Monday, July 13, 2015

The Chronicles of a Chicago Chaperone

This is the story of our trek to St. Louis, then Chicago, and the campus site visits that proceeded.

With heavy eyelids and a feigned alertness due to a premature cup of caffeine at 2AM in the morning, I awaited our shuttle at El Cerrito High School amongst anxious parents and sleepy high school students.  A shuttle ride later, one flight, a stop in Arizona, and a second flight to St. Louis, we finally boarded a taxi van and found ourselves in a calm carbide to the Knight Conference Center on the Washington University (WashU) campus.   The windshield wipers swept away the Missouri sky’s tears as we turned into the drop-off half-circle in front of our hotel.

Just arrived and waiting for my hotel room to be ready, I walked to the famous Del Mar Loop as the students rested and checked out the complimentary snack pantry.  My stroll confirmed that the homes in St. Louis near the WashU campus are gorgeous – stately with porches, long driveways, green manicured lawns, columns, white trim, and shade-bearing trees.   I ate at the Mission Taco Joint at the end of the Del Mar Loop and headed back just as a downpour started to dampen my raincoat.

I readied myself for the evening’s WashU dinner, organized by Charles Ramsey, Jenny Alessi, and myself.  The students and I arrived via cab at the lovely French-inspired Atlas Restaurant.  Early, the students prepared meaningful questions for our distinguished guests – Jenny Alessi  (Alumna and Admissions’ Officer for East Bay), Chrystal Okanta (Admissions’ Officer for East Bay), and students Reid Petty, Dana Robertson, and Michelle Zhang.  Our guests arrived, bringing congenial, warm, and energetic vibes.  Some notable conversations ensued, including discussions about California’s drought, which contrasted greatly to St. Louis’ ongoing rain during our stay.  The WashU students assured everyone that the campus is environmentally friendly and concerned about sustainability.  I also appreciated the WashU efforts and numerous programs devoted to welcoming incoming freshman students, which likely accounts for their high retention rate of first-year students.   At Hercules High School, we are trying something similar, but on the high school level, called Link Crew.  I hope Link Crew creates an inclusive environment for our freshman that helps them continue to make positive relationships with the classes following them.

The following day, we toured the campus and had our admissions session.  I loved how the WashU admissions office had canned water – a nod to the sustainability efforts we talked about at dinner, with aluminum recycling being arguably the most efficient type of recycling over plastic bottles.   During the tour, I learned a few prominent pieces about WashU – they have a lot of funding to offer students who want to throw campus-wide events or take on campus-related projects – grants of up to $3000!  Their dorm facilities are awesome and highly ranked on national polls due to the spacious rooms, individual climatisation systems, and Tempurpedic mattresses.  They even have dry-cleaning services for students.   Here are some pictures of the tour – notice the welcome notes and sustainability messages:

Sample dorm room with Tempurpedic mattresses

At the admissions session, I learned a few key details about WashU.  First, they have a stellar study abroad program selection.  Dana Robertson talked about her friend who studied abroad in Senegal and did research related to women’s fashion.  How fabulous would that be?  Second, they offer many merit-based scholarships related to degree-programs and University scholarships in addition to need-based scholarships.  Finally, they are known for their program of Architecture.

Our next stop was the airport to head to Chicago, but alas, our flight was delayed.  Thus, we asked our willing cab driver, Dennis, to drive us by the Gateway Arch on our way to the airport.  Dennis was kind-hearted and accommodating.  He even gave us a verbal tour of the Gateway Arch and its surrounding area.  I learned that the Gateway Arch was called so, because the Mississippi River below it was literally a gateway to St. Louis for travelers coming in by way of the Mississippi to start their lives.  We learned that the area surrounding the Arch is developing – they are building a central area to encourage citizens and tourists to gather there and enjoy the downtown part of St. Louis.  We also drove by the St. Louis Old Courthouse where the poignant Dred-Scott case was debated and then declared, hastening the beginning of the Civil War.   I wish we had more time to explore the history in St. Louis.  The older I become, the more I enjoy experiencing the history of the United States.

St. Louis Old Courthouse of the Dred-Scott decision 

After our ever-growing delay at St. Louis airport, we finally boarded our plane and arrived through the fog to our new city, Chicago.  As we drove into the Magnificent Mile, I thought wow, this might really be my city.  The students and I salivated at the premier shopping that surrounded us on North Michigan Avenue – the giant Salvatore Ferragamo made me think of the Champs-Elysees, whereas a New Yorker would find it similar to a Saks Fifth Avenue with the gigantic Zara and Apple stores.  We arrived at the high-end Omni Hotel.  I’m telling you, this place is luxury.  I walked into my hotel room.  There was a gentle green glow from the television screen, where zen-like music could be heard amongst serene flower images.  I later learned this detail is part of the hotel’s “turn down” service, the first I’ve ever experienced.   I threw my hecka heavy backpack on the floor, grateful to not be lugging it about anymore with the major travel being over. (Earlier, I had told the students that I felt like I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with a backpack so large and stuffed.  Jae-an laughed, he understood the PCT reference. )

