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Sunday, January 23, 2022

‘It’s Nice to Feel Wanted’

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On Saturday I got another reminder of how different the world looks at 17. The Girl and I attended a tour of the Honors College at Rutgers.

For context, Rutgers is the flagship state university in our state. More so than in many other states, its prestige seems to vary in inverse relationship to how physically close you are to it. Locally, it doesn’t get much love. Get a few states away and people think it’s an Ivy. Having lived both near and far, and having gone there for my doctorate, I’ll say it’s a solid and well-respected public research university that has made some questionable choices around football. But TG had largely absorbed the local sense in her high school that it’s nothing special.

Still, it’s important to have a relatively affordable public option in the mix. So she applied, though more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.

A couple of weeks ago, she got an invitation to tour the Honors College. We went on Saturday.

We both came away surprised and impressed, if for different reasons.

I was struck immediately by how much the campus and the area around College Avenue have changed. In the ’90s, it was still rough around the edges in a lot of ways. The Honors College dorms didn’t exist then. Most of the buildings on the main campus, other than the historic ones, were ’60s public brutalist. But apparently the last decade or so brought a building boom, both for the university and for landlords in the area. (I also had a bit of a shock when a tour guide mentioned that he was a poli sci major, and I started counting down the professors who were around then. This one’s dead, that one’s dead, this one left, that one retired, that one was pushed out …) Apparently, according to the dean at the info session, the Honors College itself is all of eight years old. The dorms looked amazing.

TG agreed that the buildings were nice, but she noticed different details. The first tour guide we met was an English major. When TG mentioned English as a possible major, the guide started listing off classes she had taken there that she loved. When she mentioned Medieval Women Writers, I could see TG’s ears perk up. Later, at lunch, TG opined that the guide was “so cool,” and the classes she named sounded amazing.

A second tour guide was a biology major with an undeniable presence. He offered a worldly sophistication that TG found aspirational. He also pointed out the train to New York City that’s within a short walk of the dorms. She noticed.

After the tour we stayed for the information session, featuring two deans and two students. We’ve been to enough of those by now that we have a sense of how they typically go. That also allowed us to notice when something extraordinary happened. In this case, we both noticed when the panel mentioned that the Honors College has an assistant dean for professional development whose entire job it is to help students in the HC prepare résumés, navigate job interviews and arrange internships. That scored major points with both of us.

Afterward, as we walked to Easton Avenue for lunch, I asked TG what she thought. She mentioned the assistant dean, paused and added, “It’s nice to feel wanted.” When I asked what she meant, she mentioned that at several other places, the vibe was about students proving their worth. Here, the vibe was the university proving its worth to the students. It felt like it was climbing, rather than resting on its laurels. And the emotional impact on her was a sense of being welcome, as opposed to being judged. I hadn’t picked up on that in quite the same way but recognized it when she said it. A little validation can go a long way.

I don’t know where this one will fall on her list, but I can report that it went from obligatory to a real contender. We were both impressed. Nicely done, Rutgers.

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