Tag Archive | United States

Campus Visits and test-taking angst: University of Pittsburgh

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“Oh, crap mom, they are everywhere!”

My daughter and I were stopped at a red light, on her way to her A.C.T. tutorial class, and there they were. In perfect order on the license plate of the car in front of us.

A.C.T.

It does seem that letters and acronyms are all that is on my high school junior’s mind.

A.P.

A.C.T.

S.A.T.

Around my town, you can see her peers in places like Starbucks and Panera accompanied by a private tutor and hunched over one of those mammoth  ACT prep books.

Taking the tests costs money.

Hiring a private tutor or taking a private class costs LOTS of money – try like $90 an hour.

Times like this, I often think of that movie Race to Nowhere. It’s becoming a race to empty our bank account in the name of college admissions.  Taking admissions tests and studying for them is all that really occupies my daughter’s existence. She asks how long going out do dinner will take if it means she will be separated from her study guide. And she really doesn’t part from it because it comes along wherever she goes. She went to prom with a boy the other night. It surprised me that she did not take it along in the limo.

And when you finally get to college….

My daughter, visiting a friend who was showing her around his new surroundings at the University of Pittsburgh, told her “no one here cares what you got on any of those tests.”

This blog post is a long overdue follow-up to my post on our visit to Carnegie Mellon University. At CMU, my daughter sensed just how intense a campus atmosphere could be as the students there were in the midst of cramming for finals.

Just across the river, at the neighboring University of Pittsburgh, the atmosphere seemed livelier. And happier.  Yet still very competitive.  According to about.com, The University of Pittsburgh often ranks among the top 20 public universities in the U.S., and its strong research programs have earned it membership in the exclusive Association of American Universities. Pitt also can boast of a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. In athletics, the Pitt Panthers compete in the NCAA Division I Atlantic Coast Conference.

Unlike the dimmed dreary lecture hall at Carnegie Mellon, prospective students to the University of Pittsburgh started their tour at an information session in the in a massive historic building of Alumni Hall. The interior was decked out with balloons and music and the smells of fresh-baked cookies and popcorn wafted from the main salon, where Pitt seniors were collecting their caps and gowns and other graduation mementos at a pre-graduation reception.

Our admissions official was a young African American man in a cardigan sweater. He was a recent Pitt graduate who was in the process of applying to law school. He told the prospectives that during his time at Pitt, he changed his mind on what he wanted to study several times, from business, to engineering, and, he said, and I quote,

“to worry my parents, I once even thought of becoming a writer!”

His advice: Unless you have your heart on becoming an engineer or you absolutely know you are going to medical school, keep a decision on a choosing a major fluid and take a course load from Pitt’s multiple major offerings. At Pitt’s Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, one can wait until the end of their sophomore year to declare a major.

And as far as acceptance rates at Pitt?

As it stands, Pitt in 2012 had an acceptance rate of 56.1 percent. Admissions officers are looking for the following ACT breakdown from applicants:

  • ACT Composite: 25 / 30
  • ACT English: 25 / 32
  • ACT Math: 25 / 31
  • ACT Writing: 8 / 9

However, our admissions rep stressed that test scores and grades of B’s and A’s were just one part of what they were looking for in a prospective freshman. They wanted to see a well-rounded student taking vigorous courses. They wanted to see a students’ involvement in their community and leadership positions they took at school. And then he said the words I was longing to hear: better to get a high B or low A in an advanced course than all A’s in less challenging classes.

After the informational tour, we met our Pittsburgh Pathfinder. He led us on an hour tour across campus, highlighted by a visit to the Cathedral of Learning, the undergraduate library, open nearly 24 hours a day and seven days a week, the quad of freshman dorms, and the dining halls. He even told us in confidence, even though his official job was to tell us to buy books at the campus bookstore, the best place to rent textbooks for the semester. For that, I gave him a stellar grade on his evaluation.

And, we even got a few Pitt T-shirts for free from the guy selling T-shirts on the corner from our fearless Pathfinder. Apparently, he has some kind of deal going with the guy:

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No T-shirts were handed out at CMU.

Best of all, my daughter got an unofficial, insider perspective on campus life from a friend who was finishing up his freshman year:

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He has loved his first year of Pitt, both academically and socially. He loves the urban atmosphere of being on a campus in a big city.

After our visit, my daughter can see herself applying  to school in Pittsburgh. She could see herself taking classes either at CMU or Pitt. And, for a break, she can see herself going for a run (with a friend of course, not alone!) in beautiful Schenley Park.

