Chapter Ten, The Mother Son College Odyssey

Friday night….Eli and I are holed up at Diane and Paula’s house is Melrose, a suburb of Boston. Diane and I were friends as babies and went to Sunday school together in first grade. It’s a great bonus of this trip to see old friends along the way. Diane and I just made a stir-fry with brown rice. I’m SO happy to eat some real, simple, home-cooked food instead of another meal in a restaurant.  It’s 8 PM and I’m already in my flannel PJs with my teeth brushed.

Today Eli and I both slept in-me, till 9:30 and he, until 11:00. We started the day relaxed, but then got lost trying to find Brown. Apparently there are two different places in Providence that share the address 45 Prospect Street. We picked the wrong one. I got a little testy with Eli, and he did with me, for the first time this trip, once we realized we were lost. Once we reprogrammed the GPS, and got going in the right direction, the tension dissolved.

The only other time Eli snapped at me was one day when I didn’t feed him fast enough. Some things never change.

We had lunch in a little falafel joint on Thayer Street that our friend Nona recommended. She got her PhD at Brown a decade ago and she gave us great advice. I had four of the best falafel balls I’ve ever had and a terrific serving of smoky baba ganoush. Eli had some kind of wrapped steak sandwich. I paid $6 bucks to park in the only guest parking lot on the Brown campus, we walked over to Admissions to get a map and headed over, with a thousand other people (I kid you not) to a big hall for the Admissions lecture. Eli’s first reaction: “I don’t like this place. There’s no campus.”

Providence is a small city with an intimate feel. The city and the campus are integrated. There are some big green lawns between some of the buildings, so there is a campus of sorts, but it’s nothing like Swarthmore which is a world unto itself.

The man who gave the admissions talk is a Brown alumni who is now an admissions officer. He could easily double as a stand-up comic, which is why he was our speaker today. I decided that since Brown is an Ivy League school with two hundred years of traditions and no need to tout its scholastic standing, they decided they might as well make the information sessions entertaining. He began by telling us that anyone who had a cell phone go off would be cut immediately from the applicant pool. He then announced that someone had left a lot of valuable electronics and some hundred-dollar bills on the seat of their car and the passenger door wasn’t fully shut. “So can you please go out and close your door?””

This is when Eli pointed out “computational biology” in the list of majors in the Brown brochure and gave me a big thumbs up. It’s a rare specialty for undergrads and something that floats Eli’s boat. Brown was suddenly looking a lot more appealing.

Our stand-up comic said, “I’ve just finished reading 2200 applications, my part of the applicant pool. The admissions decisions went out yesterday. Monday we start taking lots and lots of angry calls. One day, about a year from now, you might be making angry calls to Brown.”

I guess that was his way of telling us that Brown is uber-selective, but of course, all of us sitting in the audience knew that already.

We learned the history of Providence and the history of Brown. The colony of Rhode Island was founded in the early 1600s by Baptists who’d been thrown out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Brown was the first college established to educate people of all religious faiths. “That spirit of progressive idealism has permeated Brown for the last 250 years.” Brown was one of the first schools to offer a liberal arts education.

Brown offers students a unique degree of freedom in what they study. There is no core curriculum or distributions requirements. The only requirements for graduations is that you a) pay tuition, b) take at least 30 courses and pass them, c) demonstrate excellence in writing, and d) declare a concentration and complete the requirements. Because there are no distribution requirements, 25% of Brown students complete a double concentration and 30-40 students do a triple concentration each year. “You could do nothing but take 30 chemistry classes while you’re here if you wanted to,” he told us. “Not that we’d recommend that.”

Brown’s philosophy is based on the work of John Dewey who said, “The great problem with American education is that people graduate from high school and college generally disliking being in school.” So at Brown, the most important thing the school can give a student is a desire to learn. That’s why all the important decisions about his or her education are in the hands of the student. Self-directed learning is at the core of Brown’s philosophy.

An astonishing 82% of Brown graduates go on to graduate school. 71% of classes have 19 students or less in a class. 3.4% have 100 or more. 98% of students return after their freshman year.

The other statistic the admission officer stressed was that Brown was voted 3rd happiest college in America several years ago. This made Brown students so happy that they were voted the happiest college in America the following year. “But then,” he explained, “That was a bad year for us. If you’re rated the happiest school, it’s probably going to be the happiest you’ll ever be.”

Now they’re rated #2. “We like that spot,” he told us.

Our admissions guy didn’t take many questions from the audience, but he did take mine, “Would you say that Brown has a more cooperative environment or a more competitive one?”

“If you’re motivated by competition, this probably isn’t the place for you,” he replied. “Bragging about your achievements is social death at Brown.”

We also learned a lot about the checkered history of Providence’s mayor, who was in prison twice for corruption, and was re-elected between his two terms in jail. He built up the city’s infrastructure, brought great restaurants and art to Providence. Providence now has more artists per capita than any city in the United States.

Finally, in the final minutes, the talk touched on admissions and the cost of Brown. “It’s obscenely expensive. As one father told me, ‘It’s like driving a Lexus off a cliff every year, four years in a row.”

Applications are need-blind. If parents make less than 100K, there are no loans in the financial aid package. If under $60,000, there is no parental contribution.  The average indebtedness for students when they complete their undergraduate education is $6000.

After tooting his own horn repeatedly and asking for applause, our speaker let us go out into the sunny day to meet our tour guides. We had a very funny, personable sophomore who told us, among other things, that there are more acapella groups at Brown than on any other campus in the United States. One of the groups dresses in pirate costumes and goes around campus singing sea chanties. Eli definitely liked this idea.

Our guide, Eddie, showed us the ugliest building on campus and then shared that the computer geeks who live in the Technology House created a giant game of Tetris on the outside of this very tall building using Christmas lights and that students came from all over campus to play the giant Tetris game, and a band showed up to accompany the contestants. I think this was the moment that Eli decided that he would definitely be one of the 30,000 kids applying to Brown next year.

After the tour we walked around Thayer Street some more, had ice cream (yes, it was that warm in Rhode Island today). “What do you think, Eli?” I asked as I licked my cone.

“I really like it,” he said. “You know, I really think I’ll be find academically wherever I go, but I want to have fun while I study.”

Smart kid.

At about five, we got in the car and started driving–our destination about an hour away. We got to the dramatic end of our Michael Crichton thriller just as we arrived at Diane’s house. It was a great CD. Eli says we can’t buy another one. “I have to start doing my homework, Mom,” he said. “When else am I going to do it but in the car?”

Tomorrow morning, Saturday, we go to Tufts and then Eli will get to spend the afternoon at Origamido, an origami design studio in Haverill, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Michael LaFosse, one of the most famous and accomplished folders in the world, runs the business with his partner. Eli got to study with Michael once before, about four years ago. He’s been waiting all these years for a second chance and tomorrow is the big day. We all chipped in for Eli’s birthday to buy him the hours. I’ll be dropping him off there after lunch and picking him up after dinner.

But now, it’s late. Well, actually, it’s only 9:20, but I’m tired. Think I might watch a movie on my computer before turning in….I’ll be back tomorrow with another installment. Oh, and keep writing back. It’s fun to hear from you on the road!

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