Monday, June 23, 2014

Confessions of a Chaperone II

Coffee jitters.  Personal statements.  The Red-line.  Phobia of birds.  Laundry lessons.  Blur amidst calm.
I will now try, hopefully somewhat successfully, to recount the last three days of site visits from the perspective of an Ivy League Connection (ILC) chaperone.  On Thursday, we rode into South Station via Amtrak to catch our Dartmouth Coach shuttle that would take us to Hanover.  South Station, while now familiar to us after six visits, was crowded and intimidating at first, as we de-boarded the train and found ourselves walking briskly amidst several hurried groups of morning Boston commuters.  We assumed they were all hustling to catch the next subway transfer or maybe they were running late to work, but soon found that many of these determined commuters were actually vying for a closer spot in the ridiculously long Dunkin’ Donuts line, to get the renowned coffee.  (Over the past year, I have tried to substitute tea for coffee, because I don’t like the jittery feeling and afternoon crash that coffee gives me.  Apparently Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee is stronger than others, so I wonder what kind of state I will be in when I eventually try it. When in Rome…I digress.)  South Station is the Grand Central Station of Boston, with a huge screen of the list of upcoming arrivals and departures.  I gave each of the students cash and told them to bring me change and a receipt, so that they would have a choice of one of the many breakfast places there.  Then I waited at our table with what felt like a thousand backpacks, keeping my eyes peeled for anyone who might look like they wanted to snatch one.  (I am fully relieved, now, that we have gotten through all the site visits and no lost backpack incidents have occurred.)  Funnily enough, the students all chose Au Bon Pain, a chain of French breakfast pastries, so I ended up with several receipts at the same place and a bunch of dollar bills and change.  I enjoyed a cup of fresh fruit, orange juice, and a warmed croissant, ironically at the same place.  Don, I know you will be rolling your eyes when you see how many receipts are from Au Bon Pain that morning.

We finally boarded the Dartmouth Coach, which arrived early and left promptly at its scheduled time.  As riding the Dartmouth Coach to Hanover was a suggestion of mine to ILC, I was thrilled to find that the experience was comfortable, and most importantly, that the service was punctual.  When we boarded, there were complimentary snacks and water bottles awaiting us.  The coach was clean, the temperature was perfect, in my opinion.  (In other travel buses I have taken in California, especially when I would go to visit my sister, Karly, at Chico State, the air blowing down can be freezing.) The driver showed a film and had headphones available to those who wanted to listen to music or watch the film.  There was a bathroom, and it was neat and sanitary.  I was pleased that the Dartmouth Coach experience includes a no cell-phone rule, only conversations for arrival times or emergencies, and with the quiet calm, I fell into a deep sleep just as the past days’ travel exhaustion hit me.  Thankfully the ride is close to three hours. 

The gorgeous Dartmouth campus.

After arriving at beautiful Dartmouth, we had the pleasure of lunching at a lovely place called the Pine Restaurant, with Dean June Chu and her students AJ, Charles, and Fermin.  June and the students were outgoing and sociable, answering honestly all of the questions the students had about the Greek system, school diversity, the D-Plan, and modified majors.  June, I can tell, is the popular Dean at her school.  It is clear how much she cares about her students, and amazing how close she is with them.  “I wish you were my Dean, Ms. Chu!,” I laughed, half-joking, half-truthful.  June’s academic accomplishments are extraordinary, and I sincerely hope that she will have the chance to teach during her tenure at Dartmouth.

After touring the gorgeous campus, we spoke with the most insightful Ms. Adria Belin, Dartmouth Admissions’ Officer, who shared some really significant advice about writing personal statements.  I will definitely share this advice with my students who are in the personal-statement writing process.  She told us that her favorite personal statement of all time was about a girl’s phobia of birds, and how the girl had learned to coexist with the pigeons who lived near her building, even though she loathed and feared them.  This example helped highlight Adria’s advice that sharing a piece of yourself that isn’t on your academic application is so important.  She also shared a quote from a seventeen year-old that she thought summed up the personal-statement writing process, and it was something like “If you are not self-reflecting and coming to realizations about yourself during the process, then you aren’t doing it right.”  Of all the site visits, I definitely learned the most about what is wanted from personal statements from Adria’s discussion with us.  

Our tour guide admitted that he misses California burritos while away at Dartmouth.

