Chapter Fourteen, The Mother Son College Odyssey

Today, we went to two schools that are very different than the ones we’ve seen so far. Northeastern is located right in Boston. It’s a huge school that focuses on learning by doing. Classroom time is balanced by work in the real world.

After saying good-bye and bidding a fond thank you to Mindy and Andy, Eli and I made our way through thick Boston traffic to Northeastern, where we had definitive proof that GPS systems can fail. Gladys (that’s what we call her) guided us to the Northeastern admissions office by instructing us to turn on to one tiny alleyway after another, until I unwittingly found myself on a sidewalk parked in front of the admissions office with stanchions in from of me, students walking all around the car, pointing and gesturing at us, a clear indication that we were in the wrong place. I dropped Eli off and patiently waited until it was safe to turn around without killing anyone. I retraced my steps, driving slowly on the sidewalk until I got back to the alley, and then the street, drove up one more block and then found the real, rather than the virtual parking garage.

This little incident was not the worst or most embarrassing driving faux pas I’ve ever committed. There was another time, thirty years ago, when I drove down a flight of steps at UCSC while attending “Women’s Voices,” an annual writing conference there. I was 23 years old and so smitten with one of my fellow writers, Aurora Levins Morales, who was riding shotgun, that I drove my car down a flight of steps on campus. Today’s incident paled in comparison to that one.

When the admissions session was about to start we were led to yet another auditorium. Our speaker at Northeastern was a third year student, a sociology major with a football scholarship.

Northeastern is a huge school. There are 15,521 undergraduates. Almost 25% are students of color. 10% are international. Fifty states and 122 countries are represented. There are a total of 92 undergraduate programs and 167 graduate programs.

Northeastern was founded in 1898 as an all male engineering school. Over the past century, the University prides itself in having “perfected the integration of study and practice.”

The most notable feature of Northeastern is their co-op learning program. Experiential learning gives its students hands-on learning in the community. Engagement in real world work takes the form of research, community service or co-op—locally, nationally or internationally, adding a new dimension to education. Co-ops, spread through a student’s undergraduate years, are three six-month periods of working full-time, often for pay, at co-op positions in any of 36 states or 39 countries.

Northeastern has 6000 placements, most of them paid, at more than 2,300 employers in 96 cities, 52 countries and 37 states. Placements include HSBC, Genzyme, Microsoft, Apple, GE, Bose, Merrill Lynch, The White House, Bose, and hundreds of other companies. Students gain knowledge and expertise that come from being tested in the world.

Before your first co-op at Northeastern, you take a class where you learn to write a resume, how to be interviewed, how to present yourself, how to conduct yourself in the workplace. Another class helps you assess your experience after each co-op.

Students can do up to 3 co-ops while at Northeastern and 90% of them take advantage of the opportunity. In these jobs, students don’t count paper clips or get coffee. They do the same things salaried employees do. Co-ops are available in every possible discipline.

Not surprisingly, Northeastern ranks first in job placement of any university.

Northeastern has a worldwide network of learning partners—corporations, NGOs, governmental agencies, and universities in 52 nations and 96 cities.

For students who want to travel and want real world experience, it’s a great choice—and 39% of its applicants are accepted.

My favorite thing at Northeastern, though, was a story told by our speaker. He came to the school on a full football scholarship, but at the beginning of his junior year, Northeastern cut their football team. He panicked, but Northeastern reassured him and the other 80 members of the football team that they could complete their undergraduate degrees and keep their full scholarships, even though they were no longer be playing football. I really liked that!

Just as we emerged from the info session, it started raining. Eli and I took one look at each other and decided to duck out on the tour. We ran to our car and took off for Olin College. On the way, the GPS began to misbehave. I was driving through Boston proper and Gladys (that’s what we call her) would tell me to head toward a street and so I would, but then before we reached that street, she would tell me to take a right on a different street, and then before we reached that street, she would say to go straight or turn left on a different street. I didn’t notice for a while, but after half an hour, I realized we were driving in circles with no clear destination in mind. We unplugged Gladys, replugged her and started again, and voila, a half hour later, we were driving through the very beautiful community of Needham, heading to Olin College.

