Tag Archive | Pittsburgh

Bittersweet Birthday

pausepittsburgh

Yesterday, as it always is when Oct. 26 rolls around, was my birthday.

Highlights of my day include getting a phone call from a field somewhere in Boston where my daughter got her entire ultimate frisbee team to shout HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM! into the phone.

My Facebook feed was loaded with wonderful messages wishing me love and happiness. Aren’t Facebook birthdays just the best? 

I spent the afternoon on a long walk looking at the reds yellows and oranges of the trees in my neighborhood. I spent the bulk of that walk talking with old friends until my battery died. All the while thinking, why don’t I talk to old friends more often? Like, with my voice. On the phone.

In the gloomy rain, I curled up in bed with our next book club book then enjoyed a fabulous dinner with my son and husband as many of our friends soaked themselves to the bone at the Big House to watch Michigan beat Notre Dame.

Then we watched a movie at home.

Yeah. I know. It was Shabbat. And traditionally, Jews are supposed to power down and unplug on the day of rest. But my phone rang and beeped all day with messages and conversations with my family who all live out of town from me. 

I did not forget that it was Shabbat. In fact, we spent my birthday morning in synagogue.

Just like I did last year. On the day after my birthday.

Yesterday, just like last year, I was in synagogue. But now, I cannot think of saying that sentence without thinking about the searing poem written by a young Detroiter who I hope to be half the writer she already is.

Yesterday in synagogue, the accordion door that partitions the sanctuary from the social hall was opened just a crack, just as it has been for a year now.

In case we need to escape a shooter.

Outside, our faithful security guards greeted us with a cheerful good morning and held the door for us as we entered.

They’ve been doing this for a year now.

Yesterday, I chanted an extremely long Haftarah that marks the Beginning as Jews everywhere who go to synagogue begin again and read the story of Creation.

How fitting, or ironic, I thought, that here we are, the day before the day that caused our Jewish community such destruction and pain, the worst attack on Jews in our nation’s history, we read the story of Creation.

After the Torah service, we read a profound statement from a Pittsburgh rabbi who discussed the long-lasting impact the terror attack and those 11 deaths have had on the wider Jewish community in Pittsburgh.

In it, the rabbi concluded that, even as impossible as it seemed, there were still joyful moments in the days and weeks that followed the murders. Even in their mourning, Pittsburgh Jews celebrated weddings. And kids turning into Jewish adults at bnei mitzvot. Somehow, as it always has in our Jewish history, joy mixed with sorrow. And we go on.

As it did yesterday in our own little shul.

Yesterday our congregation officially welcomed our newest member of the tribe as she was called up to the Torah for the first time with an aliyah as she celebrated her conversion to Judaism.

Yesterday I learned I was not the only one celebrating a birthday. From the looks of the two cakes wheeled out on a cart for Kiddush, one blue and one pink, I learned that I now share my birthday with twins. The blue-eyed boy of the twins announced to me that he was now three and then went back to playing with his fire truck.

Last year on my birthday was the last day before.

It was the last day Jewish Americans could go under the false pretense that we were safe in our sanctuaries.

It was the last day before we all became Pittsburgh Strong, before we all scrambled, even though it was Shabbat, to call friends, family, loved ones, friends from camp, friends we knew in childhood that we had not seen in years, to check on them to see if they were okay. Because, if you are an East Coast American Jew, chances are you have a connection to the Tree of Life Synagogue, where not one but three congregations gathered there to pray. To sing Shabbat Shalom Hey! at Tot Shabbat. To welcome in a baby boy into their community. It’s a place where I’ve been. Where my kids have been. Where my cousins became a Bat Mitzvah. Or stood under a canopy for their wedding.

What was lost last year, that feeling of relative innocence and safety, those lives lost that never got to celebrate Chanukkah, or Purim or Passover again…. could the sweetness of twins celebrating their third birthday, a woman being called to the Torah, and my chanting Haftarah counter that horrific day?

Could the intimacy in our small congregation, where those reciting Kaddish for a loved one feel safe enough to share a story of their deceased loved one, sometimes not pretty ones, counter the horror?

So now, it’s Oct. 27, the day after my birthday. The day that will now always be the day before Pittsburgh.

 

 

Paying that tuition for the Elite Private University: Will it really open more doors?