After our visit with Adria, we jumped back on Dartmouth Coach and arrived at South Station.  We had some time to kill before our train back, so we took this opportunity to get to know Boston’s Chinatown a bit more, as it is situated right across from South Station.  When we entered, there were families of old and young people sitting in the nearby quad, enjoying the comfortable evening air.  I loved walking the streets and peering inside the restaurants and Bubble tea shops, observing the peaches and ginger in a small outdoor market stand, as we decided where to eat.  It reminded me a smidge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, but still felt completely new and unchartered.  We decided on Bubor Cha Cha, and had a relaxing, familial meal.  The students learned a few things about me, that I am a novice rock-climber thanks to the influence of my expert climber significant other.  And I learned a few things from the students, like how to show your server that the teapot is empty by placing the lid a certain way from Brandon, and how to order a certain garlic vegetable dish from Jing.  That’s something I love about this experience. I am constantly learning new things about the world from my cohort, flipping the idea that the youth must learn from its elders. 

The entrance to Boston's Chinatown

Sitting down to dinner at Bubor Cha Cha

On Friday, we woke a few hours later to start our Brandeis adventure.  The extra sleep was needed, as our day was full of travel by train.  While I had studied the transfers needing to get us to the Brandeis campus, buying tickets for these three transfers took the most time.  We had to purchase MBTA (the students will look that acronym up for you) Commuter Rail tickets round-trip for both the Stoughton line and Fitchburg line, and because the Providence Station doesn’t sell Red-line or Fitchburg line tickets, the others had to be purchased at South Station in the form of Charlie Cards and separate passes for each way.  Good thing I have a large wallet.  The MBTA Commuter Rail inbound/outbound jargon confused me for a second, and the students will remember our good friend Merry O’Donnell sprinting to the inbound train on the Fitchburg line, and waving us to the train, even though we knew we were taking the outbound train after asking another young lady at the station. The subway reminded me of the metro system in Paris, and I felt right at home when scouring the map for our needed transfers.  I preferred the subway system’s protocol of using the name of the last stop on that line primarily for announcements and signs, so you knew you were going in the correct direction over the Commuter Rail's inbound/outbound system.  Still, we made it where we needed to be on time, squeezing in a delicious pizza lunch at Stone Hearth Pizza, a locally-made, sustainable pizzeria near the Cambridge area.  I will refrain from adding pictures of food to my blog posts, because I know the students have so-meticulously documented the meals.  I don’t want to steal their thunder.   If this were an I-phone message I would have added a smiley face emoticon to the end of the previous sentence to show that I was being facetious. 

Kevin and fellow cohort members on the MBTA

When we finally arrived at Brandeis after what felt like a most-traveled morning, I first noticed that campus construction was occurring, seeming to be the standard on college campuses during the summertime when most students are gone.  We arrived at the Brandeis admissions’ office where parents and students awaited the informational session.  Ms. Marina Offner greeted us, and gave us the choice between the formal informational session in the next room, or a less-formal Q&A with her.  Of course, we opted for the latter, and I am so thrilled that we did.  Marina was real and down-to-earth, and described the most phenomenal founding of this private institution on the basis of social justice, freedom and equality.  Among its founders and faculty were amazing historical icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein (think West Side Story composer), Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs- all teachers should know this) and Albert Einstein.   The university was founded in the later 1940s, and with the devastating context, yet triumphant outcome of World War II, it is clear how some of the founding ideals had been conceived.  I was blown away with the history of this school, and even felt like I could see myself here in a past undergrad life.  Marina’s presentation to us took place in a room with large images of these iconic people who at some point or another had taught, spoken, or visited Brandeis.  We saw Martin Luther King Junior, seated informally on the floor, giving an inspirational talk to many in Brandeis’ Usen Castle, Leonard Bernstein, young and svelte, conducting a music class at Brandeis, and in another image, even John F. Kennedy posed amidst a group of people, because it was at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Brandeis radio show that he announced his intent to run for presidency.   The history of it all gave me the chills.  I have felt this sensation before – probably during a professor’s last-day lecture at Cal or a visit to a historical monument in Paris that symbolized something changing in the world. 

Jack and Jing amidst some inspiring historical images at Brandeis.

