Feb 142013

Summer Camps - helping kids grow upFor better or worse, the ways that older teens spend summer vacations have become just as important to the college application process as grades, essays, recommendations and SAT scores.  Whether its volunteer service, family travel, a summer job or a summer camp program, these experiences demonstrate what is important to the teen and are likely to became fodder for the all important common application college essay, which this year will ask students to bare their souls to admission staff, in 650 words or less, by crafting a highly personal and  insightful response to one of the following questions:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Teen summer camp options range from short sports showcase and development camps to six or eight weeks living in college dorms and taking college level classes.  Many camps offer returning older campers counselor in training (CIT) or leadership development options while service or travel camps provide opportunities to explore around the world.  The asking price for these sorts of peak experiences range from $500 for a long weekend, non-residential sports showcase to as much as $6,000-$8,000 for extended residential college campus programs or $10,000+ for lengthy  international travel and service experiences.  Month long CIT programs, shorter on campus or day programs at local colleges, and some service trips can be a bargin in the $3,000-$5,000 range.

Each teen summer camp program offers a unique opportunity for self-discovery and expanding horizons.  The choices are almost endless.  In our recent experience we have seen friends of #1 son spend their summers hiking across Australia, exploring theatrical and science career options at a leading colleges and universities, crewing on a tall ship, digging deep into creative writing and philosphy in residence at a world recognized prep school, and showing off athletic talents at national camps scouted by dozens of colleges.

Amid all these options, we have been surprised at how few teens prioritize local volunteer work or getting a summer job where they can actually earn some cash and pay their own summer entertainment expenses.  #1 Son has held a local summer job working 30-40 hours a week for each of the last 3 summers and before he went off to college had managed to bank the cost of a pretty pricey summer camp program.  When it came time to complete his college applications, the fact that he had held a job actually caught the eye of more than one college.  One even specifically mentioned it in his acceptance letter.

A few teens with families lucky enough to be able to travel for the whole summer will be able to learn from that type of experience.  But, for many families, the vacation will be a week or two at the beach.  For older teens it really should not be an option to spend the rest of the summer at the pool. It is only February, but, now is the time to start getting your teen to think about summer priorities and decide whether they should be looking for a job, signing up for a camp, or connecting with local volunteer and service opportunities.

In making these decisions it is important to think about a number of issues including:

  • Cost – no family should be going into debt to fund their teen’s summer camp experience.  If the teen is going to be expected to contribute to the cost of college or to put gas in the car, summer is a great time to start earning and saving
  • Interest – does the teen want to focus on academics, sports, service, making money, travel or something else?
  • The teen’s maturity level – many college-based programs provide minimal supervision and expect a 16 year old to be able to make the right choices about how to spend their free time.  Programs may be on urban campuses that allow for access to a wide range of options – how prepared is your teen to make the right decisions?
  • College goals – if your teen aspires to play college varsity level sports, summers are critical times to get seen by coaches.  If they are trying to refine thoughts about which major to pursue, some exposure to college level classes and opportunities to learn about different majors could be invaluable

The choices that teens make about how to spend their summers show a lot about what is important to them and will directly impact how they approach the college application process.   There isn’t one right or wrong choice, as it all depends on what the teen wants to get out of it and what is realistic for a particular family.  The key thing is to develop a plan to get the right balance of summer fun, enrichment, service and employment and make sure the teen has the opportunity to gain some deeper insight into their own priorities and the realities of the world around them.

Dec 042012
Middlebury College Le Chateau classroom and residential building in the snow

Middlebury College Le Chateau classroom and residential building in the snow

Internationally recognized Middlebury College, located in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, is well known for its challenging liberal arts curriculum and its excellence in foreign language studies.  Founded in 1800, the college is home to 2,500 undergraduates from 50 states and dozens of foreign countries.

Many of its students choose Middlebury for the excellent academics combined with the opportunity to spend four years living at a historic  New England campus surrounded by beautiful views of the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks plus unlimited access to all variety of outdoor adventures in any season.  According to Wikipedia, “The campus is known as “Club Midd” because of its bucolic setting and the quality of its recreational and residential facilities.”

If your family vacation or college visit plans bring you to this part of New England during the winter, be sure to save some time to explore the on campus ski options.  Middlebury is one of only a few colleges to own and operate its own nordic and downhill ski areas.  Specifically, the Rikert Nordic Center and the Snow Bowl downhill ski area.   The Middlebury College Snow Bowl has two triple chair lifts and one double and serves 17 trails, plus several gladed areas for skiing and riding in the trees. The mountain’s historic lodge, with a cafeteria and rentals available, was expanded and remodeled in 2003.  Snowmaking makes up for mother nature if needed.