Visiting Olin was different than any other school we’ve visited. Instead of a room full of anxious parents, dragging high school juniors into a room with too few chairs, the admissions office was clean and empty when we arrived (we did arrive early, but still!). On the front counter were ten clipboards, one for each of today’s visitors. A “Welcome to Olin” whiteboard with the name of each student and the state he or she was from sat on an easel. When I glanced at the clipboards, three of the ten students touring were from Santa Cruz, one from PCS and one from Santa Cruz High. I asked Eli what the odds were of that happening, that three out of ten were from Santa Cruz, California and he said, “Very slim.”

Having arrived early (and hungry), we went to eat lunch at the cafeteria—and it was, what can I say—cafeteria food. I had pinto bean stew over rice and an oatmeal cookie—all very institutional. Eli piled his plate with a slice of pepperoni pizza, a bread stick, French fries and a root beer. “I really like the food here,” he said.

I replied, “Well, if you come here, you’ll definitely gain the Freshman 15.”

Back in the admissions office, we waited for Eli’s shadow to arrive. He was going to sit in on an all-afternoon cross-disciplinary class that deals with the history of materials. My plan was to go on the tour and attend the info session. And then  we’d  be able to compare notes at the end of the day.

Olin is tiny, smaller than all but the smallest high schools, and highly selective; they pay half the tuition for every student, regardless of need, but take only take 86 freshman every year. Olin has the highest rate of female engineering students in the country (close to 50%). The average GPA of last year’s incoming freshman class was 4.6. 86% were recognized by the AP scholars program. 36% were national merit scholars. 20 were valedictorians, 13 were salutatorians. 75 were involved in community service, 56 were members of academic teams, 4 were already entrepreneurs, 23 were theatre buffs, and 24 had a real passion for robotics. According to the stats touted by the Admissions Office, most of them had already accomplished something amazing in addition to their off-the-charts academic performance—gotten a patent, published a novel, won a national essay writing contest, played with the National Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Orchestra, etc. But in the dining hall, they looked like normal kids.

One thing I did notice on the way in—an origami display in the school’s academic building.

Olin was established less than 10 years ago with the goal of redesigning engineering education. Olin has created a multi-disciplinary approach to engineering, one that emphasizes project-based learning, practical skills, business knowledge, teamwork, entrepreneurship, and communication. From the first semester on, students work in teams, making things. The goal of their unique, hands-on interdisciplinary program is to produce engineering innovators, or as they put it, “engineers who can change the world.”

As the room filled up, I spotted a kid with a PCS hat on and headed over to introduce myself. It ends up he and Eli see the same college counselor and she’s been urging the two of them to get together. Who would have thought that it would happen at Olin College?

After Eli met his shadow and left for his class, the ten families showed up were called into the auditorium to hear a talk by Charles Nolan, the dean of admission, who also helps with post-graduate planning. It’s immediately apparent in a small school like this that everything is intimate. Instead of meeting with a college sophomore, we’re meeting the dean of admission. Professors and students are on a first name basis. Everything is individualized. There are no buzzing crowds or reels of red tape to get through. It’s a relief after all the schools we’ve been to.

Even in my first minutes here, this place stood out.

Charles began his presentation with a little personal history: “I came to work here in September of 1999. I was the 5th employee at Olin. I consider myself a warm-up act for the tour guide.

“This is the most special college on the planet for the right student. This is not just an engineering school; it’s a school of leadership. We make education something our students have ownership over.

“Our program isn’t just a mold you fit into. You can pick your own path at this college. The fundamentals of, art, science, math, engineering and design are woven into our curriculum. Beyond that, you create your own education. Together, we form a creative, collaborative community that emphasizes creativity, design and innovation.

Then he continued: “Because our curriculum encompasses business, engineering and liberal arts, communication is very important to us. We emphasize communication skills including in the admissions process.” Then he had each student stand up and introduce themselves, the school they were from and the people who had brought them. It was very different from the mass introductions—or lack of introductions—elsewhere.

“Let me give you a sense of Olin. The first day students come here, they are sent out in the woods to find a particular frog. They observe it; they analyze the way it jumps. Then they learn to design, create and build a prototype that jumps the same way.

Every student at Olin starts and runs a business while they’re here. Groups of five students go through the entire business cycle. They learn how to start and run a business.”

