Even veiled in gray, the Lovely Campus in the Valley we toured first was breathtakingly beautiful. Professors we met were generous with their time. Enthusiastic large-group presenters addressed the packed auditorium. Our knowledgeable, clean-cut student guide maintained a helpful commentary throughout our tour.
Near the end, he gestured toward the historic front campus.
"You should see this in the spring — well, when real spring comes and the place isn't brown," he said. He became pensive, or merely weary. "You know, in the end, college is really what you make of it. What you put in, you get out."
Even without looking at her, I could tell my daughter wasn't connecting with the Lovely Campus in the Valley. I let her walk ahead for a moment, unusually silent, her shoulders hunched against more than the stiff March wind.
The day was long. We walked into town for food, both of us hungry, cold and cranky. Standing at a busy intersection, she said I asked too many questions on the tour.
"Why in God's name are we here, then?" I muttered.
The conversation built to a few frustrated tears (hers) and a short string of low-octane expletives (mine). She strode away from me. I flipped up my jacket hood against the returning cold drizzle and wondered if our scene was playing in an endless loop around campuses nationwide.
Luckily, our microdramas never last long. "It's so weird," she said that night as we curled up under our budget hotel bed's thin covers. "It's a beautiful campus, and complete strangers were coming up to me saying, 'You've got to come here! It's amazing!' And I just wasn't feeling it. What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing's wrong with you," I assured her. "Part of knowing where you belong is knowing where you don't belong."
Choosing a college was easy for me, because choice never really entered the discussion. My siblings and I attended a school near home that made financial sense. We graduated with excellent educations, independence and pathways to satisfying careers.
I loved college — the sheer freedom, the pursuit of ideas for ideas' sake, the immersion in a world where possibility awaits at every turn. Even now, each time I set foot on a college campus, my heart lurches with longing.
The next morning my daughter and I headed north to the Vast Campus in the City, soon to be my son's alma mater. As we approached the heart of campus on foot, a small miracle occurred: The sun came out and stayed out. Students streamed in every direction, absorbed in conversation and the screens of smartphones.
My daughter's spine straightened. Her stride lengthened. "Look at all these people walking around," she said. "Every one of them is different. And they all look like someone I want to be friends with."
She turned and grinned at me. "I've been here for two minutes and already I just know."
Spring fever? The temperature barely cleared 40. Yet I felt it, too. That charge of swirling energy, the feeling that things are happening here that I want to be a part of.
We entered the main library's soaring atrium. Through the transparent glass walls we saw floors of students, heads bent over laptops, and aisles of volumes stretching to the vanishing point. My daughter's neck craned to take it in. "This is for students? All of this?"
That pinch of envy again. Oh, to spend my days roaming those stacks. I nodded. "All yours."
The rec center was packed: runners on treadmills, weightlifters, people on stationary bikes with books. My daughter's a runner, so this mattered to her. The rec center at the Lovely Campus in the Valley had seemed deserted by comparison.
At the rec center cafe, she met a friend who's a freshman there. "I love it," he said. "You've got to come here." This time, the endorsement clearly resonated.
I smiled. "You've got to look closely at the programs, too."
"I know," she said. "But I'm telling you this is where I belong."
And yet. A few days later, a three-hour shadow tour left her wowed by the Seriously Underrated Campus Which Happens To Be My Alma Mater.
"Now I don't know what to do," she sighed. "Too bad it's so close to home. It's just too familiar."
I understood, but I sighed, too.
Daughter, higher education isn't marriage. It's an engagement in grand exploration. It lets you view the world through a limitless prism before you take your slot in it. Four years sounds like forever when you're 17, but it's really one brief, magical season in a circle of endlessly changing seasons. Wherever you land, jump in with arms wide open. See where life's unpredictable weather takes you.
And for heaven's sake, bring a coat.
12:00 AM EST
May 24, 2013