IMG_0378I could see her going here because it would give me a chance to visit my Pittsburgh cousins more often.

What is not to love about Pittsburgh?

Then again, there is the whole in-state out-of-state tuition factor which weighs heavily on most admissions decisions.  Out-of-state tuition is nearly double.  At this point, she had yet to visit one of the best state schools in the nation, in her own state, just 40 minutes down a potholed highway to Ann Arbor.

But that visit, I will leave for another post.

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Two Karmic Tales from the Polar Vortex

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AAATwo true tales from the coldest winters we’ve seen in decades. One an example of how to treat others. The other, an example of how not to treat others. I hope that someday, both givers of kindness and meanness will receive their Karmic justice in this life or the ones to come.

First tale, as retold by my mother-in-law on an incident that happened to the grown children and grandchildren of their longtime friends:

In December, two families from suburban Long Island, each with two or three children with the oldest of age 12, followed each other caravan-style north to a ski vacation rental in Vermont.  There was a winter storm warning and, thinking they could push through, the families drove into the night. Main highways became impassible so the families decided to take alternative routes on local roads.

As the roads began to ice over, one family’s car swerved to avoid another car, slid and became stuck in an embankment.

Witnessing what happened to the first car, the second car in the traveling party pulled over to see if they could be of assistance. In trying to help, the second car also then became dangerously stuck in a snow embankment. On a strange rural street. In the dark. In the cold. In the storm.

All the while, the two stranded families were unaware that a family living on the property was watching them. They approached the families who were stranded on their property – a group of about 12 complete strangers – four adults and their children – invited them in for the night, and gave them dinner and a place to sleep, and shelter until their vehicles could be dug out the next day.

To that angelic New England family who opened their doors to strangers on a stormy winter night, they will most certainly receive good Karma in this life or the next.

Next story. My story. 

Funny how appearances change of buildings and streets in the snow. Especially in suburban Detroit neighborhoods you think you’ve gotten to know pretty well in the six months I’ve lived here.

I was on my way over to a good friend’s house to pick up my son from an extended play date. I was not sure of the exact address, and I didn’t feel like punching it into my GPS system. After all, I had been there several times in the summer and fall, to press cider and just enjoy the company of our new friends. I thought I knew my way and knew the house.

But like I said, something very disorienting happens in the low light and snowy landscape of winter. So disorienting that I pulled up the curvy, snow-covered driveway of the wrong house. Just one identical looking wrong house away were my friends, their daughter and son, and my son, happily playing.

Just one house away, I was catching some bad Karma.

I realized my mistake, and started to attempt to back down the driveway. Only, because of the curve and the snow, I missed it, and backed up into a soft, snowy part of the front lawn.

Funny how one can still use the word “lawn” in a polar vortex winter. Because no one has seen their lawn here since November.

So, there I was, on a lawn. If I just eased the car back and forth – Reverse, Drive, Reverse, Drive – I’d be on my way.

No luck.

Instead, my wheels spun and whirred deeper into the lawn.

A man living next door saw my plight. He bundled up (it was 9 degrees) came out with two shovels, and we both set to work trying to dig me out. He even offered to get some chains and hooks from his car to drag my car out. I thanked him, but turned down his offer, afraid of the damage either of our vehicles might incur.

Finally, after 20 minutes of this, she came out.

A thin, blond woman.

She was not helpful.

She was mad.

“What the hell do you think you are doing to my lawn???”

“I’m sorry, ma’am… I was going to pick up my son at your neighbor’s house and I mixed up the houses and – “
“WHAT ARE  YOU DOING ON MY LAWN? WHO IS GOING TO PAY FOR THIS??” She went on and on about her poor lawn and the damage I was doing to it. She did not ask if I was okay, if I had called for help, if I was cold, needed a cup of hot coffee.

In suburban Detroit,  some people care about their lawns – even in the winter – more than they care about people.

Angry and embarrassed, I left my car and ran to my friends’ house. I’m not surprised that the two neighbors don’t even know one another. Usually, nice people don’t tend to socialize with mean people.

My car was eventually towed out by AAA, and my friend, her husband, and my husband came to my aid.

But not the mean blond lady, who actually took a photograph of my license plate as I was on my hands and knees trying to dig away the snow to free my car.

Mean blond lady, your lawn will be just fine. I’ll even come over with a bag of dirt and seed in the spring to fix your precious lawn. Because I said I was sorry 10 times. Because I’m that fucking nice.

