With typical teenage lope, my son Andrew takes his sweet time getting to the car. It is April and we are headed down to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, my much-loved alma mater, where he has been accepted for admission this fall. I would love to "sell" Andrew on VCU and Richmond, but I am also here as the competition. A large part of my job is getting high schoolers just like him to choose my employer, George Mason University. As a publications manager and the chief recruitment writer at Mason, I choose images and craft copy designed to convince young people that Mason is the place to be.
Still, here we are, on the way to VCU's "block party," as the school calls its spring open house. It's one more attempt on the part of the university to sway potential students to accept their offer of admission. Andrew's chosen to wear an Ohio State sweatshirt, which doesn't bode well for VCU's chances.
These spring open houses are the 'universities' last chance to turn an accepted applicant into a first-year student. It is always a bit of a gamble. You accept more students than you have spaces for, knowing that some will go elsewhere, all in hope of hitting that perfect predecided number, no more, no less. Almost every school, including VCU, expects a deposit and commitment by May 1st.
Andrew walks around the car and stands facing the trunk until I realize he means for me to pop it open. I do. He is looking for a place to stow his overstuffed school backpack, someplace that won't interfere with his legroom.
"What's the backpack for?" I ask as he gets into the passenger seat.
"In case of I have time to do some homework," he says. This is absurd, even insane, but I don't laugh. That would be a bad way to start this trip. Andrew has been accepted at six colleges, so as he faces the final quarter of his high school career, he spends much more time thinking about lacrosse and the post-graduation beach week than about schoolwork. Ohio State is still a front-runner, as is Virginia Military Institute. I want him to go in-state for practical, as well as financial, reasons. I once wrote a university ad that pitted a co-ed in a cap and gown against a Toyota Sequoia. My tagline was: An SUV or a degree? I heartily believe that a public education, especially in Virginia (which has some of the best universities in the country), is still one of the best buys around. The ad never quite captured the imagination of the university higher ups and went unused. The lesson: Everyone wants to be valued, but no one wants to be a bargain.
As I drive down Interstate 95, Andrew reads to me from the Sports section of the Washington Post, which I am surprised to find has actually covered his Friday night lacrosse game -- another lopsided victory for the Westfield Bulldogs. The final score was 14-1. Andrew assures me that it would have been a shut out if they hadn't been a man down.
"Who was out on a penalty?" I ask.
"Me," he says. "Slashing." He proceeds to demonstrate how he came to slash the kid with his stick -- accidentally, of course. His 6-foot, one-inch frame already fills his side of the front seat. There is little room for a demonstration.
"In the face?" I ask, horrified.
"He did have on a face mask," Andrew says.
The trip to VCU is a relatively simple one for me, having done it so many times. I already know where I am going to park and where to check-in for the block party. Andrew has also been to Richmond dozens of times over the course of his life. He tells me that he loves Richmond; he just can't see himself at VCU.
"I'm just not one of those people who can sit around in cafes drinking espresso and listening to poetry," he says.
"Not everyone in Richmond is going to poetry readings," I tell him. "There are other things to do, lots of things." He knows this. In addition to the block party, we hope to squeeze in a visit to the Edgar Allan Poe museum and some Bottoms Up pizza down in Shockhoe Bottom.
The campus is crowded and we follow the clumps of black and gold balloons to get where we are going. Andrew mutters something about feeling like a lemming.
"Ohio State has almost 60,000 students," I tell him. "There you can be a lemming every single day."
When we arrive at the site, one of the Admissions greeters, an older man, also notices Andrew's sweatshirt. "Uh-oh," he says amicably, then rigorously shakes Andrew's hand.
"It was the only sweatshirt that was clean," Andrew tells the man.
This is Andrew's third experience being courted by a college. He has already spent the night in the barracks at VMI, learning from the cadets that "it is better to be from VMI, then at VMI." I am not opposed to him attending a military school if that is what he truly wants although the idea of being a "rat," which is what they call the first-years there, doesn't look very appealing with its grueling physical challenges and five-minute showers. But then I don't wear black paint under my eyes and chase around other guys with a long stick and shoulder pads.
On the other extreme, we attended an admissions event for Ohio State at a posh Tysons Corner hotel with elegant hors d'oeuvres and gifts from the university. (Andrew ended up with an Ohio State laundry bag.) A young woman from Ohio State even called the house one night to congratulate Andrew on his admission and Buckeye scholarship and ask if he had any questions about the university. He applied to Ohio State without ever seeing the campus. He only knows the football team. Sometimes I think he is just savoring the attention; other times I am certain he is torn in his decision making.
