The recipe for a college tour chaperone, apparently, is equal parts cat-herder, Realtor, and grief counselor. Last month, I was one of five chaperones for the Ivy League Project, a Central Valley group that took 32 students on an East Coast college tour. Almost all of them were Latino, first-gen, high-achieving sophomores or juniors. These were some of the lessons I learned over spring break:
— Planning a college tour for others really is much tougher than planning one for yourself. If you dare to fly 32 West Coast teens to the East Coast, you can overcome some setbacks. But the devil’s in the details. Our charter bus driver was chronically late, so we missed parts of our scheduled campus visits and half of the Broadway show for which we had prepaid. As for the students, they’re used to more personal space back home. They didn’t move as fast or as orderly as the crowds they impeded in D.C. and Boston. I lost count of the times I called out, “Walk on the right, pass on the left!” Before next year’s trip, I must teach our students the precision that was drilled into me in my marching band days.
— Engaging the students in reflection about their college visits was really the fun part for me. I was often the first to ask them, “So, could you see yourself living here?” So many of them had built up certain places as dream schools, but the visits were a sobering experience. They didn’t like the vibe at those places, but they appreciated experiencing that vibe before actually applying to the institution! In contrast, we did a one-day swing through Colby, Bowdoin, and Bates – all in Maine, all with about 1,800 students. It was the first time some of them had been to a liberal arts college, and I relished the chance to elicit their reactions and their comparisons to the Ivies. I certainly learned more from the students, not the colleges.
— I also learned that we don’t always get what we want on college tours, and that’s all right. Don’t expect to see or do everything you had hoped to. We had a tight schedule. The students barely got to see Manhattan outside of a bus or building, and I only got eight of the 13 pennants I expected to collect from college bookstores. You have to tell students “no” quite often. I guess our goal is to simply give them a taste of college; they should save some experiences for when they actually get to college.
But our kids had plenty of enriching experiences, often made possible by their college peers. The Ivy League Project’s network of undergrads helped us assemble student panels at several campuses. As fellow Latino first-gen students, these undergrads both recognized and reflected our students’ experiences: their past and present, their hopes and fears. They were more honest than an admissions officer could have been. They talked about cultural isolation and many nights of crying freshman year. Their stories made us cry, too. Our students began to understand a lesson that we as adults knew, but couldn’t explicitly teach them.
College life is tough. Forget about the academic transition, because the colleges on our tour have plenty of academic support. Life at that age is tough. And the students we met struggled to mend two types of cultural isolation: from their college classmates and from the people back home. Even those who found their familia on the East Coast did so after many lonely nights. Stories like these will certainly guide my work with high school students. There will be crying in college, there will be loneliness … but that will all serve to heighten the joy and belonging they feel at a place where they deserve to feel those things.
By Tony Losongco
Applications for next year’s Ivy League Project are being accepted until June 5th. Go to http://bit.ly/ivyleagueproject2014 to download the application or www.ivyleagueproject.org to find more information. There are currently Ivy League Project chapters in Parlier, Salinas, San Jose, and Watsonville, CA, and Arizona.