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During College Shopping, It's the Journey That Matters

The trip's defining moment for me, though, was all five of us in the car belting out the entirety of "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the top of our lungs as we barreled through the winding, rolling countryside at dusk on the way back from the wineries with my son driving, and me riding shotgun.
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For Halloween, we flew out to Ithaca, New York for some grown-up trick or treating with my best girlfriend, E, and her husband, D.

Actually, we really flew out to visit Cornell University with Z; the trick or treating was a bonus. D had done his graduate work at Cornell, so they happily joined us out there (they are also Z's godparents).

As I've said before, we are in the thick of college-shopping. Although Z is only a junior, we all wanted a better idea of what was out there in the college world so we started earlier this year, and it's been an adventure from start to almost-finish. Z has an impressive line-up of colleges he's narrowed his search down to: out of Big 10the five contenders, four are Big Ten schools here in the Midwest (Northwestern University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Iowa), and an Ivy League in upstate New York (Cornell). All have astounding physics departments, with equally impressive campuses, housing options, student activities, and research opportunities. They include state schools as well as private; large, small, and medium-sized student bodies.

After each visit, Z declares that university to be his new "favorite." We've heard that four times now, and I don't doubt we'll hear it later this month when we visit the last (for now), Iowa. T and I are impressed with each of the schools for various reasons, and would be hard-pressed to rank our own favorites (ok, truth be told, T is a die-hard Michigan fan, having done his own graduate work there). If Z is accepted at all five schools, I don't envy his position to choose -- but what a fantastic problem to have! I really do feel that whatever decision he makes, it will be a winner for him.

Realistically, do I think he has a shot at the Ivy League? After visiting, yes. It's a long shot, but after listening to the Dean of Admissions and two faculty advisers talk about what they look for in an applicant, I believe my child does, indeed, fit their bill. Of course I'm biased. But honestly, I can see where he would be a very good fit there.

What ultimately convinced me was serendipitous: while we were waiting for one of the tours to start on Friday, Z mentioned he wished he could see what a college physics class was like. One of the student admissions guides overheard him, and said "let's see what's going on this afternoon." Lo and behold, an Intro to Physics class was scheduled later and Z was invited to show up and sit in! We re-tooled our itinerary slightly for the rest of the day so he could take advantage of this awesomeness. So, while T and I caught up on our email and people-watched for a while, Z walked into the giant lecture hall, and concluded he'd entered Heaven.

He LOVED the professor teaching -- Z said he was animated, used props, humor, and he felt the prof was TEACHING, not lecturing. Z caught on right away to the day's lesson: it's what he is studying in his AP Physics high school class right now. He couldn't stop talking about that visit for the rest of the weekend.

What this taught me wasn't just about the University itself, but about the course my child has set for himself: it's the right one. He is, indeed, head over heels for physics.

And it illuminated the truth that the best fit for him will be the university that sees his passion and excitement for the subject matter and research possibilities, realizes he would be a tremendous addition to their college, wants him to become their student on his journey, and will match his passion for learning with their own passion for teaching.

After all the spread sheets and pros and cons lists have been created, after all the hard admissions work has painstakingly been done, and the FAFSA filled out accordingly, what if he isn't accepted to his first choice, whichever that turns out to be? I will be disappointed for him and my heart will ache that this is something Mom can't fix. But I've also learned in the last several years that we all end up where we're truly supposed to be if we trust in ourselves and take advantage of the choices before us. If he learns that over the next several years instead of in his 40s and 50s, he's going to be ahead in this game called Life.

During this process of "college shopping," we've had a lot of fun, and I hope he looks back on these weekends we've taken to tour different communities in different states with fondness, if not downright laughter. I joked at the beginning that we went to Cornell to go trick or treating...well, we made him a deal: we would take all the tours and go to all the meetings he wanted while we were there for the long weekend, and in return, he would be our Designated Driver for a few hours to tour the Finger Lakes wine region, just north of Cornell. He happily agreed.

So we flew to upstate New York; had a great welcome dinner with E & D; participated in all the talks and tours Admissions offers; visited several Finger Lakes wineries (which is the best kind of grown-up trick or treating); discovered Uncle Joe's Bar in Ithaca which turned out to be a designated University of Michigan saloon, complete with cowbell and lots of friendly people, and watched UoM win on a big screen on one side of the bar, with the Mets on another (home state crowd not happy with that loss, nor the eventual outcome; our condolences); and all with good friends who are really family.

The trip's defining moment for me, though, was all five of us in the car belting out the entirety of "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the top of our lungs as we barreled through the winding, rolling countryside at dusk on the way back from the wineries with my son driving, and me riding shotgun. Pure happiness all around.

I don't know how many more trips like this we'll have, but I'll happily take that seat whenever he'll have me. It's been a great journey so far.