Walking Backward

On each of the twenty-three college campuses I visited with my daughter in the last two years, our student tour guides led us through buildings and quads, walking backwards, telling stories as they went. Just as small colleges have much in common though each is distinctive in its flavor, the same can be said of college tours. Tour guides will tell you how many students study abroad, and whether it's 35 percent or 80 percent, they tell you the number is awesome.

You've got to hand it to college tour guides. Not only do they have to be credible storytellers, historians, spokespersons, and interpreters of the native culture, but they also have to field any question or situation that may arise. Last fall, on a day when Kenyon, among several colleges nationwide, received a (thankfully benign) bomb threat, a tour guide led a group of visitors into McBride residence hall just as it was being evacuated. "Is this common?" asked a slightly bewildered visitor. "No," the tour guide replied, unflappable, "this would be unusual," and without missing a beat she showed them a standard double before moving on to the next stop on the tour.

As Dennis Fiely's feature in this issue makes clear, the most challenging questions put to tour guides come not from prospective students, but from their parents. The kids' nervousness often expresses itself as silence. They are trying to figure out who they would be if they spent four years in this place. But their parents, experiencing an emotional upheaval of their own and contemplating a large financial investment, tend to wear their anxious hearts on their sleeves.

My daughter and I encountered a few such parents on college tours. Though most were personable, and a handful exchanged e-mail addresses with me and said keep in touch, let us know where your daughter applies, we also saw a father grill a tour guide with questions about the political leanings of her professors, nearly bullying her to give him the answer he seemed to be expecting. (She resisted the pressure with admirable grace.) On an East Coast college tour, a low-level politician from another state distributed his business card to the other parents, unable to resist an opportunity to work a crowd.

And then there was the parent touring a midwestern university who was falling all over himself to impress the tour guide with how many facts he knew about her college. His daughter visibly struggled to suppress her embarrassment. The rest of us cringed. But something else was at work here: I detected a wistful note in his bragging, as though he wished he'd had the top-notch education he was prepared to provide for his daughter. I think a lot of parents on campus tours wish they could go back to college and do it the way it is done these days. That father's eagerness may have stuck out in the crowd, but the underlying sentiments are probably widely shared.

Parents on college tours, it turns out, are physically walking forward, but with our memories and our hearts a lot of us are walking backward, too. I found myself reliving my own long-ago college interviews. At the same time, I revisited earlier landmarks of my daughter's growing independence, from first steps to riding a two-wheeler, that had led us now to this exciting-scary passage known as Leaving Home for College.

College tour guides walk backward for a reason: through their stories and their love for their schools, they guide us into the knowledge of all that their college has to offer. We follow them, trying to picture our children's future. And the backward walking we parents do, we should do without regret. We wish for our children a better experience -- and a better life -- than we have had. Just as we hold their fingers at the first trembling steps and then let go, or steady the two-wheeler with our hand before releasing them into the breeze, so we send them to college in the hope that they will one day outpace us. As parents, eventually we need to fall back and let our children find their own way. And in this, our forward-dreaming, backward-glancing hearts may be the best guide.

Amy Blumenthal is responsible for Kenyon's award-winning admissions publications. Over the past eighteen months, she has accompanied her daughter through a college search, giving her ample opportunity to survey the competition and reflect on a rite of passage.

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