Tweens check out the conditions at the Middlebury College Rikert Nordic Center

Tweens check out the conditions at the Middlebury College Rikert Nordic Center

Just a mile and a half away at the College’s Bread Loaf Campus in Ripton, VT, the Rikert Nordic Center offers 42 KM of trails on unspoiled land in the Green Mountain National Forest  and operates in partnership with the USDA-Forest Service

The Rikert Center has been recently upgraded with the addition of a new internationally recognized 5 KM championship level trail that has been certified for competition at the highest level by skiing’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS).  The center  has completely renovated the lodge  and offers hearty food and first quality rental skis and snowshoes.

The Rikert Center is open for recreational as well as competitive cross country skiers and serves as the base of operations for the college’s Nordic Ski team.  It will also host a number of special events this winter including the Middlebury College winter carnival ski race in February, Adaptive Ski days, half marathon ski races and snowshoe races.

Both the Rikert Center and the Snow Bowl are in first rate condition and offer family friendly on campus skiing, snowboarding and even snowshoe adventures at affordable prices.  Any wintertime visit to Middlebury College and the surrounding area requires at least a half day of skiing to really understand what makes this such a special area all year round.

Rikert Center photo courtesy the Rikert Center, used with permission, copyright 2012, Brett Simison

Middlebury College photo courtesy Wikimedia

Review: “Memory House” at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre

 Posted by on October 31, 2012  Comments Off
Oct 312012

Having recently survived the stress of the college application process, the current production of “Memory House” at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts really caught my eye.

Single mother Maggie arrives home from work on New Year’s eve only to find that high school senior Katia has yet to complete her one and only college admissions essay, for an application that needs to be post marked no later than midnight!   The essay prompt demands that Katia describe her personal “Memory House” and the memories she keeps inside.  After months of introspection, Katia feels she has nothing to say and the whole process is worthless, because she is adopted.  The roller coaster of emotions that run through this two-woman show ring true to any parent who has gone down this road with their college-bound teen.  The combination of hard deadlines, parental ambitions, and teenage angst are a surefire recipe for all manner of arguments and hurt feelings.

In the current MRT production of “Memory House”, Rebecca Blumhagen, playing teenage Katia and Susan Pellegrino, playing her mom, Maggie, channel all the emotions parents and teens face during the college application process

Actresses Rebecca Blumhagen, playing the part of teenage Katia and Susan Pellegrino, playing the part of her long suffering mother Maggie, bring this complex set of emotions and family dynamics to life.   Over the course of the play, Maggie bakes a real blueberry pie and revisits the pain and joy of adopting a child from overseas.  Simultaneously, Katia exposes her inner self doubts and anger at being removed, or perhaps even stolen, from her homeland.  To add to the mix, the absent father calls with the helpful suggestion that Katia “needs a context” and should return to Russia to explore her roots, rather than go to college.   Along the way Maggie’s sense of failure at never attending college and Katia’s fear of abandoning her mom are exposed.  And, in the background, the clock keeps  ticking for the pie to bake and the essay to be mailed.

What could quickly descend into a series of dark brooding monologues remains funny, upbeat and engaging thanks to the talents of Ms.  Blumhagen and Ms. Pellegrino, as well as playwright Kathleen Tolan and Director Melia Bensussen.  Together they manage just the right balance of humor, insight and hysteria.  At 77 minutes the play was the perfect runtime.

I enjoyed the show in the company of two other moms who have also recently gone through the college application process with their teens.  We each saw pieces of our own experiences, even though each of our teens faced a different set of stresses and challenges.  Like Maggie, we each struggled at not always knowing the best thing to tell our teen but wanting them to know we love and support them throughout their entire college application process.   Looking back, we are all pretty sure we won’t be so high stress with the next teen, at least that’s what we tell ourselves now!

Memory House runs at the Merrimack Repertory Theater through November 18, 2013.  The intimate theater in historic downtown Lowell is easy to get to from Routes 93 and 495 and is only a half hour from Boston.  There are some nice restaurants in the area.  It’s a great night out for parents of all ages.

