As I sat in the quad at the University of Washington ("U-dub") eating my food truck breakfast sandwich (served all day), a man breezed by on rollerblades, alternately lifting one foot and then the other in order to (presumably) strengthen his one-legged rollerblading skills. On first glance, or maybe because he was cruising at top speed, I thought it might be an older grad student or a professor. But on his second lap I realized that the blond hair I had mistaken for white actually belonged to a much younger student, probably 19 or 20, who was clearly in the zone and no rookie to rollerblading through campus. Next to me, two girls worked on laptops, occasionally asking one another questions about light particles. As an English and Entrepreneurship grad, I wasn't completely attuned to the content of their deliberations, but I could follow enough to grasp that they were into it. Students were making the most of the sunny Seattle day, spread out around the grass: reading, eating, chatting, or working on laptops - and I'm sure also taking study breaks to check out Instagram and Snapchat. Others were posted at booths promoting their student societies or fundraising for various causes by selling baked goods to passersby.
Later that day, I found myself strolling through the campus of the University of Puget Sound, about a 45-minute drive from Seattle and located within a quaint residential area of Tacoma, WA. The ambiance was markedly different, even though some of my observations were the same: students spread throughout the beautiful grounds, tossing frisbees, working and socializing. It was quieter, students seemed to know more of the people around them, there were fewer food trucks and more bicycles. As we chatted, the Director of Admissions and I strolled past and through a mix of older and more modern buildings, through a wooded area with trees taller than the buildings, and he was greeted by several students and faculty members as they walked past. He described UPG in the words of a current student: smiles, trees, and ideas.
UW is home to over 50,000 students, and understandably forms a city within itself with a hospital,professional schools and more faculties than you can count. On the other hand, UPG has about 2500 undergrads, who spread their studies out amongst 37 available majors. Both schools have athletics (NCAA Division 1 & 3, respectively), green space on campus, access to the city of Seattle, and outdoors clubs to take advantage of nearby mountains, ocean, and parks. To be clear, big city doesn't always mean big school; I also spent time that day at Seattle U, another green, very urban campus in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Seattle within minutes (cycling or via public transit) of Pike Place Market and Lake Washington. Seattle U has 7400 students, offers 65 majors, and boasts the close-knit nature of their community with a focus on Social Justice.
Which campus did I like better? Where did I feel most at home, more comfortable? Which environment did I see myself thriving in? My answers don't really matter (although it would be fun to have you guess), because I wasn't there for myself. But by stepping onto these and many other campuses, I began to gain a sense of the differences and commonalities of these schools that are difficult to find out any other way. Sure, I could look in their view books or online to see which school offers what majors, get the fast facts on student population, extra curricular offerings, and exchange programs, but the feeling that a place gives you is not as easily discovered via the web or pages in a brochure. Knowing that you really fit in a place is a more in-depth exercise.
Campus visits are crucial. This advice, like most that I try to impart on our school community, comes with important caveats:
Do your best not to create a high-stress situation.
Parents, let your child take the lead, maybe even do a separate tour so that they can really see things through their own eyes. As much as you want to ask: "What do you think, did you like it, are you going to apply here?" - be patient, hold back a bit and see what they feel compelled to share on their own.
University or college, just like all things in life, may not always be right for everyone at the same time.
That being said, you can always explore and keep your options open. Listen to yourself throughout the process and explore all your options. Going on a tour or attending an open house day doesn't commit you to anything.
If accessing campuses is difficult due to financial constraints, come talk to me!
I've been fortunate to visit campuses across Canada and around the world. There are also virtual toursavailable on most university websites and you can connect with our alumni who have studied (or are studying) across the country and throughout the US.
Take advantage of the campuses we have right here in Halifax and Nova Scotia.
Whatever you seek, you can find it somewhere. Even if you are keen to move further afield after high school, getting a sense of the differences between a large comprehensive university (like Dalhousie) and a smaller, liberal arts school (like Mount Allison) can help you develop a set of criteria to match with what's out there. Also remember: small school doesn't necessarily mean small town and large school doesn't necessarily mean big city. Also, there are always middle-grounds!
This last piece of advice sometimes makes people chuckle, but I couldn't be more serious. If the process of choosing a post-secondary destination is not the least bit exciting for you (the student) then take a step back and re-evaluate your goals. Sure, there will almost always be some measure of trepidation about this huge change in your life, but there should also be seeds of interest and excitement. Moving on to post-secondary studies, wherever they may be and in whatever discipline(s), is a huge investment of your time, energy, and money.
Next Steps for Armbrae Students:
As part of our UPrep Program, Grade 11 students will be participating in a Future University Design workshop the week of May 14th. This exercise was originally created by my colleague Troy Hammond at Bayview Glen in Toronto, and has been adapted collaboratively over the past two years to provide students with an opportunity to get in the driver's seat of their post-secondary choices.
Oh, and be sure to try the breakfast sandwich (but not while rollerblading).