Arnold observing pictures of the iconic Brandeis founders

As a teacher, I loved Brandeis’ no-test-score option in the admissions’ process, meaning they allow applicants to send in a graded analytical paper and recommendation over test scores if the student feels these components better represent their capabilities.  When I teach, I see students who struggle on tests but are exceptional students regardless and show me that they are making strides and bounds in the course-learning through their participation and performance tasks.  And I see the opposite – students who ace through tests but whose learning or passion for the course I am unsure of because they only excel in multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank.  I want to be clear: the latter does not say as much about the student as is does about our country’s educational culture of standardized testing as the end-all determinant of learning and success. Thank you, Brandeis, for recognizing that test scores do not delineate exceptional candidates from mediocre ones.

Our time at Brandeis ended with a tour from two charismatic students, Dennis and Katie.  I immediately loved and felt connected to them both, as Dennis had just finished directing Hairspray, probably my favorite musical ever seen on Broadway (shout out to Dave Clark and Kim Knoll, Pinole Valley High School theater teachers, for taking us on the 2003 Theater Trip), and Katie played soccer, my sport of choice for over ten years.
One angle of Usen Castle
Usen Castle
Arnold, Dennis, Brandon, and Jing
Brandeis' technology center

After leaving beloved Brandeis and arriving back in Boston, we headed to Menton, a very upscale French-Italian fusion restaurant via taxi ride by a friendly, French-speaking driver from Haiti.  In the previous weeks, I had tried very hard to recruit some Brandeis admissions’ officers or alum with the few connections we had to dine with us at Menton, and I would have even pressed the idea with Ms. Offner or our tour guides that day if I hadn’t needed to confirm reservation numbers with Menton 48 hours in advance, so as not to pay a hefty fee.   When we entered the restaurant, it was clear why Menton is so strict about their reservations – this place was la crème de la crème.  The ambience was seductive and serious, the type of place you see in movies where James Bond observes an assassination being discussed at the next table over a chilled bottle of champagne.  Again, I will let the students describe the food, as I know they documented every course.  Just picture the camera flash of four separate cameras occurring after each plate was set down by our servers.  I want to thank Merrick, our gracious host and waiter, for answering all of our cuisine questions and helping us pick out a cheese variety post-dessert.

Riding the subway back to Boston - the Hercules crew.

Post-dinner, we had a nice walk back to South Station, crossing the Charles River over the bridge, and getting to see a slice of Boston’s young night-life on a Friday night.  With so many colleges in Boston, the city is young, yet established.  (Oh how different my life would have been as an undergrad in Boston!  Not better, just different.  Let’s not forget that I attended amazing Cal- Go Bears!)  Finally, we boarded Amtrak for Providence.  Something that I love about the east coast culture on Amtrak trains is that they have quiet cars, and this notion of quiet is held to high standards by the staff.  I have taken a few Amtrak rides in my life in California, and the rules on cell phone use are nonexistent, or if they are, not enforced.  I have had some bad experiences riding next to people carrying on in verbal, almost violent arguments over the phone, or putting their music on speaker as if everyone else around them is just begging to hear that exact same song.  But not on this train, not here.  Thank God.

Kevin in front of the Boston skyline at night

Saturday came, and it was our last day of site visits.  Let’s just skip the public transit stuff and say that Harvard’s culture wowed me.  Our tour guides, Roger and Nu, were genial, outgoing, and passionate about the campus. Their enthusiasm for the school was contagious.  If every person on Harvard campus has a personality like them, then I am posing as an undergrad and applying next year.  I don’t care if the preceding sentence came off as creepy – I just loved their charisma and passion for the school so much!  They are cool, so they will understand, or at least acknowledge my sense of humor.  Oh yeah, and there is also the fact that Harvard has produced, but not necessarily graduated major innovators like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.  I was obsessed and still am obsessed with The Social Network movie and its story about Zuckerberg and Eduardo Savarin’s time at Harvard as undergrads when Zuckerberg pioneered what we know now as Facebook.  Eric and Nu showed us Zuckerberg’s pizza spot, Pinocchio’s, before we sat down to a delightful lunch at Henrietta’s Table, where I indulged in cranberry bread and spicy melon salad over awesome conversation about admissions and academia.

With Nu and Eric

Zuckerberg's favorite pizza place near campus
Harvard vegetable garden - so cool!

