Choosing college more art than science

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, April 19, 2015.

My daughter and I arrived at the University of Miami winter-weary and sun-deprived. It was mid-April – two weeks before Julie had to decide which college she would attend. Coral Gables blew us a tropical kiss – palm trees swayed and skateboarders in shorts breezed by. We strode past the double Olympic-size outdoor pool in the middle of the campus, and Julie said, “I could get used to this.”

The University of Miami gets high marks for its School of Communication, and that is why we were there. Julie already knew she wanted to study graphic design. From an early age, she regarded just about everything as a canvas for artistic expression – the walls of her bedroom, the pages of her assignment books, the rubber toes of her Chuck Taylors. Now she was ready to sharpen her creative skills in college, and that had put us in the crosshairs of higher education’s potent marketing machine.

Schools lure families with rankings from U.S. News & World Report and amenities worthy of exclusive resorts, while burying astronomical tuition fees deep in their web content. And people get hooked. They travel to campuses in search of the “right” school – an academic silver bullet that will guarantee success. Teens submit applications by the dozen and wait to hear back, fingers crossed.

Our trip was living proof of all that.

In his New York Times bestseller, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni writes that there are many educational paths to success and personal fulfillment – private schools, public schools, schools you’ve never heard of. More important, Bruni believes that the student is at the center of his or her success, not the school. He suggests that, for some, college may not even be part of the success equation: “Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.”

Thank you, Frank. I recall the mounting pressure Julie felt as she filled out applications in our kitchen. To counter the frenzy, I told her she would become a graphic designer no matter which college she attended. “The school doesn’t make you,” I said. “You make you, with the school’s help.” Julie remained glued to her laptop, typing at a feverish pace.

My own experience of education informed my view of what college could and couldn’t deliver. I went to Brown and my degree, along with a spec portfolio and the kindness of a family friend who headed up a well-known Rhode Island ad agency, helped me land my first job as a copywriter – though initially, it was more an audition than a job. The firm agreed to pay me “enough to live” for three months, at which point the creative director would decide whether or not I was hired.

I majored in English and American literature at Brown. Studying advertising hadn’t even been an option. On my first day at the agency, I felt badly outmatched by the writers and designers around me. I watched Tony, the associate creative director, present one clever headline after another with an assuredness I could only wish for. I had twelve weeks to learn how to produce good copy – or else.

For Julie, the decision came down to Miami or a school at the opposite end of the thermometer. When we visited Syracuse University, my daughter quickly warmed to the campus vibe, weather notwithstanding. Following an information session at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, she announced, “This is the place for me.”

I don’t know that Miami was the wrong place for Julie. And the same goes for the other schools she applied to. What I do know is she’s thriving at Syracuse – and has never looked back. I suspect the anxieties she felt during the admissions process are mere footnotes in her story now, if they’re part of it at all.

Choosing a college is more art than science. There’s no single right answer. While a school may mold our kids, it won’t make them. That’s in their hands, no matter where they go.

2 Comments

stevetandtheroughedges April 20, 2015 at 8:45 pm

Very nice! Looking forward to each new one. Thanks!

Sent from my mobile, apologies for brevity and typos.

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