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Life Arts    H3'ed 6/25/09

The mostly good news about the last one heading for college

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Joan Brunwasser
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My son Michael will be attending University of Maryland in the fall. I just got back from his college orientation. It is an exciting but bittersweet time for me. When he leaves at the end of the summer, Rafi and I will officially become empty nesters and another chapter of our lives will begin.  

 This is my third orientation. (I already have two college graduates under my belt.) Admittedly, the other two orientations were a while ago; still, this was the best of the bunch.  The staff was well-prepared, anticipating our every question and concern. They accomplished the impossible: they took a l600-acre campus with over 25,000 undergraduates and magically transformed it into a warm, welcoming environment. 

For two days, parents and students engaged in parallel sessions with similar content.  The university places the ultimate responsibility for their education directly in the hands of the students. This begins before they even step foot on campus.  For instance, all correspondence is strictly between student and university. Michael decided on his class schedule without any parental input whatsoever.  And because of the passage of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in 1974, Michael will actually have to sign a waiver to allow his parents to see his grades or financial records.  Legally as well as theoretically, he could refuse us that information. I heard about one set of parents who showed up for their son’s graduation only to learn that he had dropped out long ago. They had been writing tuition checks to him instead of the university; he had happily cashed them and then skipped town.  While that is obviously an extreme case, it is a bit unsettling to contemplate being so effectively shut out of critical areas of my son’s college life.

A major theme at orientation was the importance of keeping those lines of communication open. No matter how trying things get. Barbara Goldberg, of the university’s counseling center, said, semi-humorously:  “The more annoying you are, the easier it will be for your child to leave home.”  I’m doing great in that department.  And apparently,  I’m not the only parent to make that claim.  

There are so many tools and resources available for today’s college student and Maryland offers them by the fistful. A few examples: An emergency service which text messages students’ cell phones notification of extreme weather or other potential danger. The university has a police force of 100; they are constantly on patrol. Every 300 feet, there is an emergency call box - many of them have roving cameras. Response time to anyplace on campus is an impressive ninety seconds.   

Beyond student safety, there is a plethora of services to help our kids maximize what the college has to offer.  There are 330 student clubs and organizations, a fabulous sports facility, over 100 possible majors, all taking place in a gorgeous setting of stately white-pillared, red brick buildings. I have often thought that I’d love to have the opportunities my kids have; my experience this week at the U of M was no different. There was so much to see, learn, and do; it was positively intoxicating.  

I remember enrolling at UCLA, in the late 60s. No orientation, no advisor. I chose classes totally at random. My mother had accompanied me from Chicago, helping me to move in.  The night before registration, we pored over the course catalogue, absolutely clueless.  In those days, you “ran for classes.” This involved getting up at the crack of dawn and standing in line outside the class you wanted to take. Since you couldn’t be more than one place at a time,  you took your chances. My mother had her list,  I had mine.  We met up afterwards, she having done far better than I.  That was how  my class schedule was determined. I was exhausted and bummed out before I ever began.  It never got better. I ended up transferring a year later to Occidental College. One of my seminars there took place in the living room of my professor’s home. We munched on his mother’s home-baked cookies as we talked.  Just a few miles away from UCLA, Oxy’s small and inviting campus could have been on a different planet.

While I doubt that Mick will ever enjoy cookies baked by his prof’s mother, there is also little chance that he will feel anonymous, neglected, or alienated. At orientation (his session hosting a fraction of the 4,000 incoming freshmen), he met numerous kids who knew kids he knew.  Instantly, he felt at home. He’s returned very enthused, courses chosen with the help of his academic advisor, his schedule set.  While at orientation, I requested help regarding his moving date and got a positive response within a day.

This university, despite its size, strives to listen to its students. I heard two stories that seem emblematic.  The dramatic mall in the center of campus has a number of asymmetrical paths running through it. When the mall was first built, it had no sidewalks at all. The sloping lawn was vast, green, and pristine.  Over time, students found the best routes from place to place for themselves. Their footprints determined where the paths were later laid. All these years later, the rest of the grass remains untrammeled, concretely demonstrating the wisdom of this strategy.

The second story concerns the plaza between the Stamp Student Union and Nyumburu Cultural Center.  From above, the paved area resembles a turtle, the terrapin being the University mascot.  The plan began as an architecture student’s class project. His professor hated it and gave the student a lousy grade. Years later, his turtle design was rediscovered and selected for this prime location. The student’s original grade was raised, he was paid for his design, and he had the satisfaction of seeing his work executed.

We haven’t even touched on the massive enthusiasm for the various sports teams and terrific school spirit. My friend Arlene who lives in neighboring Silver Spring claims that, over the years, she has never heard anyone say anything bad about the university.  All of this bodes well for Mick’s next four years.  I can’t wait for him to get started!
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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