A search for the right college stirs up memories

By Tom Allon

The new buildings on campus are modern monstrosities. The path to the rocks in the gorge where we used to swim is roped off for safety reasons.

Three decades after my four-year jaunt in a place called Ithaca, it is now time to tour the campus with my youngest child and I do so with bittersweet feelings.

Cornell University in upstate New York is a curious mix of the American Dream—a large university founded in the 18th century as both a private and land-grant collection of colleges.

On its polyglot campus, with jaw-dropping views of steep gorges and serene waterfalls, you can find the son of an Ohio farmer, the scion of a Swiss hotel chain, an aspiring union activist or a preppie economics major all sitting side by side on the Arts Quad. With seven different colleges for varied academic or career interests, Cornell is truly a melting pot of cultures and a hothouse of intellectual challenges.

But being situated in a quiet corner of central New York, it is subject to the whims of the climate gods. The old joke is that Ithaca has two seasons: winter and July Fourth.

As I write this, on the day of our national independence, there is no more beautiful place in the Northeast than Ithaca in the summer. The winding hiking trails, the breathtaking views in the national parks, the vistas from the top of the rolling hills, these all make me yearn to dwell in a place like this.

But today is not about me or my nostalgia for the past. It is about my intellectually curious and idealistic daughter, who is searching for the right fit for her upcoming four-year journey. An avid hiker and lover of nature, she was smitten by the beauty of Southern California and the laid back culture she recently witnessed at Berkeley.

The schools of the South we toured—University of Virginia and William & Mary— were probably a step too far into an unfamiliar culture for her after growing up in Manhattan (and Queens and now Brooklyn). Wesleyan and Yale in Connecticut were in the right range, so they will probably stay on the list, as will Brown in Providence, the site of a recent one-week writing program.

Looking for the right college these days is a fraught adventure for both parent and child. In my day, Mom and Dad were mostly oblivious, allowing me to apply wherever I wanted. I didn’t really tour schools until that few week period between acceptance and decision time. It was a mad dash then to figure out quickly where I might fit in best.

I am not one of those parents who really want and need one of their children to attend their alma mater. So far, the two older ones have not and so this time around is the last chance.

How to balance one’s desire to present your school in a positive light without seeming pushy?

This is the task at hand now and it will not be easy.

Returning to Ithaca after more than three decades stirs up many emotions and memories. But it’s really my daughter’s new memory-making that lies ahead and I must allow that to play itself out with me as a mere spectator.

Can’t wait to see how this chapter begins. For her, the best is yet to come.

Tom Allon, the president of City & State, first became interested in a career in journalism as an editor of The Cornell Daily Sun, which now appears in print only three days a week.

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