The students and I met back in the lobby for a super-late, but needed dinner.  We were spoiled to have a well-reviewed, well-loved tapas place open late enough for us and within walking distance – its name was the Purple Pig.  We entered and the ambience was lively, dark, and reminiscent of a late, warm night in Spain after siesta.  The music was soulful and appropriate for the hour, spanning lesser-known artists like the New Radicals all the way to Justin Timberlake.  Our waiter recommended ordering two plates per person, so we did.  Blood sausage, octopus, purple cauliflower, mussels, Panini, tzaziki sauce, chicken kebabs, panicotta, and fried pork chips were all part of our meal.  And everything got eaten.

The next morning, we prepared for Northwestern by having a delicious breakfast at the 676 Restaurant and Bar at our hotel, where everything is locally-sourced, organic, and fresh.  I ate a bagel and lox plate, the taste of fresh-squeezed lemon over salmon contrasting with the salty capers and cream cheese.

We took the Red Line subway to Northwestern, getting to pass views of Chicago, such as the Cubs’ stadium, on our way there.   When we arrived to the Northwestern campus, Lake Michigan immediately beckoned us:

See, Don? We do blog at the airport!

Aboard the Red-Line

Northwestern has a sailing complex, and as we walked past it, we saw a summer kids’ program with children paddle boarding, kayaking, and wind-sailing.  I was in awe and vowed that I would try at least one of these water activities on Lake Michigan while in Chicago.

I have declared Northwestern my new campus crush – the first impression was gorgeous (see above), and the more I got to know it through the admissions session and tour, the more I fell in love.  Northwestern, I learned, has an excellent performance arts and communications’ program, with notable alumni such as Seth Meyers, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and Ana Gasteyer.  I’m slightly obsessed with Saturday Night Live and I grew up watching Seinfeld, so of course these names were important to me.   I thought it was amazing that Northwestern had given over a hundred million dollars in grants, not loans, in the previous years to students needing it.
Our tour guide, Ehama, said something that resonated with me.  She said that she appreciates how everyone on the campus always looks like they have “somewhere to go.”  She explained that when you have people around you that are driven and pursuing their dreams, it encourages you to do the same.  I thought that felt so true and genuine.  Her words made me think of that poem by Marianne Williamson, Our Deepest Fear: "And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same."

Our dinner that night was a treat, as we met up with Northwestern Admissions Directors Sue Kwan and Robert Ellis, student Monte Nelson, and alum Andrew Choi and Viral Patel in front of Gibson’s Steakhouse.  This place was top of the line, and I felt like we were dining among movie stars.  The moment you walk in there is a piano bar to your right with socialites having cocktails.  Continue on in and you have the main dining room with a jovial nighttime ambiance.  Our host, Mo, gave us the rundown on the huge cuts of meat that we would be ordering.  Mo was playing a hilarious character, with a mustache that curled up slightly, a shiny bald head, and a voice that seemed to be a cross between Cajun fisherman and pirate, if that’s possible.  He thoroughly added to our experience.  I was set on the Australian lobster tail, but after everyone had ordered steak, and I realized that we were in a steakhouse, I changed my mind at the very last moment and went for the enormous Chicago-cut steak.  Brandon had ordered the lobster tail, and when the server brought it out, I was sure I had made a mistake not ordering it.  Alas, I had not made a mistake, as my steak was perfectly medium rare and seasoned, and was slurped up amongst garlic mashed potatoes and creamed spinach.   The dinner with these outstanding people furthered my crush on Northwestern University.  Robert, to my left, went there for undergrad and now works in admissions there.  We had a lot to talk about since we both are working with students in our careers.  Sue was an outstanding resource for the students – you can tell that she is really devoted to her work in helping students find their path, be it with Northwestern or somewhere else.  To my right, I had Viral and Aisha, and I could tell that Aisha was really receiving a meaningful account of Northwestern through her conversation with Viral.

The next day, we set out for Notre Dame, and what an interesting experience it was.  Our Greyhound bus dropped us off in front of South Bend station, and I almost felt nervous that we were in the wrong place, because all that I could see surrounding us for miles were grass fields, some trees, and a few country-looking homes.  I worried a little – shouldn’t we see signs of the campus?  But once we boarded a cab and were dropped off at the main circle, it was clear we were at the famous Notre Dame University, renowned for its size and beauty. 

Immediately, you see the Catholic influence.  There are cathedrals and basilicas everywhere.  The main building has a gold-plated dome with an idol atop of it.  Secondly, you are struck by its history.  Notre Dame is one of the oldest universities in the United States.  It did not start admitting women until the 1970s.  The school is known for its role in the movie Rudy, and many people are familiar with the line, “I was born ready.”  The Main Building has walls filled with Laetare Medals recipients, the highest honor bestowed upon a person at Notre Dame. 