Then there have been his attempts to "court" colleges or, more accurately, the colleges' lacrosse coaches. Since he was small, before he even knew what lacrosse was, he wanted to go to Penn State: a school one of his uncles attended. Throughout high school, he has attended Penn State's lacrosse summer camp. This final summer he chose to wear his Westfield jersey instead of the t-shirt that came with the price of the camp so they would remember where he was from. By the end of the camp, the coaches were referring to him as Westfield, but there were still no offers to play lacrosse for Penn State. He has been accepted to the university, but not to the State College campus, which isn't like going to Penn State at all.
I watch the papers for stories about his friends. One of his teammates is talking to the coach at University of Virginia, a Division I team -- for lacrosse players like Andrew, a dream come true. Lacrosse isn't everything, I tell him. It is another four years -- if you stay healthy. Then there's the rest of your life.
"If you were me, where would you go?" he asks.
"VCU," I say. I stand by my decision. VCU and Richmond have everything a young person could possibly want: a good education, attentive professors, an excellent music scene with lots of clubs, and plenty of museums and parks. At VCU I had the chance to be independent in a city that wasn't as big as New York. It was just the right size.
Although Andrew is classified as "Undecided," we choose to attend one of the breakout sessions for specific majors. I am surprised when he wants to go to the Humanities session; on our previous visit, we had focused on the School of Engineering. A bad experience with a mousetrap car in Honors Physics has changed his perspective and possibly his life course.
"It was pathetic," he tells me as we climb the stairs and walk in the direction of a young man holding up a Humanities and Sciences card. "It didn't even go 35 feet. Plus I had to push it. Mr. S said nothing. He just walked away."
Now we are looking at Political Science or International Studies, maybe History. One of my old professors is representing the Political Science Department.
"I had him for State and Local Government," I whisper to Andrew.
"I'm amazed any of your professors are still alive," he whispers back.
All of the faculty members are very entertaining, particularly the gentleman representing Philosophy, who is quite droll and clearly understands that his chances of picking up a potential major are just about nil. The chair of the History Department makes reference to the War Between the States and Richmond's rich resources as the capital of the Confederacy. She mentions a recent research project conducted by students at Hollywood Cemetery.
"Oh, we have to go there," I tell Andrew. "Today. It's close." Hollywood Cemetery is one of those ornate old cemeteries with massive mausoleums and all kinds of monuments and statuary. Presidents are buried there, as well as Civil Wars heroes -- including those from VMI, which was burned to the ground during the war.
Andrew chooses to chat one-on-one with the guy from International Studies. At VMI, he tells me, they have a combination major in which you can study both Political Science and International Relations. He wants to know if that is possible here. It turns out that the program isn't an exact match, but the man assures him that such a combination of course work is possible.
After the breakouts break up, it is time for lunch, campus tours, and what the admissions counselors have labeled in the open house program as "Fun." Fun comprises a student organizational fair on the one plaza. As the weather is marginal, so is the fun. A number of fraternity and sororities are on hand, as are the typical student government-type organizations. They are not helping my cause.
Waiting in line for the pizza lunch, we read the inscriptions on the bricks in the plaza. Andrew is captivated by the brickwork that covers the campus sidewalks, instead of concrete. I am surprised to recognize a few names. "He's an English professor," I tell Andrew, pointing to one brick. "And you're standing on Buzzy."
Andrew lifts one of his huge white sneakers and says, "Get with it, Mom. He's Buzz now. Don't call him Buzzy." I look down and see that he is correct. The president of one of the fraternities when I was a student here has dropped the "y" from his name. For professional reasons, I wonder?
"How come you don't have a brick?"
"They cost money," I say. The truth is I still have one of my brick brochures -- the university sends me one every year or so. It's with my bills and my magazine subscription renewals. One day, I just might feel nostalgic enough to write a check and mail it.
The start of the campus tours is still 45 minutes away, so I improvise.
"What do you want to see?" I ask Andrew. We are sitting on a grassy knoll outside of the Performing Arts Center, watching people wander past.
"I still can't see myself here," he says. "I don't see anyone like me."
"That's ridiculous," I say, but there are some really unusual people milling around. One of the prospective students is particularly hard to miss. His hair is cherry red and his bangs stop in the middle of his horn rim glasses. I already spent about five minutes in the break-out session trying to figure out if the child of the couple sitting in front of us was male or female. I thought it was a boy. Andrew thought so, too.
