As I’ve mentioned this summer and last fall, our oldest daughter always thought she wanted to go to a big college, but she ultimately found her ideal match at a small liberal arts college. As a strong high school and club volleyball player, but not a superstar, she decided in 10th grade that volleyball would not be part of her college decision. She recognized that the huge Division I schools she thought she wanted–the Marylands and Penn States–were not going to have a place for her on their varsity-level teams, so she would play intramural ball if it fit her schedule.
Packed for College
But then she fell in love with the small schools. And then a Division III coach reached out to her to see if she might be interested in playing. She was flattered….and interested….but in the end she chose another D III school for academics and campus climate–without having made any volleyball contact there. She told me she wanted to focus on getting used to college life and exploring her new world for a year, but that she would probably try to walk on as a sophomore. As a former high school and club coach–proudly, my daughter’s first coach–and as her fan through 100s of matches, I knew she would probably be able to make that happen–IF she still wanted to after a year….a big IF.
A few nights before she left for college, we had dinner together–just the two of us–and I went out of my way to remind her that she should only come back to playing at a competitive level down the road if she really missed it: not just the rush of a big point, but also the grind of a long practice on some random weekday in October. She was sure she wanted to play sophomore year, but I had my doubts….Anyway, time would tell.
High School Days
Fast forward to her 8th day on campus, a Saturday–I get a text:
(paraphrased) I thought you would want to know that I met a girl who’s on the volleyball team and I have messaged the coach.
Uh, what?! Then, Monday:
Could you send me the Youtube link to the highlights you put together from last year’s playoffs? Coach ____ wants to see them since I can’t try out until Wednesday.
Whoa….Now she’s casually mentioning the coach by name? And she has a tryout?
Wednesday’s text was exactly 2 words:
So here I am, genuinely surprised. And proud. And, most of all, happy that she really is making her own choices.
Our kids are 18, 15, and 11. Almost every year we spend a week at the beach, and most years my sister-in-law’s family is also there, including my two nieces—now 14 and 16. And for the last 18 years, there has been this green, vinyl drawstring bag from Benetton right there with us, a holdover from my wife’s days as a trendy teen in the ‘80s. The bag holds the toys: Shovels. Buckets. Rakes. Sand molds. Boats.
Though the contents have evolved over the years as new toys were added, as some disappeared into the surf or under the sand, and as others wore out and were thrown away, the Benetton bag has been a constant. But there’s one problem: Although no one has ever accused me of being a neat freak, sand that finds its way anywhere but actually on the beach is my proverbial kryptonite—an odd confession from a 30+ year volleyball player, I know. Perhaps I need help—or perhaps the sand just needs to stay where it belongs.
So for years I have more or less hated that Benetton bag. At the end of each day, someone has to carry the awkward bag full of toys that you can never get completely clean as you come off of a beach. Then there’s always the decision: Take the bag back to the room or leave it in the back of the van? Either way, sand is going to wind up somewhere it has no business being. If it gets on the floor of the condo, it will then find its way all over the unit. If it gets on the floor of the van, traces will still be showing up months later when I am looking for the ice scraper. It’s the Kobayashi Maru of beach vacations.
On the beach, it has been years since our now-18 year old has had any interest in playing in the sand. Castles and canals are all in her past. And this year, for the first time, our 15 year old and her two cousins spent all week playing in the waves and hanging out under the umbrella with books without ever touching the sand toys . Our son is now the only one. He once again spent hours each day on complex sand engineering and construction, drawing his grandfather, his parents, and temporary friends made on the beach into his projects whenever he could. I commented that if everyone worked as hard at their jobs as that boy works in the sand, we would do anything.
So on our last day at the beach, I wound up carrying the accursed green back to the van, trying not to get sand on my driving-home clothes. But on the way across the parking lot I wondered how many more summers the boy will use them. And I realized: I’m going to miss that green bag.
The Green Bag of Sand Toys
My daughter’s college search came down to a final four of 2 very large state universities and 2 small liberal arts colleges. Since before she started elementary school she had talked about going to a big school, and her top 2 seemed to be obvious winners: our state’s flagship university (of which I am a proud alum) and an even larger public school in a neighboring state (where she had played volleyball tournaments over 6 Memorial Day weekends).
But last summer we mixed in visits to a couple of smaller schools and she started re-envisioning college life. In the fall, several small liberal arts colleges found their way onto her application list. Her two smaller finalists included her mother’s alma mater (a small liberal arts college 3 hours from our home) and a liberal arts college over 6 hours away that we had never visited–but which she loved from her college guides and online research.
The Big Visit
Over spring break my daughter and I visited that final school for the first time. Walking around in some of the heaviest rain I have ever seen, she was clearly on the campus she wanted to call home. Halfway through our visit she asked, “Can we stop by the bookstore before it closes?” I slowly replied, “Does that mean…?” and she confirmed: “This is the one.” At the bookstore she bought a sweatshirt and a lanyard, and then we finished exploring campus.
So WHY did she pick the smallest school on her list? Here are a few advantages my daughter sees:
- Value for humanities. Tour after tour of big schools last summer focused on science and engineering. But liberal arts colleges talked about their writing programs, humanities majors, etc. And she sees herself as an English or government major.
- Drama. My daughter loved her high school theatre experience, but she does not intend to major in drama. When she asked reps at the bigger schools, they told her theater majors had priority in casting. Reps at the smaller schools openly encouraged non-majors to audition.
- Sense of belonging. My wife attended a school of around 2,000. My school was closer to 35,000. She goes to reunions. I do not. She can tell you the names of everyone who joined the class after freshman year or who left before graduation. Impossible at my alma mater. If my wife runs into someone wearing a shirt from her school, it becomes a conversation. When I run into someone with a shirt from my school, it is more likely that it represents basketball or football fandom rather than a shared history. My daughter has chosen the small school community.
- Safety. Obviously, there are dangers on any college campus. But the smaller schools tend to be in small towns or–in the case of my daughter’s new school–in rural settings. Her campus literally borders a river, and the nearest intersection with so much as a gas station is a 5 minute drive. The nearest small town with a few stores is a 15 minute drive (or shuttle).
So how do her mother and I feel about our daughter’s choice? Surprised. But also peacefully happy for her. It is clear that she found her match….in a place where she almost never looked.