This September my baby girl Isoke enters the eleventh grade. This isn’t about my utter shock at the light speed growth of baby girls, though it could be. Instead I’d like to share the beginning of what is both the intimidating and exciting journey on which we’ve embarked: we are considering which colleges we will be applying to.
We began this process early, mostly because I’m half-Tiger mom and partly because her PSATs were impressive enough to solicit about three dozen inqueries from a wide range of universities and colleges. It’s an interesting time to be considering college, both as a parent and a student. Exploitative student loans are headline news. The kind of liberal arts education American children have drifted towards for the past half-century is being mocked by the likes of Bill Maher, who dryly drops jokes about emerging nations and multinational corporations who are seeking engineers, not German philosophy majors who minor in French New Wave cinema. Serious thinkers are reimagining the academy in ways that questions its very core.
Still, college is on the menu for my daughter. I attended NYU film school as an undergraduate and was taking grad courses there when I became pregnant with her. When my daughter began first grade, my mother graduated from nursing school. When my daughter entered middle school my niece, a gentle but strong role model, began freshman year at Michigan State. When Isoke entered high school, my oldest niece finished her fifth year of college (after a transfer or two) and graduated. I knew I wanted to make films when I was completing college applications, but I didn’t have any support as I researched my options. My mother was an alcoholic, in and out of rehab during my eleventh grade year. I came up with my post-high school plan by myself. My daughter may sometimes wish that were her story; she had to tell me early in the process, when I was being pushy about her considering Spelman, that this was her decision. I respect that. Still, I know her. I know that she’s a true introvert, shy at first, and fiercely independent.
The September of her sophomore year, I suggested visits to highly respected small colleges where I imagined my daughter might be happy. Oberlin is only a two-hour drive from our home in Detroit. Our friend, songwriter and singer Kimya Dawson was performing her new album in Oberlin’s student center and wanted to visit us before driving to Ohio. I offered Kimya a ride, scheduled a tour for Isoke and we headed to the famously liberal elite college just outside Cleveland. I stayed in the admissions office admiring some of Toni Morrison’s original papers on display while my daughter went on a small student-lead lap around campus. The visit happened to be the day following Troy Davis's execution in Georgia and Oberlin students had organized a sunset, candlelight silent circle in honor of him in the middle of campus. Kimya, Isoke and I joined the well-attended, diverse vigil and felt comforted by their gathering.
The student center where Kimya performed was to the brim with what looked like happy misfits. 21st-century hippies in leotards joined boys who looked allergic to sports and fraternities and sang along to Kimya’s folk punk songs. At the end of her show she had the entire audience wrap themselves into her in a giant hug with Isoke at the center. When we drove home the next day it seemed Isoke had made up her mind about attending Oberlin, the first school we visited.
Two months later, I took Isoke along on a speaking engagement I had in Seattle. I got the person booking me to fly me into Portland where I’d stay with my girlfriend and her family so that Isoke could visit Reed College. Reed is famous for its dropouts, like Steve Jobs, and encourages a student-governed campus that seems to foster truly independent learning. Because we’d had proper lead-time, I’d arranged for Isoke to actually sit in and survey a class. She was duly impressed that the students didn’t self-dismiss when a last minute announcement was made about their teacher’s absence. She stayed with the class as they reviewed and vigorously discussed and debated their assignment without their teacher. The campus was beautiful and green with a running stream, as one would expect in Oregon. I noticed that the few Black girls on campus had either short natural hair or locks, better to deal with the more than 150 rainy days. Our campus tour guide was a cool Black nerd with whom my daughter completely identified. When he showed her a dorm that had been claimed by gamers inclined to LARPing (Live Action Role Playing), she lit up.
During her spring break, I drove she and her lifelong bestie to Connecticut where we visited Yale in the morning and Wesleyan in the afternoon. They didn’t actually attend classes at either, but they both seemed more impressed with Wesleyan’s smaller, more remote campus than with Yale, which sits in downtown New Haven.
After five years of attending a camp for the “gifted” at Vassar College, Isoke attended another camp this summer, mostly because of their intensive SAT prep option. We’ll be spending every school holiday her junior year visiting as many campuses as we can afford. Isoke’s creating a dream list of possible schools and because I’ve allowed her so much latitude in deciding where to tour, Spelman’s made her short list. Much of the decision process will be financial. I consider it my duty to guide her towards a college or university where she’ll have the best chance of graduating debt free. At the same time, I’d like her to feel free to imagine her undergraduate experience in the widest, most personal possible ways. I’ll be asking her to take notes as we continue to visit campuses, remembering not only the highlights the guides are trained to share, but the way each campus makes her feel too. This is after all, one of the most important experiences of her life.
Have your children began the process of checking out colleges? How has your family managed this important step? For students and recent grads, how did your parents support or influence your college choices?