"I just want to see some stuff. Show me some stuff," he says finally, and we begin an impromptu tour.
"That's where I took biology lab." I point to construction rubble on the other side of a fence. "They're going to put a dining hall there.
"This used to be the heart of the campus." I point to another space between buildings. "They had bands every Friday afternoon and sold beer. This is where you saw everybody and started your weekend."
We fly through the nearest classroom building: Hibbs. We walk the halls, peek in classrooms, and read the walls. You can find out a lot by reading the walls. We wander past the advising offices where they are advertising graduate programs from around the country.
"Hmmm," I say by one bulletin board, "I didn't even know West Virginia had an M.F.A. program." West Virginia is one of the schools that Andrew got into.
"Did you know they have more Rhodes scholars than any other American university?" he asks.
"No, I didn't," I say, surprised that he really read the literature.
Since VCU is an urban university, its campus is unusual in that the university has bought up portions of the city and turned it into whatever they needed. The historic row houses along West Franklin now house the academic departments. A hospital on Grace Street now serves as administrative offices. Huge portions of the once decrepit Broad Street are home to a new fitness center and art studios for the school's nationally ranked art programs.
I want Andrew to see Ginter House. Built in 1888, it is probably the most beautiful building on campus, with amazing ornamental woodwork and structural details. And it is haunted. I spent a lot of nights in the attic of Ginter House, where the campus newspaper used to have its dark rooms. I used to carry around a key to this historic landmark. That key would do me good right now. The house, which is now the Provost's Office, is locked on weekends. We slip into the one vestibule and peer through the leaded glass.
"Wow," Andrew says. "It reminds me of the hotel in The Shining."
"The heart of the house is a huge double staircase. We'll have to come back on a weekday. Even if you don't decide to go here."
We are still standing on the stairs of the Ginter House when one of the campus tours strolls by. We quickly join the ranks when the student conducting the tour mentions that they will be going to the dorms next.
The tour guy isn't the greatest. He mentions twice that the residence hall space is limited because VCU is a commuter school. I am half-tempted to contact the Admissions Office on Monday to complain. What he says might be technically true, but it doesn't give the full picture. A big part of the VCU experience is eventually moving out of the dorms and into the plentiful and affordable apartments through the Fan: the neighborhood adjacent to campus. When I went to VCU, a student could live in an old, architecturally interesting row house; walk to classes, the laundromat, and neighborhood restaurants that served the best baked spaghetti in the world; and get her phone cut off because of her roommate's long distance romance. Real-life experiences to savor in later years.
The tour guide also misspeaks a couple of times. At one point he tells the group that the oldest dormitory, Johnson Hall, doesn't have heat or air conditioning. One mother shrieks, "No heat?" and he corrects himself: just no air conditioning. He colors his speech with the phrase "and whatnot," which is very distracting. We now know that the building on the corner contains the Office of Admissions, Financial Aid, "and whatnot." Not particularly useful information.
"He managed to get five 'whatnots' in those last two sentences," Andrew whispers to me.
When we get down to the next corner, our guide tells us that this is the end of the tour and we will be returning to student commons. Another mother wants to know what is "down there," pointing across the street, past Monroe Park.
"Oh, the building with the cone is the School of Engineering," the tour guide says and the crowd scans the horizon looking for a cone.
"Actually, it's a pyramid," Andrew finally says loudly. "On the roof." The people look at him and then look back at the horizon. "It's a new building," he continues. "It's really nice inside -- lots of wood trim."
When the light changes, a handful of people cross the street and head down to check out the new building.
I drag Andrew into the housing complex across the street, which the tour guide has assured us is nearly impossible to get into because it is reserved for upperclassman. "It was designed by a prison architect," I tell Andrew.
"Oh, great," he says.
"No, really. All the rooms open up onto a courtyard so you can see what's going on."
We pass a computer lab monitored by a young man who does look like Andrew.
"I'll bet he doesn't drink espresso or go to poetry readings," I say.
"Mom," he says and rolls his eyes.
Don't you want him to go to Mason? people always ask, including the dean of admissions, who is a good friend as well as a colleague. No, I don't. I think he needs to be away from us, managing his time, finding out what he is interested in, finding out who he is -- really is, when not under the influence of his high school friends who have known him since elementary school.
College is a chance to reinvent yourself -- a opportunity that isn't to be passed up or taken likely. There have been a number of times I've wanted to reinvent myself over years, to wipe that slate completely clean and start from scratch. But a completely clean slate would leave me without an Andrew, and that's something I couldn't face. I'm still waiting to see how the story ends.