For me, the green hills of upstate New York are more than a lovely landscape—they are a beloved seat of learning. As the 17-year-old product of a big public high school in Pittsburgh, I wanted something different for college. I found it at Colgate University, a leading liberal-arts school nestled in the Chenango Valley. The beauty was inspiring. More important, so were the professors. They produced first-rank writing and research, yet remained dedicated to becoming intellectual mentors and, in my case, lifelong friends.
When it came time for the summer college-tour circuit, I wanted my daughter, Meredith, to see this and become enchanted. After we checked in to the Colgate Inn, I walked up to the campus alone and sat contentedly on a bench in the silent quad. Meredith called home. "Mom," she said, "I've never seen Dad so happy. But there's absolutely nothing here!"
Our time on the rustic roads didn't help. Just east of school, a woodchuck darted in front of our rental car. We heard a sickening little crunch. Meredith's hysteria ceased by the time we reached Middlebury in Vermont. Between Williams and Amherst in western Massachusetts, she hit the radio's search button. Nothing. We had reached the edge of the audio universe. It was called the Berkshires.
I resigned myself to Meredith not applying to Colgate because of the ick factor: her dad, after all, had been a toga-partying student there. I switched to rooting for Middlebury. It was a lot like my alma mater, and I was delighted when she got in. Foolish father. In her heart of hearts, my daughter had no intention of spending a New York minute in the country, no matter how superb the teaching. She claims to have been deeply undecided. Maybe, but I think that she sat still for this particular tour—we call it the "Woodchuck Trip"—mostly for dear ole Dad.
Meredith is now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an expert on taxis, restaurant and nightclub etiquette, and the deciphering of course-offering directories the size of phone books. She has renowned professors and hard-charging classmates. And I've never seen her so happy.
Here is the lesson for parents. The college search isn't about you. Take the kid where she wants to go, not where you want her to go. And if you do tour the countryside, rent a car with satellite radio.
Howard Fineman is NEWSWEEK's senior Washington correspondent and columnist.
By Meredith Fineman
Everyone told me I would know when I found the college of my dreams. "It's like a bolt of lightning," a friend assured me. "You can just tell." Still, as my dad and I began a season of college visits several years ago, I felt more panic than anticipation. I had no idea what I wanted—or who would want me.
The college-admissions process is another form of school. It sucks, but it's educational. I figured that the more places I visited, the better grasp I'd have not only of the colleges but of my own desires. We traveled the Northeast, from the most rural spots ("Can a town really have only one stoplight?") to the most urban ("Hey, wait. Where is the campus?"). I sampled frozen yogurt, dorms and classes from cognitive neuroscience (forget it) to British lit (more my speed). No lightning, but wonderful places. I applied to most of them. I was rejected by one, wait-listed by two and admitted to the rest.
At that moment, the process stopped being about college, and started being about me. I was forced to realize that I was a city girl. I had grown up on busy streets, in Washington, D.C., and felt at home on them. I had spent 14 years at a school with a senior class of 114. Others might want the intimacy and classroom attention of a small college in a quiet place; I wanted size, bustle, big-league brassiness and maybe even a little anonymity—not to mention good shopping. With joy and relief, I chose the University of Pennsylvania, which had all that, plus a great communications school, Annenberg.
But lightning? Not really, because now I felt uneasy all over again. Would I make it at Penn? Would I be able to keep up with my classes? And there was this thing about "throwing toast" from the stands at football games. What was that?
Now, two years later, I've made friends, I love my classes and, yes, I have thrown toast at one of the few games I'll ever attend. I've also learned a lot about my own character. I've learned that I can accept failure, and I can enjoy my success. I was not some hopelessly indecisive person (as I once thought), but just a teenager, inching out into the world, afraid of rejection. My friend was wrong. It's not about lightning (unless you're Ben Franklin). It's about deciding who you are, and being happy with what you find.