Mean blond lady, you will also get your Karmic justice. It’s coming.

Has old  man winter been a bitch to you? If so, rant away and please SHARE!

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Join me on the Road 2 College

For some us, it feels like we ourselves just graduated college.

How is it, that now we have children who are old enough to begin the college application process.

If you are a veteran college parent, or just getting started with having conversations with your teen about getting started down the path to college, I invite you read my series on the new online newsletter called road2college.

 

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Dearmomanddadhiloveyoubye: Letters from Camp

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It’s getting a bit late and this is a blog post I meant to write before i went away on my vacation but my printer wouldn’t scan and I had to paint stripes in my other kids’ room before he gets back from camp is summer going fast for you because it is going fast for me…

Now, if I were to write all my blog posts in this style – one devoid of sentence structure,  or any clarity of thought –  I wouldn’t be much of a writer. And you would absolutely be in the right for clicking away from this blog in disgust, murmuring aloud, “Where does that woman get off thinking she can write!?”

However garbled the messages may be, letters from camp are regarded as true literary works from their loving parents.

And I know my son is a writer.  He has been writing funny stories for school and just for kicks as long as I can remember. Like his fifth-grade essay assignment about his first roller-coaster ride. His teacher told us that in this essay he had a great sense of voice and composition.

But, for some reason at camp, all rules learned about writing – sentence composition, transition of thoughts from one paragraph to the next, and even legible handwriting are cast aside for the sake of getting back in the game of swimming, water skiing or just plain hanging out with your bunk mates.

I’ve been inspired to share one — just one hand-written letter of several we received from our three children — by several blogs, including Letters From New Jersey, who shares the letters she writes to her children at camp, and renée a. schuls-jacobson, who is holding a hand-written letter to camp contest. Her son at camp is the judge on the best letter. Go check these blogs out, you wont’ be sorry!

With all this blogging material on camp and letters out there, I tried to avoid the subject. Until I got the letter below.  It left me in such a fit of laughter on my front lawn I just had to share it. Here it is!

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What? You didn’t get all that? Can you not read?

It’s okay. I have become quite the sleuth decoding and deciphering my 15-year-old’s harried handwriting. Seriously, is there a place where they pay you for reading horrid handwriting? if so, I have found my new calling.

Just be glad that this was not written on a crag of a stone in the dark, as he claimed was the writing surface of his last letter.

And it reads, unedited for punctuation, as such:

Dear Mom and Dad

2nd month is better than I expected it to be; I am spending most of my time in (bunk) 11. I made friends with lots of Israelis and that Tresame shampoo is awesome, Girls are literally feeling my hair and saying how soft it is. I’m practicing frisbee got to go to the Aga’am (lake) bye. 

Wait.

He’s actually washing his hair now?? To the point that girls, not just one girl but girl(s) in plural – want to touch his hair?

A whole year last year of nagging him to better wash his hair, of saying, not a drop of water touched your hair in that shower, how can it be CLEAN?!

And now, my son has silky soft, clean and touchable hair!

You can learn a lot from a letter from your kid at camp. I’ve learned to buy Tresame by the gallon.

You have learned that you may want to buy stock in the company which makes Tresame.

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Detroit: The New Jerusalem? “Shul” shopping and Tish B’Av

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view of Downtown Detroit from the Eastern Market

To my dear readers: This post is mainly about American Jewish culture. It has lots of unfamiliar lingo to those not exposed to Judaism, so my complete understanding if you skip reading this. Or, if you want to get an inside glimpse of what goes on in the minds of practicing Jews in the face of moving to a new place, do read on.

Have you recently entered a house of worship when it is not a major holiday or occasion going on? Chances are there will be plenty of room in emptying pews. Congregations merge with one another as membership dwindles.

This is an age when less Americans seek out organized religion, and regular attendance to religious services in churches and synagogues gives way to baseball and soccer fields. Perhaps it is there, where they understand the cheers for the players rather some antiquated texts and chantings, where they feel the most connection to community.

A rabbi I knew, when confronted with a person who would say: “I feel spiritual but I don’t want to get involved with any organized religion” responded by replying, “Judaism is very unorganized.”

My husband and I go against the grain of our contemporaries. As soon as we move to a new town, and not long after we purchase a home, we go looking for our second home, a synagogue or shul.  It’s not because we have kids that need to go to Hebrew school. It’s not because we need a Bar Mitzvah date. It is because, away from family, we need a community.

Fortunately, we have many choices in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. That more than three times the size of the Rochester Jewish community we left.

