Last week, Stacey’s memoir was about her decision to go to college. After the roller coaster of the last three Mondays, I thought I’d take Stacey’s post as my cue today. Her post was prompted by the “Stories in Hand” questions: Why did you decide to go to college? Why did you go to the college you chose?
Like Stacey, I don’t really think I decided to go to college. It was always assumed that I’d go … by my parents and by me. Even when I was a little kid and had no real idea what college was, I thought about going. It never occurred to me that it might not happen, that we might not have money for it. It was just a given.
In my small public high school in upstate New York, the idea of college remained a constant, but still hadn’t taken shape beyond what I saw in movies or in the ‘makeover’ pages of my favorite issue of Seventeen. “College” meant more school, which was recommendation enough for me. My school had kindergarten through twelfth grade in one building. Most kids didn’t go to college. Many went to trade schools, many left high school and immediately started working. Most of the ones who went to college went to local 2-year schools, which they viewed as another kind of trade school.
When I walked into the guidance office and asked for help with the application process, my counselor looked pretty surprised. “Oh, you want to go to college?” I was in the National Honor Society, in the top five percent of my class, but she was surprised that I wanted to continue my education. She told me to come back in a week or so and she’d have some applications for me. When I went back, she gave me the standard four-school SUNY (State University of New York) application. I took it and my mom helped me fill it out.
At that time, my aunt was a biology teacher at a high school downstate. My mother talked with her and they decided I should meet with David, one of the guidance counselors at her school. I took the train down (my first solo trip!) and met with him. He asked me a lot of questions: what was I interested in, what did I do for fun, what did I think I wanted to do with my life, what were my favorite subjects, did I have test anxiety, what were my study habits like … And then he talked to me about the different kinds of colleges I might want to attend, about what I could expect the work to be like, about private versus public schools, small versus big, living on campus versus living at home …
He recommended I apply to private schools because I’d be likely to get more school-based financial aid. He made a list of about twenty schools. He assured me that all of the schools fit with the impression he had of me after our conversation, that any of them would send me out into the world with a top-notch liberal arts education. I picked ten or twelve of the schools from the list, completely arbitrary picks, since I knew nothing about any of them and had only heard of one or two of them.
He helped my mother and me through the application process. He taught me how to interview, how to look people in the eye, something I never did before I met him. I had some phone interviews and one in-person interview. Then I started getting acceptance letters and had to make my final choice.
I remembered what David had said about all the schools being good, about all of them fitting with kind of person and student I seemed to be. I looked at what each school offered in terms of financial aid. I thought about the fact that my high school was really small (85 kids in my senior class!) and that I might feel a bit lost in a big school. None of that narrowed the list very much.
So I fell back on the arbitrary selection process that had guided my choice of schools in the first place. The school I’d visited for my in-person interview had accepted me … and that campus was really pretty, so …
Basing such an important decision on something as frivilous as a pretty campus (even when you take into account all the dogwoods that were in bloom!) seems a bit foolish, but it worked out well. I wound up at Sarah Lawrence Collge, the school that I still believe was the best choice for me.
Probably I could have gotten a great education at any of the other schools that accepted me, but I really do feel that SLC was the place. Those four years are directly responsible for me being the kind of teacher I am today, shaping my approach to teaching and learning, validating my sense that the process is just as important as the result. SLC honed my writing skills, opened the door to a year of study in France, introduced me to some truly magnificent instructors, is probably the reason I was drawn to working at non-profits …
In so many ways — more than I would ever have imagined while I was on campus — being a ‘Sarah Lawrence girl’ has affected my life. Thank goodness for all those dogwoods!
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.