One of these businesses was doing practical jokes for a fee. Another group did singing telegrams, much like the candygrams at Kirby.

As seniors, students work in groups of five or six for actual companies who pay $50,000 to Olin, in effect hiring the team to build an actual prototype that solves a design challenge. These seniors have the experience of working not for a grade, but for an actual business mentor who is charged with evaluating their work. “They spend 60% of their time senior year dealing with deliverables, design, timetables. They learn how to work in the real world.”

Charles showed us a movie and I wished Eli had been there to see it. Mostly, it featured students, talking about their experiences at Olin. Each was more grounded, solid, clear and impressive than the last. One said, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do engineering and I’m still not sure and that’s okay.” Well, maybe Eli would fit in here, I thought.

A professor came up on the screen. “My favorite part of teaching at Olin is the time I spend coaching, not teaching.” There’s a 9:1 teacher-student ratio here.

This school reminds me of Kirby. I wondered if Eli will feel the same.

Olin has a unique admissions policy. They use the Common Application with two supplemental questions, “Why Olin?” and “What is your passion?” All paperwork and test scores must be received by January 1st. Then students who make the first cut are invited to come to Olin for a mandatory admissions weekend. During that weekend, there are informal and informational chats with current students. Then the candidates are fun through a design exercise in a group and interviewed individually. They are led through a team exercise. They have the opportunity to hang out with current students and are evaluated by students, faculty and alumni as to how well they work collaboratively, how they communicate and how well they’d fit into Olin.

Charles explained, “Once they make it to the candidate weekend, we don’t look at their application anymore. We know they’re smart. We know they can do the work. We want to see if they fit in. We want to see if they can work comfortably in teams. We want to see if they can contribute to an outcome. And we want to know if Olin is really their first choice.”

Last year, only 576 students applied to Olin. Clearly the intensity, the size, the focus, and the experimental nature of the program are not right for many. Of the 576 who applied, 270 were invited to the candidate weekend. 171 of those were admitted, 55 were put on the wait list, and 85 are expected to enroll. Charles added, “There’s one more unique thing about Olin—if you’re on the wait list, you’re guaranteed a spot the following year—if you’re willing to take a year off.”

A question came from the audience, “Obviously, this is a self-selecting group. All the kids who apply are very smart and have been high achievers. What is it you’re looking for in selecting your students?”

“We’re looking for students who have committed themselves to something. They don’t have to be great at it. They don’t have to be superstars. They need to have persevered with their passion. We look for poise and communication skills. We want them to show leadership, but also be deferential and respectful. Our students are really nice young people.”

Fun Facts About Olin:

·      California provides the biggest pool of students for Olin College. In the class of 2014, 8 out of 86 were from the Bay Area.

·      Less than half of this year’s incoming class was Caucasian.

·      Olin has a graduation rate of 95%. The only students who don’t graduate weren’t ready to come to college yet.

·      There is cross-registration with Babson College, Brandeis and Wellesley.

·      There are three majors: electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, engineering with various specializations.

·      The results of education at Olin are extremely impressive. There have been Fullbright scholarships, a range of graduate admissions, entrepreneurial ventures and hires in companies all over the country. “We have more companies interested in our students than we have students to give them.”

·      Each student is required to buy a laptop from Olin, loaded with all the necessary engineering programs at a cost of $1200.

·      Admissions are need blind. Half the tuition for every student is paid, regardless of financial need. There is need-based financial aid to address needs beyond that tuition reduction. Up until last year, the full tuition was paid. And hopefully, as the economy and the endowment recover, the full tuition will be paid again.

·      You can have a car on campus.

·      There is no AP credit.

·      Students tend not to go into Boston very often. They tend to stay on campus.

·      The youngest enrolled student at Olin was 13 years old.

·      There’s great music and theatre on campus. And a pool room.

·      Sport facilities are available next door at Babson College.

·      You can check out a bicycle at any time from the stash of bikes on campus.

At the end of the presentation, we split into two groups for a tour. My tour guide was a senior named Erika Swartz from Alexandria, Virginia, a materials science engineer. She was clear, confident, no-nonsense. I liked her immediately. She took us into labs, shops, dorm rooms (very spacious) and various lounges. Right away, I could see that Olin is a very homey, close place They call it “the bubble.” It’s obviously a small, protected community, not right for everyone, but perfect for a self-selecting group.

