me–not that I really grokked his explanations). We arrived at our motel just half an hour ago. It’s a cheap, cozy spot with free wifi, a fully equipped kitchen, and a Chinese restaurant nearby that delivers. I’m waiting on garlic broccoli and Eli’s waiting on beef chow mein. We really like this motel!

Eli has to pick out the classes he’s going to sit in on tomorrow and I’m going to post this update. Then I have to come down from all the caffeine and go to sleep!

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