Oct 202012

Parents’ Weekends are often the first chance that parents of college freshman have to catch up with their student since they said goodbye on drop-off day.  By now, your student has made friends, found his way around campus, and settled into social routines that seem to involve staying up all night and sleeping until noon on the weekends.  As a result, many parents find themselves with time on their hands on Saturday morning of Parents Weekend.  During our recent trip to #1 Son’s Parents’ Weekend at UMass Amherst, mom and dad killed some time by exploring the Pioneer Valley and small towns near Amherst.  We visited just before peak fall foliage colors were unflured, but our ramblings still offered some stunning views both on campus and off.

Foliage in front the UMass University Club - the oldest house on campus

Foliage in front the UMass University Club – the oldest house on campus

If you plan to visit central Massachusetts and the Amherst area for leaf peeping, college shopping or just to take a break from the Massachusetts Turnpike, we recommend taking a couple hours to explore Amherst and the surrounding small towns such as North Leverett, Montague, Sunderland and Wendell.  There are plenty of public lands open for hiking in the area including Wendell State Forest and the Mount Holyoke Range State Park.  Be aware that the state provides little to no services in most of the parks and forests in this area so bring plenty of food and water if you want to make a day of it.

We started our tour visiting the vibrant Amherst downtown.  Just a few blocks outside the main shopping district the Emily Dickinson Museum offers a tranquil location with fine examples of mid-19th century architecture and lots of fall foliage.

The grounds of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst MA

The grounds of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst MA

Heading North out of town we passed many farms hurrying to get ready for winter.  We saw cornfields, horses and at least one goat farm in the area.

The vibrant downtown of Amherst quickly changes to farmland and forests heading north

The vibrant downtown of Amherst quickly changes to farmland and forests heading north

We headed towards the  town of Montague, home to several small villages including Turners Falls, which is listed on the National Historic Register for its collection of waterpowered mill buildings.  We never actually made it there as we stopped to look at an old Lumber Mill in North Leverett and then decided to follow the turnoff for Wendell State Park.

Old Lumber Mill in North Leverett, MA

Old Lumber Mill in North Leverett, MA

Little did we know that our GPS thought a little back country overland adventure was in order as it routed us onto a dirt road that turned into a 4 wheel drive track complete with major boulders and mud pits along the way.

Our GPS routed us over some interesting backroads near Wendell State Forest

Our GPS routed us over some interesting backroads near Wendell State Forest

Our SUV took it in stride and we eventually reconnected with pavement and were able to navigate back to Route 63.

Off the grid near Millers Falls and Montague MA

Off the grid near Millers Falls and Montague MA

By that point, we decided #1 Son might be thinking of waking up so we headed back to UMass to meet him for lunch.  We were somewhat surprised at how quickly the area around Amherst changes from suburban to rural.  The number and diversity of the small towns, trails and historic sites was another unexpected bonus of our morning ramble around the Pioneer Valley.

If you visit Amherst with your teen to check out one or more of the five colleges in the area try to take a couple of hours to get off the beaten track if you can.  The Pioneer Valley is spectacular any time of the year.

Aug 162012

For 19 years we have tried to pack light when traveling but not this time.  College move in day  is two weeks away and we can’t believe the pile of stuff we have accumulated!  Linens, storage containers, school supplies, clothes, computer, text books, and lots, lots more  …

Packing for college .. forget about traveling light!

Packing for college .. forget about traveling light!

For families that have a child going to college several states, or even countries, away, the best strategy seems to be bringing the clothes from home but  ordering as much as you can online from one of the big box stores and picking it up when you arrive at the college.  Then, plan for a blitzkrieg run to the local drug store or mall for the rest of whatever you need.   Since #1 Son is going to be just two hours from home we took the approach of gradually collecting things over the summer.  We plan to spend just a few hours on campus dropping him off and helping him get his room set up, then he is on is own.  Assuming it will all fit in the car…..

Wish us luck!

We added this to the Delicious Baby Photo Friday as well.

Jun 252012

Welcome to UMass AmherstIn this era of helicopter parenting, more and more colleges are offering  parallel freshman orientation programs for students and parents.  Our recent summer orientation at UMass Amherst is pretty typical – the soon to be freshman check in for a two-day session to meet with advisers, finalize housing choices and start to learn their way around campus.  They get their ID cards, learn how to use the online registration and scheduling system, eat in the cafeteria, stay up late in the dorms and start making new friends.

