The summer I was 16, my parents made the classic mistake of organizing a college tour when school was out of session. Devoid of regular, academic-year activity, the dozen or so Northeastern campuses were a pleasant blur of ivy-clad brick walls, Greek columns, and tour guides walking backwards — all more alike, alas, than they were different.
So why tour a college in person? And why is this a topic for a travel column? Well, it’s April, which means thousands of acceptances to evaluate for lucky seniors — and thousands more juniors who are narrowing down their application lists for next fall. And while there’s a lot you can learn about a school online, as with any destination, research is no substitute for an in-person visit, especially in the era of sky-high tuition rates (not to mention BDS campus protests).
But as my family’s experience shows, some college tours are more productive than others. So with the classes of 2020 and 2021 in mind, here are my tips for making the most of the grand tour:
1. It can’t be overemphasized: Visit during the school year! Student unions and dorms look alike, but campus populations vary widely. By spending time when class is in session, you’ll get a better idea of demographics, the full range of meal options, how visible ethnic and religious minorities are, how the students dress, and what kinds of activities — from political demonstrations to concerts — are happening on any given week.
Food for thought: How important is it to you to be surrounded by those who share your point of view or leisure-time inclinations? Does the campus environment offer real diversity — not just the checked-off ethnicity box kind, but also the intellectual diversity of myriad viewpoints and backgrounds, Jewish or otherwise? Talk to as many people on campus as possible to feel this out.
2. Take the pulse of your new Jewish home by spending the night. Pre-arrange a stay with a Jewish student or organize a visit through the campus Hillel. And before you go, think about what kind of Jewish life you expect to find — on and off campus. In a bigger city, it’s easier to blend in or to find your niche; a smaller campus can offer a more tight-knit community, with unity being an emphasis across the religious and cultural spectrum.
Israel is a hot topic on campuses these days, with debates that can be either invigorating or uncomfortable. Ask yourself honestly how political you are, how comfortable you are explaining your point of view, and whether you’re excited or frustrated by the idea of a campus where most people share your perspective. Then take a close look at what you see around you.
3. On campus and off, consider the overall environment carefully — and take your time exploring the neighborhood, from eateries and hangouts to spots where students gather. Can you picture yourself hanging out on campus during the weekend — or going out nearby?
I say this as a person who spent one miserable year at a small, elite college in the middle of nowhere, with barely 2,000 students my own age that all largely shared my artsy bent — a setting that sounded appealing in the “Fiske Guide to Colleges.” But once there, I realized I needed a large, diverse university and a big city beyond it to fully take advantage of the exploration offered by those college years. Of course, sometimes it takes a wrong turn to find the right path.
4. Try not to be swayed by any single, compelling element of a school. I’m talking about that one star professor who is more likely to be on sabbatical than available to mentor during office hours, or the amazing drama department — if there’s a chance you’ll switch your major to chemistry.
The glory of the American liberal-arts education — why our system is admired worldwide — is the opportunity it offers to explore broadly, learn widely and try new subjects and even new environments, from internships to studying abroad. So unless you’re absolutely sure of your focus (and few 17-year-olds are), tour the whole campus, from science labs to theaters, talking to students along the way.
5. Spend time in the places where you’ll actually spend time — libraries and dorms. Halls, lounges and other common living spaces are revealing: You’ll get a sense of the social dynamic, and picture how you’d socialize, cook (or not) and hang out during the semester.
Students also spend hours ensconced in libraries — so explore those spaces to see how user-friendly they are. What kind of digital resources exist, and how up-to-date are they? What kinds of areas are available for study groups or film screenings? And my own most pressing concern — Is there a place to get a nosh when hunger strikes?