The first time I saw the college I attended was when my parents dropped me off at the dorms a few days before classes started. I was 17.
I had taken no tour, virtual or otherwise. The thick color catalog that came in the mail hinted at the hilly nature of the campus and where I might be laying my head if I was lucky enough to get into the new dorms. Most importantly, I knew that the beach was only 10 miles away.
Oh, how times have changed.
These days, summer vacations with teenagers often include road trips to prospective colleges. The campus tour as a reason for vacation? It seems like the natural progression of things. The modern family often tacks vacation days onto out-of-town sports competitions, plus band and academic camps.
We've had "vacations" in the small Florida towns of Cantonment and Lynn Haven, both in the Panhandle, plus Cooperstown, N.Y., thanks to youth baseball tournaments. They involved dragging around heavy chairs and coolers of ice and eating meals with big groups at all-you-can-eat joints.
But when there was family talk of touring two Los Angeles universities — UCLA and the University of Southern California — with our rising high school senior, the travel editor in me went to work. Sure, we'd see the campuses, but Los Angeles, now that's my kind of vacation spot. Celebrities. Malibu and Santa Monica. Glittery landmarks. High fashion and fancy food.
But I forgot one thing. The idea of walking around a university campus with your parents doesn't exactly scream fun. Concessions would have to be made.
USC: Heisman or Academy, what's your pleasure?
In the past year, we've been on five official campus tours, three in Florida and two out West. We've toured other campuses on our own, among them Montana State University in Bozeman, Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, University of Vermont at Burlington plus the University of Washington in Seattle and Berkeley in California. We've been doing this since our son was young. Occasionally we do it without him.
Some people go to lighthouses and Civil War battlefields; we like to see college campuses.
I get a lot out of the official, student-led tours, and when I say this, the actual student reminds me that it's not about me. My wallet begs to differ. On the tours, we are under strict orders not to embarrass him by asking questions. We often violate the rules.
The tours at USC, a private and prestigious (read: pricey) school tucked into a lousy area of Los Angeles, and UCLA, a public university (read: pricey for out-of-staters) surrounded by some of California's poshest neighborhoods, felt in some ways like a spin around the Los Angeles area itself. Yes, there was talk of majors, test scores and the dreaded application essay, but there was also a stroll in an impressive sculpture garden and a walk through a film school with familiar names etched on the walls. Both guides talked of the many things to do in L.A., from surfing to shopping, stargazing to sports-watching.
Preston was our guide at USC and I expect to see his name on a ballot someday. He had just finished his freshman year but sounded like he might have been born a fully developed adult. He was precise and very smart. Oh, and he's in a band that played at some swanky clubs near the Sunset Strip.
He guided us through the sports trophy room, and it was us parents who lingered longest at O.J. Simpson's Heisman Trophy. Most of the students on the tour were born after the televised white Bronco chase on the freeways of L.A. in 1994 and know Simpson primarily as a guy in trouble with the law. His football career is ancient history to them.
The impressive Cinemax Arts Complex speaks to the school's location at ground zero of the filmmaking industry. There's Frank Sinatra Hall. The George Lucas and Steven Spielberg buildings. The Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, named for the famed producer, which features the William Morris Green Room, named for the powerful talent agency founder. Tom Hanks is a donor, and Preston tells us that funnyman Will Ferrell is a USC alum, as is Ferrell's Anchorman and Talladega Nights producer, Judd Apatow. Seems like a film degree from this school is the kick-start of a golden career.
We march on with me thinking about attending the Academy Awards on the arm of my son.
He wants to see the football practice field.
Preston guides us instead past the Tommy Trojan statue, which is surrounded by fencing and shrouded in protective covering. It's summer and there's construction work going on, so the virile Trojan warrior, the symbol of USC, goes unseen.
It won't be the last we hear about Tommy Trojan.
UCLA: arts, science or stargazing?
Ethan, our UCLA tour guide, is the opposite of Preston. He's got floppy blond hair and wears plaid shorts, a polo shirt and flip-flops. At first, it feels like we're getting a tour from Spicoli, the surfer guy in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Ethan is very California, and just like Preston, he grew up in the state's southland.
The dudespeak throws us off. He is one smart guy, just a week from graduation and ready to embark on a year teaching English in Greece. When he returns? He has been accepted to law school at UCLA and USC.
Ethan tells us about amazing professors and how he stayed away from the "science side" of the campus, which houses the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and an esteemed medical school. He prefers the liberal arts buildings and relaxing among works by Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore in the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden.
We stop for quite a while at the Inverted Fountain, which recirculates 10,000 gallons of water per minute, while Ethan recounts some historic pranks played on USC and vice versa. Some involved that "invincible" Trojan. We guess that the stories aren't part of the sanctioned patter practiced in tour-guide training, though they do make the place sound fun. Collegiate high jinks.
At the end of the tour, near UCLA's iconic Bruin Bear statue, Ethan mentions that the nearby upscale neighborhoods mean that famous people are often on campus. Brad Pitt uses the gym, he says.
Everyone's ears perk up. Could this be worth out-of-state tuition?
Student in the city: It's time for recess
After the tours, which were spaced over two days, we want to sit and think and eat in a very L.A. place. Spago's and the Ivy are too expensive, so we drive to Pink's Hot Dogs on N La Brea Avenue, but the line is too long. There are plenty of chains, but we want something more authentic. So we end up in Westwood, very close to UCLA, at Jerry's Famous Deli, where we eat matzo ball soup and towering corned beef sandwiches. I am guessing the beautiful people don't splurge here too much.
Pretty girls are getting their photos taken on the sidewalks outside. There's no humidity. BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Range Rovers are the norm on the street. We want to explore more, but the teenager has other ideas. I like to think his mind is spinning from the possibilities but it's likely he just needs a break from all this forward thinking . . . and us.
Can't we just go back to the hotel so he can go to the gym?
That's the concession. We return to the Century Plaza near Hollywood and he heads for the free weights and treadmill. We sit on the balcony and wonder what's being filmed at that very moment at the 20th Century Fox studios nearby.
The teenager returns in an hour with a celebrity sighting.
He has had a short conversation at the gym with Rob McElhenney, an actor from one of his favorite TV shows, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The actor commented on the amount of weight he was lifting. How very L.A.
I think that might have made the whole trip worth it to him. Well, that and me letting him sleep late and order room service. Colleges? Who knows.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.
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