For parents, the optional two day program was filled with sessions devoted to how to pay your bill on-line, college policies about substance abuse and drinking, and information about students rights, i.e. you pay the bill and the college doesn’t have to tell you anything about their grades, behavior or health.  Lunch and dinner receptions allowed parents to compare notes on how their kids had ended up selecting UMass and to get a sense of the kinds of families that are sending kids there in the fall.  We enjoyed meeting UMass Alumni who were preparing to send their first child to their alma mater.  Their reaction to the many positive changes since the 1980s was reassuring!

Parent were treated to tours of the campus and the dorms — some even brought measuring tapes to help plan out what to bring in the fall.  A session about the various dining options and food plans was helpful for making an informed decision about which meal plan to purchase and the sessions about the University’s health and security services were more or less re-assuring.

Parents take the campus tour

Despite all the information shared, it was clear that one of the University’s primary agenda items was to coach parents into letting go come September.  Parents were advised to develop a plan that limits checking in to a once a week phone call or skype session and to make sure to call ahead before visiting campus.  They were also told to never appear in the dorm unannounced before noon on Saturday or Sunday.

The final parents’ session provided a step by step overview of how the move-in process will work, how to schedule a drop off time, and how to leave gracefully – including an entertaining video about how NOT to say goodbye.   The session concluded with a video constrasting photos of cute toddlers, kids and tweens with images of the soon to be freshman hanging out in the dorms and around the campus.  It definitely underlined how fast those 18 years have flown by, but, we are not sure it will help make saying goodbye any easier.  The University’s parting advice:  get them settled in the room, have a meal in the cafeteria and then leave before they see you cry….

UMass Amherst Orchard Hill dorm room – it won’t be clean for long!

After all years of coaching and providing emotional and financial support to help your teen get decent grades, create a well rounded activities resume, take the SATs, visit and apply to colleges and successfully get accepted at a school that is a good fit for them, sending them off to school will leave a big hole at home.   It is easy to understand how parents who have spent the last two years focused on their teen’s college quest might have a hard time finding a new hobby.

Our nest will still be half full but its pretty clear that there will be more and more travels without teens in mom and dad’s future.  Even as we are sad to see #1 Son leave home in the fall we are excited for him as he starts the next phase in his journey to become an independent adult.  We’ll give him a good send off!

Have you sent a teen off to college?  How did you deal with the empty nest?

Apr 302012

Welcome to UMass AmherstAs any parent of a college-bound high school senior knows, May 1 is the decision and deposit due date for most college admission acceptances.  After visiting 14 different colleges, writing more than a dozen common application, supplement and scholarship essays, and participating in 3 accepted student programs #1 Son’s final decision is UMass Amherst - the very first college we looked at when we began this process 18 months ago in August of 2010.

In case you are wondering why UMass Amherst?  In the beginning of his search, #1 Son was strongly focused on small liberal arts schools that offered highly interactive classes.  In fact, many of the schools he visited and applied to were only slightly larger than his high school.  He ended up applying to 7 colleges, most of them small.  He included UMass Amherst mostly due to the fact that it’s 2012-13 tuition, room and board charges are less than half those of most private institutions.  For those who haven’t priced college lately, many private institutions have a list price of about $55,000 for tuition, room and board for those students who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid.  Even out of state charges at state colleges can total close to $40,000 or more.

We were pleased when he was accepted everywhere he applied and was granted several partial merit aid awards.   We were pretty sure he was headed to one of those small private liberal arts schools,  until it came time for accepted student revisit days – including some overnights in the dorms.  What he discovered was that, to him, these schools felt a bit confining.

When it came time to revisit UMass Amherst, he was energized by the wide and diverse range of people and activities available on campus.  He found he preferred the rural ambiance of the Pioneer Valley and Amherst – one of America’s prettiest and most active college towns – to more urban options.  He made an immediate connection with the economics faculty as he discovered that the department’s focus is well aligned with his own.  He concluded that big or small, intro level classes are frequently taught lecture style and there were other opportunities to get to know the professors if you are willing to make the effort.  Perhpas most importantly, he felt mature enough to step up to learn how to navigate the big school bureaucracy and be proactive about seeking out both academic and social connections.  The price tag, and the opportunity to exit college with zero student debt, didn’t hurt either but it was only one of a number of factors.

As May 1st arrives, we want to congratulate all the teens and parents who have undertaken this journey over the last year or two.   We want to thank all our readers who have shared #1 Son’s college exploration process.  Along the way he matured  from a teen to a young adult.  We hope you enjoyed the journey as much as we did!

Photos courtesy Wikimedia