We hopped on the Red-line (do I sound like a native Bostoner yet?) back to Kendall/MIT station, and we met with the kind and composed Megan Cherry of the MAPS organization.  MAPS is the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students, but Megan herself is pursuing Nano Science in the Netherlands next year for grad school, showing that the organization is broad in science interests.  The accomplishments that people are making at MIT in science, math, and technology are incredible.  There are two enormous buildings there that are dedicated solely to cancer research.  I wish we had more time with Megan to thank her for taking interest in our cohort on a Saturday afternoon.  We will not soon forget her tour or the positive way she made us feel.
These two buildings are dedicated solely to cancer research at MIT.

Our cohort with Megan Cherry, MIT grad.

Jing and Jack feeling comfortable in an MIT classroom

Today marked a huge transition for our cohort – I would be sending my Brown I students off to their dorms before transferring myself to the Hotel Providence the following day.  This morning we needed three cabs to fit all the luggage of our cohort, and headed off to the intersection of Brown Street and George Street, which has a gate that leads to the Main Green.  The three-cab situation was not ideal, but it was less expensive than a shuttle, and I bet the students whose overbearing parents were driving them in from somewhere on the east coast felt jealous of these worldly Californian teenagers stepping out of taxis in such a travel-savvy style.  Brown’s buildings are distinguished, historical, and beautiful, just like the other campuses we had seen. 

All of the students are in the Keeney Quadrangle together, or the building right next to it, so this is good for them and for me.  I got to see the inside of only Jing’s room, but was impressed with the space as a veteran of triple-dorm living at Cal. It was a little stuffy, but I had contacted the Brown Student Association a week prior and knew that there were enough rental fans awaiting us back on campus. There were also rental linens, which was good for Jack, who needed a blanket, but now wouldn’t have to lug it home in his suitcase.  There was also an optional laundry service, where you could pay to leave your dirty laundry and have someone do it for you.  I laughed as I thought to myself how the students in our cohort would definitely be learning to do their own laundry on this trip.  And then I thought of Don’s explanation at the tutorial session in the spring of how white clothes can turn pink when mixed with colors while several curious teenagers hung on every word, not knowing whether to cry or laugh. 

Arnold and Jing checking in at Main Green with their luggage.
An organ plays on the four scariest days of the school year

We had our last group-lunch-before-Brown at a Greek restaurant on Thayer Street, Andrea's.  I must say that I have been so proud of the way these students have tried every single food put in front of them, whether they know what it is or not.  Not one has pushed something away before trying it.  This says so much about their open-mindedness and their willingness to step outside of their comfort zones.  I have tried, along those same lines, to encourage our dining at restaurants of varying cuisines and styles (last night it was fondue), so that the students are getting exposure to these things.  Food is a connector, and the more food these students are familiar with, the more connections they will make with the people they meet.  I was happy to introduce the students to a traditional Greek appetizer that none of them had tried before, though I think Kevin had heard of it: spanakopita.  If you have ever eaten this phyllo-dough delicacy before, you know that it is difficult to dislike the taste. 

The students in line for registration and check-in.
Our cohort, in front of Keeney Quadrangle, in their new Brown gear.

Following lunch, we had a brief campus tour, followed by a group-voyage to find tomorrow’s first-day-of-school classrooms, followed by a trip to CVS for laundry detergent and personal toiletries, before finally returning to the intersection of Brown Street and Benevolent Street to say good-bye in front of the Keeney Quadrangle.  Our good-byes were anticlimactic, as I stood there waving awkwardly at the students saying, “Bye” over and over.  No hugs were exchanged.  Just smiles and waves as they all started off in their separate directions towards their dorms.   I didn’t long to be emotional or sad saying good-bye, because I am not sad.  I am so excited for these students.  I am excited to read their blogs, and hear about their dorm mates, their professors, their classes, and frankly, I will see them Thursday.  As Madeline and now I keep telling them, they may not know it yet, but this trip is changing their lives, and will change their lives for the better.  As I sit here wrapping up this long blog post, I recall how it felt to be a student at a university, and having that feeling that gives me chills, that feeling that in the particular moment and context of my life, I could accomplish anything, do anything, or be anyone I wanted to be. 


  1. Sounds like a great experience so far! Salivating at the thought of all of the delicious foods. Really entertaining! We miss you! (I digress)

  2. Thanks for reading, Karly! Sending my love to the Scott clan. I miss you, too.