Summer is most definitely here… How can I tell? Well, besides the obvious: The weather, children finishing classes, and graduation season there are some not so obvious signs that things are about to change drastically. For me, this summer is a time that I have dreaded for quite a while. Why? Having been born and raised in Mexico City I lived in my parent’s house until I got married. Trust me, that doesn’t mean that I was unusual, on the contrary, it meant that I was exactly the same as the rest of my peers.
One of the most difficult things about adapting to life in America is understanding that at some point your children will leave the home where they grew up. Our oldest is leaving! I know, for so many people this is not only a fact of life but a welcome change. For us it has been hard and one of the things that marked this year as rather unusual was “The College Search.” When one was raised in a different context, let alone a different culture, there is no smooth transition, no minute nuances to get used to. It is a shock!
For the most part, growing up outside the United States my choices and my wife’s choices in choosing a college were very simple; there were for the most part four or five choices, all within the same city all within driving distance from our parents’ home. I must say that all of those choices were adequate and the college I attended prepared me extremely well to deal with the spiritual and intellectual challenges that I encountered at The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Choosing a college for our son was not that simple, beyond the financial implications, there were so many things that put so much pressure on him that I decided to write about how it happened in true and sincere hope that I can help someone going through exactly the same situation. Here are my top five pieces of advise for anyone trying to navigate the college search. Yes, this comes from an extremely Jewish perspective and yes it comes as seen through the glasses of a child that grew up in USY and Camp Ramah and is an absolute product of The Conservative movement and the best it has to offer.
1. Making a case for the gap year!
If you can do it, if your child is interested send him/her to a real good gap year program in Israel!
When we first started to talk about our son attending NATIV (The USY gap year program in Israel), I was elated! The fact that he wanted to participate actively in exploring his Judaism in the most important setting was really music to my ears. Looking at my own life I can tell you; I started out thinking I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. While in Israel for a year after High School I decided I wanted to be a journalist and of course while in journalism school I decided I really wanted to be a Rabbi. I am not saying that all teens change their mind. I am just saying that it is easier to take a breather after fourteen years of uninterrupted schooling to think for a second about what we want from life…At least at that moment.
When our son applied to Purdue University and was accepted we were saddened to hear they did not allow students to defer admission. We wrote a letter to The President of The University explaining what NATIV is, we took the time to share with him how our son would be a better student once he came back from a year in Israel. He was granted a full deferral by The President of The University, which is, from what I hear, something not common at Purdue.
There seems to be a notion out there that if our children participate in a gap year program they will be wasting a year of their lives. I believe it is absolutely the opposite! Breathing room, legroom and space to grow should not be under rated!
2. Extreme preparation complicates things.
I was sitting at the waiting area of a gate at an airport last summer when I ran into a friend that I had not seen in a while. When she asked me how things were with our children I immediately shared my anxiety about the college search. “Should I hire a professional to narrow down the choices? Should I have had him working with someone to alert him to the right choices based on his personality?” My friend took a look at my pale face and wisely said: “Go on line, there are websites where you can input what is important in the choices and you will be given in less than ten seconds all the results you need, free of charge and completely unbiased!”
I think that not having a real idea about how daunting the process of searching for a college really is helped us tremendously. We took it very easy. Our son applied to about ten colleges and got into nine of them. In the end he narrowed it down to three, all good colleges, all ranked in the top 20 in The United States. The only pressure we put on him was that if he was not admitted to a college he would not be allowed to participate in NATIV, the gap year program.
I remember going around like a chicken without a head asking people for advice when I realized that our son had not taken any special SAT courses or studied more than average for the test. The dean of List College at The Jewish Theological Seminary said something to me that I took to heart and I believe was also terrific advice; “You don’t want him to get into a college where he will struggle tremendously to keep afloat!” SAT tests are just scores. If you prepare hard enough and make cracking the system your life mission you can do it, however, that will not be a guaranteed measure of future success.
3. It is not what you want — listen to your children.
Every Jewish parent wants their child to go to Princeton or Harvard or Yale. Now that we got that out of the way let me tell you; Ivy Leagues are not for everyone! Trying to desperately get into one and not succeeding serves absolutely no purpose other than telling our children they are “not good enough,” and I may add, good enough for what? Our son wants to become a doctor in veterinary medicine. He applied to mostly public universities with strong agricultural programs. He is very good with science, not with liberal arts and we didn’t need an expert to tell us that, we have known that for a very long time.
