Going away to college is a turning point in the lives of most people. It presents a dramatic change in how a family views itself and the future. This “going off to college’’ phenomenon has proven to be doubly true for my family and me.
My wife, Vanessa, and I have been preparing our daughter, Gabriela, for many years for the exciting challenges higher education has to offer. Our situation, though, is a bit different than most. Gabriela has spent her formative years in college settings, as I worked as a faculty member for 15 years and then as an administrator for 9 more. College life, if you will, had become second nature to us.
The comfort level we experienced throughout Gabriela’s life was tested last fall, as my daughter and I both began to search for the right college – but for vastly different reasons. Gabriela wanted a small, personal college that would help her realize her professional and personal dreams, while I was looking for a new professional challenge at a college or university.
In essence, this story is about two people going away to college to begin their freshman year. One is a student set to embark on her collegiate career away from home; the second, an established professional in search of an opportunity to be a president of a college or university.
The anxiety associated with our joint searches was unlike anything we had experienced before as a family – even though collectively we were intimately familiar with higher education.
Starting the Search
Our campus visits began with both large universities and small colleges. The first university we visited was friendly and welcoming, had a large variety of programs, and enrolled over 10,000 students. Our daughter immediately felt it was too big. I have been working for decades at smaller colleges, so it also appeared too big for me. Our first criterion now was confirmed: We both were looking for a smaller college or university.
We also toured several smaller campuses and noted how the residential component fit with the academic side. On one tour, the student tour guide skipped the library since “no one spends that much time there.” Another tour guide was unaware if there was a first-year student seminar. Some of the residences were more than a short walk to campus or required a trip through the woods. These campuses were dropped from the list.
Two new criteria were added: The academic program needed to be a source of pride and the campus needed to have a core that integrated the academic and residential programs. Again, we were on the same page with wanting a place that felt right and had the right fit.
Over the next few months, we made several more visits. One campus fell by the wayside based on curb appeal. Gabriela did not even want to get out of the car. We stopped, walked the campus, and found it to be very nice. Yet, Gabriela still focused on her first view. A few others faced similar fates, with desirable academic programs undermined by a poor drive-by impression.
Surprisingly, the opposite first impression also led to disappointment. Another campus seemingly had everything at first glance: new residences, free ice cream, a parklike setting, and happy students everywhere. However, it felt too much like an amusement park or a resort and was dropped from the list.
Another had magnificent grounds, but the students we chatted with along the sidewalk each mentioned that everyone left for the weekend. Several of the places that I had always thought would be an ideal fit for Gabriela were dropped from the list quickly. It became very apparent that my long-planned list of possibilities might not prevail over the newer entrants to the list.
We had started with about 25 names on our search list, and now we were narrowing the list following visits, both virtual and in person. About 10 colleges remained on the list as spring was about to arrive.
Whittling Down the List
Gabriela, Vanessa and I each looked toward different aspects of each school we toured. I looked at each place with an administrative eye, while Gabriela saw them from a student’s perspective, and Vanessa scoured the campus environment for clues about what it would really be like to live and learn there. While appearance did not sway me as much as it had with Gabriela, I now understand how important it can be.
College shopping is somewhat like house shopping in that everything is taken into account. Not only is the house viewed, but the area around the house also has to be both safe and exciting for college students. Inside the house, you will think about where your time will be spent, and what activities you will be doing. Living in a new house, though, also comes with living in a new area, and the same goes for living at a residential school.
We eliminated two top-tier institutions when the tour guides were unable to answer a simple question about how the academic programs incorporated community service and offered students the chance to reach out to others in the neighboring communities. Another criterion was set: The final college for Gabriela would need to have a strong sense of service to others. Vanessa is a registered nurse who has become a talented volunteer, and I focused on service learning when I was teaching, so it was reassuring to know that Gabriela felt just as strongly about wanting to help others.
We were both feeling a similar pull in that we were looking for the place where we could make a difference in the lives of others. When I had left home for college several decades ago, I only thought about the possibility of a great job once I graduated.
For Gabriela – and this time for me – the opportunity to be a part of something special would be most important. It was about this time, roughly halfway through our search, that Gabriela became much more certain that she wanted to major in elementary education, moving past the possibility of international business or foreign language as a primary emphasis.
Some of my possibilities became geographically too distant from the locations that remained on Gabriela’s list. My focus grew as I realized that one of these institutions might actually want me as president. My lifeline to the search consultants became far more active as I wanted to be sure that I could be the right match and that I would be able to back away if the fit was not right.
Little things along the way became more important as we neared the backstretch of our searches. One college presented us with a cake as we toured the dining hall. Suddenly, a woman ran out and greeted us and told us how she had baked the cake that morning. Check, they were in the finals.
Another college had two student tour guides. One walked with Gabriela, and the other walked with Vanessa and me. One guide talked more about student interests, and the other guide answered parent questions. Check, they were also in the finals.
At a third institution, we were enjoying an unescorted visit and were asked by a member of the maintenance staff if there was anything we needed. A short discussion ensued of how great a place this college was and what a joy it was to work there. The tone was set and another college was in the finals.
Meanwhile, my search for a presidency was running down a somewhat parallel path. I also was looking for a relatively small institution that featured quality academic programs and a strong residential component. Additionally, my ideal college or university needed to be committed to service to those most in need, whether it was in the local community or abroad. The same criteria helped me narrow my search.
After several previous experiences with airport interviews, I was comfortable in that phase and confident that I could obtain the campus interview. That’s where Gabriela’s path diverged from mine. She would eventually be admitted to each of the 17 colleges she applied to, as her “stretch” schools closely fit her vision.
For me, each institution would be a “stretch” school as the vetting process was far more thorough and challenging. I would not be a part of a first-year class full of energy and diverse backgrounds, nor could I plan to transfer after the first year if the match proved inadequate. I would be one person with strengths and weaknesses, knowing that even though the on-campus interview would last for several days, the ultimate decision was in reality a series of first impressions of the many who I would meet.
In the end, Gabriela chose the University of Mount Union, in Ohio. I had been a faculty member there through 2004, so she knew quite a bit about Mount Union even though we had moved away from the area when she was nine years old.
I knew she still talked to friends in the area; however, I had underestimated how reassuring having friends nearby can be. My search would end differently, as it was very unlikely that I would be chosen by a college where I had many or any contacts.
The ideals that made Mount Union the right choice for Gabriela ended up being much the same as the ones that led me to my new home.
I was selected as the 13th president of Misericordia University, in Pennsylvania – a lucky choice: Gabriela was a member of the high school graduating class of 2013, Vanessa’s birthday is on the 13th, my birthday is on the 13th, we were engaged on the 13th, and I’m one of 13 children.
My good fortune led me to a smaller institution with engaged faculty and students enjoying academic programs that lead them to a successful career and service to others. It is a place that offers an engaged learning community, from the Board of Trustees to the alumni and from the local community to international service locations.
As we started the process of going away to college, we were uncertain about where the future would lead. Looking back, the search process brought our family closer together as we realized that our instincts were similar. Gabriela taught us she is ready to go to college and that she will be just fine on her own even though we still are going to worry about her constantly.
As for me, I’ve confirmed that my decision to stick with higher education as a career has been a good one. Teaching and serving as an administrator have so many positives that the negatives seem smaller in the rear view mirror. And, most importantly, by looking forward to going to college it has prepared us for a future apart geographically, but closer as a family.
Vanessa and Gabriela Botzman contributed to this article.
Thomas J. Botzman became president of Misericordia University, in Dallas, Pa., on July 1, 2013.