Students live on campus all four years; it’s required since so much of the work is collaborative. The dorm rooms felt comfortable; there was a fridge and microwave in every room. Beds were extra long twin. I noted that for Eli who is closing in on 6’2”.

Everyone is on the meal plan. But I guess they don’t complain.

I asked Erika if Olin ever felt too small for her. “No,” she replied, “everyone is doing interesting things all the time. And I take classes over at Wellesley so that’s a whole other pool of people.”

On our tour, we walked by the wooden waterfall (quite literally made of wood). It’s a room where Olin’s honor code is posted on the wall, signed by every student who has ever attended:

1.     Integrity

2.     Respect for Others

3.     Passion for the Welfare of the College

4.     Patience and Understanding

5.     Openness to Change

6.     Do Something

The honor code is taken seriously at Olin. Professors often give take-home exams so they can use classroom time for teaching and collaborative work. And all the students can be trusted to follow the given parameters for taking the test.

In addition to a rigorous curriculum, we learned that professors offer co-curriculars, no-credit classes offered by faculty. Co-curriculars have included origami, financial fluency, public speaking, bee-keeping, jam making, and swing dancing.

There are also passionate pursuits—things students want to pursue, that they can get funding for—training for a marathon, Israeli martial arts, ceramics, west coast swing, jujitsu. There is a very active a capella group and theatre on campus. I could see unicyclists riding by. Orchard school all over again.

New things start up every year and it’s easy to start a new club.

Freshman can join in design and academic competitions with upperclassmen.

My favorite parts of the tour were the machine shops, all of which had awesome capabilities. They’re the places where students create intelligent vehicles and robots that move like animals.

We visited a design lab where students are creating products in groups for a particular client base. Each group had a designated space in the classroom for the semester and each work station looked like ultimate creative chaos. I loved it.

Erika told us there’s a lot of support for students at Olin. Free tutoring if you’re struggling. Upper classmen NINJAs…Need Info Now, Just Ask. She said her professors were very available. “I had one who used to answer my emails at 3 AM,” she told us.

When the tour ended, I went back into the admissions office to wait for Eli, who’d been in his class for four hours already. The head of admissions, who gave the original talk, came out and talked to me for over a half hour. Just me. I didn’t even seek him out. We talked about his impressions of the Millennial generation, students getting married at Olin, what kids do after graduation, education in general.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was with this place. It’s small. It’s sane. It’s innovative. It provides an amazing education, a chance to learn real world skills, and a supportive community. It reminds me a lot of Kirby, but at a different level.

I had no idea what Eli was going to say when he came out, but I knew I’d be thrilled if he chose this school—and if they chose him.

Eli came in an hour later and hugged his shadow in gratitude. He had a huge smile on his face and said to her, “I hope to see you in two years!”

Then he walked in and said, “I’m definitely applying here. It’s like Kirby as a boarding school. I know I could learn everything I want to learn here. I could learn them somewhere else, probably every place we’ve been, but I know I’d be happy every minute doing it here.”

I’d say the boy is sold!

Will he get in? Will he still be so enthusiastic next year? Will it still be his first choice two months from now? Will we be able to afford it? Who knows? But it’s good to see him so happy.

We didn’t leave Olin until 6:30. We drove two hours to Northampton and had a celebratory dinner at a fabulous vegetarian restaurant. I had incredible greens, tofu and veggies with some kind of great brown rice croquettes, and for dessert, an amazing warm cornmeal pudding. Eli had scrod and fries and apple pie. We were both very happy.

Robin is a trauma therapist and University professor who works for the UN, speaks six languages fluently, teaches International Relationships at Brandeis and whose work takes her all over the world—Haiti, Rwanda, Pakistan. When there’s a major crisis in the world, Robin is part of the team they send in to respond.

Twenty minutes after we arrived, she walked in with her baby girl Amara, who I’ve never met. I didn’t even know Amara existed until I called Robin about this trip a month ago. It was so much fun hanging out with a toddler again! She is beautiful and I look forward to catching up with Robin in the morning. Right now, I’m exhausted and going to bed.

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