We went to two different synagogues. Were we ignored? Did we sit quietly praying unnoticed?

Hardly.

The first house of worship we entered, about four individuals approached us – during the Torah service to find out our story. Were we from out of town? Visiting? Just moved here, well WELCOME! Eyes in pews across the aisle in faces middle-aged, elderly, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, turned our way to see the newcomers in their midst. One congregant, through family connections to the Jewish community in Rochester, actually was told to look out for us.  The men on the bimah threw a stern look our way to be quiet as he whispered about the degrees of separation on how he was connected to Rochester. Another man approached us and asked if our nine-year-old son would like to lead Ein Keloheinu or Adon Olam from the bimah. These are prayers at the end of the service usually bestowed to be led by children. I knew my son knew these prayers cold, and he is not a shy kid. But still, we just got here.  As I expected, with a smile, he turned the invite down. He has been such an easy-going kid through this whole process, but he is a kid and it was too soon.

The next Shabbat morning, in the second synagogue we tried on, came an even warmer response. The welcomes. The excitement of the newness of us.  An older Israeli woman who sat in front of us explained: “You see? No matter where you go, the siddur, the words, the Hebrew prayers and melodies? They are all the same. No matter where you go you are always home.”

We were honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. In my experiences in our former synagogue, this is not something that was bestowed upon us until we were members for several years.

My son spent some time in the service and some time playing cards with about seven other children in the social hall. The fact that there were seven children in the synagogue in the middle of the summer was a promising sign. During the lunch after services, we were introduced to more people who were excited and passionate to tell us about their congregation.

The third synagogue I went to alone.  It was Jewish Detroit’s community-wide observance of Tish B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on all of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when in Jerusalem, both of the Great Temples were destroyed, when the Jews in ancient Israel began their exile from their land, an exile that lasted two millenia. On this day history recorded countless other acts of persecution and massacres put upon the Jewish people including the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews.

I only began to observe this somber, little known holiday in the summers my children started attending Camp Ramah. To add to the somber mood, worshipers remove their shoes, sit on the ground. Under low lights, and at camp, with the aid of only a candle or a flashlight, the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, is sung to a haunting chant. If you’ve never heard it, take a short listen here and the sadness comes through even if you don’t understand the Hebrew.

 

I sat alone on the floor, shoes off as a symbol of communal mourning. Each chapter was chanted from a member of a different area shul. Yet even when sitting alone, I never feel isolated or a stranger within a shul. Even after two weeks, there were some familiar faces. The guy with the Rochester connection who was told to look out for us sat nearby. The young woman rabbi from the first shul. I watched her as she sat on the floor, followed along in the prayer book for a while and then watched her as she closed her eyes just to meditate on the sadness of the chanted words.

And the words are indeed sad. It is sadness of Jerusalem likened to a raped woman. Childless and friendless abandoned by all humanity. Her streets are filled with ragged people walking through burned out ruins. It was a time when Gd, because of our baseless hatred and corruption, delivered us into the hands of our enemies.

An ancient, outdated story?

As I read the words of the Book of Lamentations, both in Hebrew and English, another city came to mind. The city to where I just moved. With its blighted houses and skyscrapers. With its government on the brink of bankruptcy.

But then, in the last chapter, hope.

In the back of the synagogue were some very young faces. White faces and black faces. But all young faces. These were the congregants of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue. Founded in the 1920’s, it is the last standing synagogue in Detroit proper. And instead of aging and decrepit members, its members were young. Way young.  These were the determined young people living in urban Detroit. Waiting for Detroit to come out of its destruction. Making it happen by living and working in downtown Detroit and not like the rest of us in the ‘burbs.

In our shul shopping quest for the ideal synagogue for our family, I know that this synagogue is not the one we will be joining. But out of all the synagogues I have visited or heard about in Detroit, the existence of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue is the one that gave me the most hope.

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Boston, Bedbugs and Ballyhoo – Another guest post about transplanting

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These days it’s hard for me to figure out which end is up – even from all those moving boxes that actually say on them “this end up.” 

I want to focus inward and unpack and make this new house truly my home. 

I want to focus outward and see how I can make this suburban, manicured and perfectly landscaped property a little less perfect. A little more me. Outward more still and make some new friends and maybe even land a new job. 

Then there is the business of keeping my son entertained and occupied in the weeks he leaves before camp. 

It’s a good thing I can count on some great guest bloggers who have transplant stories of their own. 

