VICARIOUS APPLICATIONS

A long train of parenting milestones has reached its caboose.  The “baby” is applying to graduate school and we may never again live vicariously through the application process.  While we are asked for opinions and impressions and our input is sometimes considered even when it has not been requested, our preferences are not critical.  It is bittersweet to recognize our youngest child is an adult and will ultimately make the final choice himself.

It seems only months ago that we were hanging on his college choices.  The eight schools to which Sam applied, and their responses, could easily be dredged from my memory cells.  At that time, he was still under our roof, sharing our meals.  Correspondence arrived by mail and, thus, we were usually ahead of him when news was imminent.   We could place the envelope on the dinner table and watch as he opened it.  Or, on occasion, we would obtain his permission to open the envelope before he arrived.  Now, four years later, the process is handled exclusively by him on-line.  If a physical piece of mail does arrive, it is only to confirm or repeat what he has already learned and told us several days before.

The one constant in the application process is that I pay.  When I whined to my wife that I’d probably spent $500 on graduate school applications, I thought I was picking a number so high as to be ridiculous.  I expected her to say:  “Don’t be silly, they only cost $300.”  Instead, she said:  “It was more like $1,200.”

Once you get into a good PhD program in chemistry, however, it’s free.  I did not learn this wonderful fact until Sam was well into his third year of undergraduate studies.   A friend who is a chemist explained that the schools provide education and living expenses in exchange for the student’s work as an indentured servant/researcher for approximately five years.   It’s almost like enlisting in the army except without the fresh air and bullets.

I also learned that graduate schools are ranked as though they were basketball teams.  Lists inform if a school is “top ten” or “top twenty” or even “top-half.”  Unlike a basketball team, however, the metrics for these rankings do not shed light on the young participants.  Instead, placement is derived from some combination of reputation, facilities, publishing history, and all-around money-making prowess of the faculty and the institution.  The players remain anonymous while the managers and administrators soak up the glory.

The first time we vicariously applied to college was twelve years ago.  At that time, my wife and I were both working full-time, had two younger, parent-intensive (meaning, a lot of driving) children at home, and the subject child, our oldest daughter, was consumed with soccer.  We did not focus as much on the academic merits of a school as on the soccer coach and facilities.   For a few weeks, she was inclined towards a school where the coach appeared interested in her.  When she visited, however, she detected a distinct chill.  Though she still had several options, the spring-of-senior-year weeks flew quickly, and anxiety arose accordingly.  Thus, when Binghamton University’s coach expressed interest, and was heartily endorsed by her soccer club trainer, the quest was over.

The next child was singularly uninterested in the process.  While I expressed enthusiasm and acquired tee shirts from each school she was forced to visit, we sometimes were unable to get her out of the car.  There was no fun, no anticipation, just the drudgery of heavily editing insincere essays.  Though she was not of a scientific bent, she nearly agreed to attend a six-year pharmacy program just to end the search.  Fortunately, a glance at a chemistry text-book and the recognition that most of the coursework was in that realm made her agree that finding a suitable school required some share of her attention.  When we alighted upon the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the chance to tell her classmates that it was only five minutes from the beach, a happy ending was at hand.

In Sam, a confluence of factors made his college search more meaningful for those of us who were sharing it.  First, he was our only child at home for his senior year, so there was plenty of focus.  Second, he was an excellent student with stunning SAT scores, so the schools on his list were exciting.  Finally, he was relatively interested in his college choice.  By that, I mean that he was willing to look at several of the schools that he applied to and he was willing to write his own essays.  Yet, he was not interested in following up.  Much to our frustration, he was not willing to contact a professor, or meet with an alumnus, or engage in speculation.  Rather, he submitted his applications like one threw darts at a dart-board, and hoped for the best.  As a vicarious experience, it was not satisfying; though Sam was happy to enter UNC, we had a nagging feeling that he had left some chips on the table.

What a difference four years makes!  Vindicated by his stellar performance and the excellence of the UNC chemistry department, neither of which was certain four years earlier, Sam could apply to the top tier of graduate programs.  This circumstance provided no end of speculative enjoyment to us.  After all, any of the eight schools to which he applied would allow for an excellent sticker on the back window of the car.  In addition, if anything, Sam’s desire to consider, discuss, wonder, ponder, contemplate, etc. the pros and cons of each school on his list became almost excessive.   Though I admit to also having the schools and their characteristics memorized and prioritized in accord with Sam’s daily assessments, his mother has been enjoying a virtual full-time avocation.

The important thing, of course, is that he makes the right choice and is happy with it.  Yet, there is an undeniable parental thrill with each acceptance; we add another notch to our belts, another tribute to our parenting.  As January dawned, the month of responses, first one came in, then two more.  There were three the next week, and one the following week.  Seven acceptances out of eight schools with only one more to go!

Does he want to be near or far?  How important is the weather?  Is the program large or small?  How much is the stipend?  What is the housing situation?  All of these questions were weighed daily.  How could he choose between three schools all ranked number one?  (Don’t blame me; I don’t create the lists).  The considerations became all-consuming.

The excitement of seven acceptances overhung everything else, as did a crucial question; to which parent could it be attributed?   In the end, we decided it must be a mysterious combination.   After all, even though I do not have one molecule of chemistry aptitude, I know he was not adopted.   Pride grew each day as the acceptances were disseminated to friends and relatives across phone lines and cyberspace.  Probably, several people are refusing to accept Facebook posts anymore.   Finally, we looked at each other and concluded, as we should, the accomplishment is really all Sam’s.  We are just overly interested bystanders, who need to let it go.  Let him make his choice.

When MIT ultimately provided the only rejection, we tried to respond with equanimity.  “It’s just as well,” we said.  “He doesn’t need another place to visit.”  “All of the schools are excellent.”  “It would have been too much for his ego if he had been accepted everywhere.”

Do we believe that?  Hmmmmmmm.     When I’m sitting in the audience to vicariously accept Sam’s Nobel Prize, his speech will definitely include the line I will insert:  “MIT should rue the day they rejected me, and my parents!”

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