We learned that Father Ted (short for Theodore), had just passed away this past spring, and the campus community was still mourning his loss.  You could tell in our tour guide’s voice that he still wasn’t over the death of Father Ted.  Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement.  We saw a picture of him standing in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.  It was also under Father Ted that the University of Notre Dame began to admit women, whereas before it was only an all-male school.   As a woman myself, I think this is important to note.  It is incredible that in my parents’ lifetime, women did not have the same access as men to education in the nation’s top universities.

The admissions session was informative.  Our speaker, Shannon Kelly, was one of the most dynamic and engaging speakers I have seen in an admissions session.  She showed a very cinematic Notre Dame video that highlighted all of the university’s programs and accomplishments.   I thought the movie was very well-done, especially since certain parts gave me chills as I remembered that the prospective students in the room were all about to embark on the most formative journey of their lives:  college!  The movie made me wonder why the other schools visited hadn’t shown movies.  Sometimes, I think video clips can project the feel of campus life and academic programs to viewers better than a talking head.
Brandon shaking Father Ted's hand
Touchdown Jesus

This campus grotto was modeled after a famous one in France. 

The dining common experience at Notre Dame
Something interesting we learned on the tour was that Notre Dame does random selection for roommates – you are not allowed to request or choose your own roommate.  I am strongly in favor of a process like this, because I think it encourages a community where everyone feels acknowledged and included, and also allows people to learn to work with others they would not normally have worked with.  I use random partner selection in my own classroom often.

We also learned that Notre Dame does not have a Greek system, but instead your dorm becomes your “house” with its own traditions, symbols, and slogans.  My Greek experience at UC Berkeley was unforgettable, so I don’t know how I would feel about there not being a Greek system.  The dorms are also single-sex at Notre Dame, which I am not in favor of.  I lived in an all-girls dorm my freshman year at Cal, and I regret not choosing to live in a coed dorm.  I think single-sex living makes it a lot more difficult to meet and make friends with people of the opposite sex.  Tamika brought up a good point, also – what about people who don’t necessarily feel like they identify with any specific gender or are transgender?  Doesn’t this single-sex dorm rule put pressure on people to adopt an identity that they may not feel they completely identify with?

Something I loved about Notre Dame was its exciting football program and all the traditions surrounding it.  I think the “Touchdown Jesus” mosaic was my favorite moment of the tour.  Having been a student at Cal during its amazing run with Coach Jeff Tedford and Aaron Rogers, I know how very much a strong football program can positively impact the spirit of a college university.

The following day was move-in day for the students at UChicago.  We had a final breakfast before loading a taxi van and driving to the campus.  I could tell the students were nervous during breakfast and during our ride over, because they were eating very little and were quiet on the ride over.  I could only imagine what they were thinking about – who their roommates would be, what their dorms would be like, if their classes would be hard, if everything would be okay.   Although I couldn’t answer these questions for them, I was just happy that they were going through this nerve-wracking experience together, and if things didn’t work out in some aspect, at least they had each other to fall back on.

As we arrived on campus, the students checked in and I waited for them in the lobby of the Grossman-Granville Commons with their luggage.  Each one came back out smiling with an informational packet and some SWAG (Stuff We All Get) – a UChicago drawstring backpack, lanyard, ID card, and even a water bottle.  I am jealous of your guys’ SWAG!   I could sense their growing excitement as we boarded the elevator up to their rooms.  Tamika and Brandon are on the same floor, and Jae-and and Aisha are on the same floor.  This is great that they are so close to one another!  We cannot forget to mention that there is a common living room on the bottom floor, complete with a foosball table and a kiddie slide in the middle grass quad.

Jae-an and Aisha outside of Jae-an's new dorm room

After the students found their rooms – only Tamika and Jae-an’s roommates had arrived by that time - we went ‘hoodie’ shopping.  I think it’s wonderful that the Ivy League Connection pays for a sweatshirt from the students’  university of study so that the students can represent their school and increase the college-going culture when they get back to West Contra Costa Unified School District. I think this picture should be put on UChicago’s website.  These four students rock!  Parents, you are doing a great job with these kids:

As we walked to the UChicago orientation, I knew the ‘good-byes for now’ were nearing.  I watched the students settle into their seats in the lecture hall, then gave each an encouraging hug.  I know they are going to do great!  I will be checking in with them in person on Thursday, and we will hopefully be doing cohort excursions on Friday and Sunday to some of their “Top Ten Must-See” places in Chicago.  I’ll check in with you all soon.

Chicago cohort, this is where I leave you...

1 comment:

  1. Alana,

    Thank you so much for helping to guide these students on an experience of a life time!