The first in the lineup is Maya Rodgers who blogs at Pets and Pests. Originally from New England and with roots in the Boston area (a place we considered moving before we chose Detroit), Maya is excited to experience more of Raleigh, N.C., and would like to return more often to visit old friends in both Atlanta and Boston. She spends her days helping people exterminate bed bugs, palmetto bugs, and other crawly creatures for Terminix . I for one hope to never need her services, but if I do, I hope she has some connections in Michigan! 

Here is Maya’s tale: 

Part of the reason exploring new places is so wonderful is because it acts as a distorted mirror. It reflects you in a different light than you’re used to, and it teaches you important and silly things about yourself.

After college, I lived in Boston for a few years. New England had always been home, and Boston still hasn’t quite stopped being home for me. Like anywhere, it has its positive and negative aspects. I loved being able to walk almost anywhere, and if I couldn’t walk, I could take the T, or a combination T-and-bus route. I whined and complained about the public transportation when “switching problems at Park” led to long delays, but I loved it just the same.

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Boston T sign courtesy of Paul Downey

I also loved splurging on expensive ice cream once in a blue moon at Toscanini’s in Central Square, and riding shotgun in a friend’s car for a late-night trip to Richie’s Slush (the best Italian ice ever – I highly recommend the lemon).

I haven’t lived in too many other places, but there seems to be something very special about the seasons in New England. Flowering trees in the gorgeous springtime, absolutely frigid temperatures in winter, and too hot in the summer, but fall was always my favorite season. The weather cools off, the mosquitoes start to go away, the air feels fresh and clean, and, of course, the leaves start to change color. One of my favorite places, the Boston Common, is wonderful in any season.

commonsBoston Common courtesy of Timothy Vollmer

The best part of any place, though, is the people. The friends who help you chip winter’s ice off the sidewalk, and the ones who wander around the North End with you, looking for some interesting-looking new restaurant.

I think that’s what’s hardest about moving. Not just gathering up your stuff, but leaving your loved ones behind while you go someplace you know almost nothing about and try to put down new roots.

After Boston, I moved to Atlanta for work. The biggest change I noticed initially was the pace of life. There were certain big-city aspects that went at light speed. For example, despite crazy Boston drivers, I’d never been tailgated quite as aggressively as when driving in Atlanta. The Perimeter (the road that circles most of Atlanta) has a posted speed limit of 55mph, but it’s five or six lanes wide each way, and even if you’re going 70, you’re the slowest person on the road. Out of their cars though, people move more slowly and demonstrate more politeness. People were sociable in stores, starting up friendly conversations at seemingly odd times.

I’ve always been much more of a walker than a driver, and although there are sidewalks on many of the roads, there are rarely pedestrians on them. The most people I ever saw outside was when the power went out in my neighborhood. Suddenly there were couples, families, and individuals like me, wandering around, enjoying what had become (after a quick pass-through storm) a beautiful evening. Perhaps something about the Atlanta heat means that people spend much more time in their cars no matter what the weather, but enjoying a walk after work, or strolling to the bookstore or coffee shop on the weekends, became an almost eerie experience, with everyone else racing by in their cars.

The bugs were another large shock. Palmetto bugs are much bigger than any roach I’d ever seen up north, and while they weren’t in my Atlanta home (that I knew of), they’d come out in Atlanta’s long summer, wandering around now and again on the pavement near my home. Needless to say, I kept my place meticulously clean in an effort to ward them off.

Moving from Boston to Atlanta changed me in a lot of ways. I became a more aggressive driver, for one, which partly meant that I stopped caring when someone tailgated me. I walked less, but took up jogging – even ran the Peachtree Road Race! I found a favorite bookstore (Peerless Book Store in Johns Creek), and browsed its shifting stock whenever I could. I also discovered air conditioning (which I’d never really had when living up north), and learned that I loved painting when I signed up for weekend painting classes. My speech patterns even changed a little bit. At first, I’d say “y’all” somewhat ironically. I’m not sure it sounds natural now, but it is more convenient than most other alternatives.

Perhaps most importantly, I stayed in touch with my friends in the Northeast – even became closer with some of them – and made quite a few Southern friends, both in and out of work. Having a dog makes for an instant socialization opportunity, especially if you visit the dog park at regular times.

garybrownMy dog Mindy, during a not-so-recent beach trip

I’ve recently transplanted once again to Raleigh (this time with a family in tow). So far, we’re all just figuring out where our favorite restaurants are (to date, the Irregardless Café is far and away my favorite), and discovering new things about ourselves.

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