 

20140408_174325pamelasFor those of you following my posts on college and college visits, thank you for your public and private comments. I hope this post will resonate with many of you and spark even more debate and discussion, so load up my comment box.

 

After our visits to Case Western Reserve, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, my house became somewhat of a house divided. The heated discussion perhaps at this point of the game was maybe pointless. We were at the beginning phases of the college search. My daughter has high grades but had yet to take those multiple college entrance exams. She hadn’t even applied.

But what if she applies to places like CMU, or my husband’s alma matter, an Ivy League institution, and gets in? My mother-in-law (don’t worry, she never reads my blog) has this crazy idea that my daughter should apply to Yale because they have a fantastic graphic and visual arts program. With tuition at these colleges averaging around $64,000 a year, for a field that is super competitive and mostly employed by freelancers who have to pay their own way for health insurance and retirement funds, I hope that my mother-in-law has a huge college fund set aside for her grandchildren that she has not yet told us about.

Granted, private universities have large endowments and are more likely to bestow deserving students with a generous financial aid package. Let’s look at CMU’s 2012-2013 financial aid profile:

Nearly 70 percent of incoming freshman applied for financial aid and of that group, 77 percent of them were found to have financial need and were awarded an average financial aid package of $35,000 per year.

That same week we visited Pittsburgh-area colleges, the New York Times published a troubling article that said that the elite colleges were becoming even more elite. This might be in part because of the new common application process, where students can fill out online a common application, tweak it just a bit according to each school’s requirements, and with a click – and an extra fee per college – can apply to numerous colleges all at once.

The article stated “….Deluged by more applications than ever, the most selective colleges are, inevitably, rejecting a vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted. Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.”

This article, plus the media coverage that has been pointing to a troubling trend for years that college debt is crushing a generation who can’t find work outside of becoming a barista at Starbucks upon graduation, made me pose the question to my husband – is that private university price tag truly worth it. Isn’t it fiscally responsible to get a great education at a quality state school over an expensive private school?

One take on that outlook is this: When looking at job applicants fresh out of school, those with the Ivy League or private colleges get looked at first, and those graduating from a state school have a greater chance of being overlooked.

For those of you who are graduates of a public state university, like me, that answer can really sting.

I posed this question and put it up for debate on my Facebook status. Got a slew of comments.

Some, who were Ivy League graduates in their 40’s, wondered if they would be accepted by their alma mater if they applied today. A fine arts graduate from CMU said she was accepted based on her portfolio and that parents need to “chill out.” There are “best schools” out there as far as status, but there is a school out there for every student which will serve them the best, and that may not necessarily be an Ivy League school.

Graduates of public state schools stood proudly by their alma mater and said from a regional standpoint, companies know the reputation of state schools in their area. Many managers are, in fact, products of those state schools. However, the grooming and the connections one gets at an Ivy League are clear advantages, some said.

So, there is no clear and dry answer.

My husband and I were still mulling this debate over when we went for breakfast at Pamela’s, in the lovely Shadyside neighborhood in Pittsburgh. As if by some cosmic fate in the academic universe, an older couple was watching us from a nearby table. They were admiring our three children as they wolfed down their pancakes and waffles and listened to our conversation about getting into college.

As it turned out, the gentleman was a mathematics professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Listen to me. Don’t waste your money if you have a great in-state public university at your doorstep.”

Which we do.

“I’ve seen so many kids burn out at places like CMU in the undergrad years. The University of Pittsburgh is a fine, fine university. Don’t go into debt,” he said, then turned to my oldest. “If you want the elite private school status, wait for graduate school, where if you get in, they will most likely pay your way through grants and scholarships.”

And with that, he paid his bill and the couple bid us a good day and good luck.

The issue: still up for debate. And I welcome your comments. 

 

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Campus Visits and test-taking angst: University of Pittsburgh

 

“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:

pitttshirts

 

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:

IMG_0372

 

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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What to Expect From Your 17-year-old: The CMU campus visit

It’s been a long time since I picked up one of those “What to Expect” books that were regarded by my generation as the bibles of those early years of motherhood. The “What to Expect” series either offered us soothing advice; or made us feel woefully inadequate in our parenting skills from pregnancy all the way through […]

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