One of the most amazing parts of this process for me was letting him be in the driver’s seat, yes, we paid for all the applications but he wrote every single one of the essays and filled out every one of the endless questionnaires. He owned the process, not me or my wife. It was also clear from the beginning that we wanted him to remain in State. As it turns out, the State in which we live did not have many of the things that he was looking for in a college and so the out of State search began. One more interesting fact: By all means The California University System is one of the best in our country and if you are seriously considering becoming a Veterinarian, applying to UC Davis is a must! Our son wouldn’t do it. His reasoning: He did not want to apply to any University that actively hosts an Israel apartheid week or something of that sort. There was no talking to him about it and I understand how he feels about Israel. So, even though he should have applied there we understood why he wouldn’t do it we may not applaud his decision but we are extremely proud of it.
4. Don’t underestimate the impact of a good Hillel!
Another one of those interesting aspects of going to college in America is what to do about who you are! By that I mean, what does it mean to be Jewish in a University where there are about twenty or thirty thousand students and the majority are definitely not Jewish? For me that was never a problem… I went to school miles away from the congregation I grew up in, miles away from the largest Jewish Community Center in the world. What do you do when you have been to Israel countless times as a child, when you spent a semester of your junior year in High School studying in Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (Camp Ramah’s High School program in Jerusalem)? You can’t just pretend that you can exist without a Jewish Community.
I really never fully understood just how important Hillel is! I knew it was important but only after we visited the Hillel facilities at the colleges we visited, only after I met really wonderful and engaging directors did I understand what Hillel was going to do for my son. There is no substitute for the smile, the encouraging advice, the warmth and sense of home that we felt when we walked together through the doors of The Hillel at Purdue (Hillel Director Philip Schlossberg), at University of Illinois (Hillel Director Erez Cohen) and at Cal State Chico (Hillel Director Kristy Bergson, which was one of the first places we visited.) To a certain extent these visits have made me realize how important it is that we make the Hillel in our own community thrive. I never understood the tremendous amount of effort our Federation Director placed in making our Hillel happen and I now really get it! Hillel can make all the difference in the world.
I also very much appreciated how very in tune these directors were with the gap year program our son is going on. Did I mention how attentive they were to his needs as an individual, assuring him that there would be a space for him as a Conservative Jew, that he needed not to “become” Orthodox or Reform to be able to pray or to see the Jewish world as he is accustomed to seeing it. I never realized how much work, how much emotional investment the Hillel professionals put into helping our children not feel alone! The enormity and overwhelming spaces that some of these campuses occupy is enough to make you feel like a stranger and feeling at home in the midst of your people can go a long way!
5. You can’t prepare for everything!
People who know me will tell you how much I enjoy traveling. What you would never guess is that I am petrified of flying! I really had problems getting on planes, to the point that I turned back right before boarding, went back to the parking lot and drove back home. All of that stopped when I realized that the problem was that I like to be in control of things, nothing short of piloting that plane myself was going to calm me down. I also realized that becoming a pilot was impossible for me at this point. I slowly but surely began to “trust” pilots because I understood that it was better for them than for me to fly the plane! It all comes down to control and believe it or not you do not have ultimate control over the decision of where your children will go to college! I have a friend who constantly reminds me that even if the perfect storm comes together to deal a devastating blow to whatever it is you had in mind for your child or better still, if the wrong choice is made and ultimately the college that was chosen was not the best choice… You can always transfer almost anywhere you want! In looking at the process we experienced this year from the outside in I still don’t understand why so much pressure is put on our children. Navigating the transition from the teenage years to adulthood is shocking enough, try to do that while juggling a decision that has the potential of altering your future in very unclear ways.
There are, however, some things that we can actually control and we may want to seize while we have the opportunity to do so. Remind yourself and your children of how much you love them. Remind them that no matter where they attend college or if they attend at all you still will love them as much as you always have. Remember how hard this time was for you in your own life and multiply it by five. That is how much more difficult it is to be a perspective college freshman these days.