"You never get a second chance to make a first impression."
That thought passed through my mind the other day as my son and I visited the third college in two days, part our "Iowa Higher Education Rock and Roll Road Trip," or what the Iowa association of private colleges calls "Iowa Private College Week."
It wasn't our goal for Drew to pick his school during this mini-marathon through the heartland. It was more a chance for him to see different colleges, get a feel for what they offered, and start to think about what he wanted from a college.
It was a lesson in first impressions.
From the perky undergrads who met us in the parking lot at one institution, to the magazine custom-made with Drew's picture on the cover at another, these schools were rolling out the red carpet. Some, I must say, were more successful than others. Drew particularly liked the college president who told the visiting students the proper response to family and friends asking the "What are you majoring in?" question is "I am totally clueless." His point was that as high school seniors, it was ok to be unsure. A liberal arts college is to be, he said, a place to discover what we enjoy and where we can contribute. It's a place to prepare for our life, not just our job.
Shiny new buildings, filled with amenities? We saw those.
Old brick buildings, lending gravitas to the scene? We saw those too.
We also saw tiny freshmen dorm rooms, dining halls featuring a huge array of offerings which I can guarantee get old after less than a semester, and college tuition information sheets that read a bit like the rundown of the U.S. deficit.
But, at the end of our trip, it all came down to how places felt. I had, unbelievably, kept my opinions to myself during the trip. I must say I smiled when one institution was ruled out by Drew right away. "It just didn't feel right," he said. I had felt that too, a sudden certainty that my son wouldn't be comfortable within its walls.
Those first impressions catch you every time.
It's amazing how easy it is to do back to school shopping for a senior-to-be.
As I stood in the "back to school" aisle at a store (actually one of three such aisles) surrounded by mothers clutching school supply lists and children perusing the choices of character folders, I was taken back a decade. I was the one with the list, and the son deciding between Sponge Bob and dinosaur covers for his notebook.
Now I grabbed some college-ruled paper, a couple of notebooks and binders and dozens of pencils. Don't ask me what he does with his pencils, but my kid can run through more pencils in a school year than a grade-schooler. Somewhere lies the abandoned pencil graveyard where thousands of discarded Buenger pencils sit waiting for my son to remember that he set one down and walked away.
My back to school shopping was done in 30 seconds.
So, why did part of me long for the lists, and the character lunch boxes, and the nap mats?