Give it the ol' college try

The Enterprise — Jo E. Prout

God. Country. Notre Dame. Rising high school senior Benito Flores, the son of Enterprise reporter Jo E. Prout, began his college search early this year, and included a visit to the University of Notre Dame. Here, Flores stands outside the Basilica on campus. 

Some days, I feel old. I don’t feel old because my hair is gaining sparkles. I don’t feel old because my son, Benito, is looking at colleges and entering his senior year of high school. I feel old because, when I went to college, I sent off my scores, picked two schools — with State as a back-up — and applied. Easy peasy, simple as pie. I got in, I went to school, I graduated, and here I am. Now, the entire process has changed.

For over a decade, I’ve watched my friends travel the country to visit colleges for their children, and I’ve heard how application fees for up to 12 universities could add up.

“Why are you driving?” I asked them. They needed to see which school would be a good fit for their kids, they said.

“Why don’t they just apply to a couple schools?” I asked.

“They have to apply to that many,” they told me. “So many students apply now, they might not get in if they don’t.”

Hmmm. I didn’t buy it, not with University at Albany, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and The College of Saint Rose within easy driving distance, and about 50 nice private and public schools within a four-hour radius. I pooh-poohed their explanations, and told my young kids to go for whatever school offered them the most money and the least amount of loans.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the University of Notre Dame, and so did my husband. We didn’t mind the crippling debt too much, although that sounds ridiculous. Still, I wanted my kids to have it better than we did.

I didn’t push Notre Dame to the kids, until my brainiac boy, with perfect 800 scores on his College Boards, started getting mail from Harvard, Yale, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My kid wants to build, to lead, to be presidential, or to have the options to do those things and any others. He looked at the tiny post card from Notre Dame and the large packet from Harvard, and booked a visit to Harvard.

He walked around Cambridge in the rain with my husband, and was banned from most buildings as a measure to keep tourists out. Benito loved it, anyway. Presidents, he reminded me, attended Harvard.

“Go buy a lottery ticket,” I advised him. “Or, stand in the rain and wait for lightning.” He ignored me.

The summer program at Notre Dame was full and didn’t take him, but Benito received a blue book from Yale. He booked a college visit to New Haven, Connecticut.

There was no food en route to New Haven. We stopped at a gas station for snacks. Strike number one.

The campus was nice, but small and urban. A hyper, but well-spoken, administrator who reminded us of Sam on the television series “The West Wing” — a favorite of Benito — impressed. The student discussion centered on both travel abroad and on-campus safety. Strike two.

The beautiful, historic library was closed. Strike three.

We lunched just a block away from Yale at a restaurant that was a front for money laundering, or something. As we sat waiting for the “cook” to dump canned sauce on a plate for us, we watched drugs and money change hands outside. Every building there was gang-tagged with graffiti. Were we “out” yet? I hated it.

Still, the campus was nice enough, old enough to feel elitist and Northeastern, two of Benito’s unspoken requirements. Harvard undergrad, Yale Law; or Yale undergrad, Harvard Law?


Under the Golden Dome, Benito Flores, center, poses with his father and younger sister at the University of Notre Dame. The Enterprise — Jo E. Prout


Back in reality, it was time for our annual trip to visit relatives in the Midwest, so we asked him to book visits at the University of Chicago and Notre Dame.

We fought the Chicago traffic to make our way to the single parking garage between the university and a hospital, and snagged a coveted spot. We then walked three city blocks to find the entrance to the main quads. On each corner, a security guard stood next to a blue-light security station and wished us a good morning — at 8:30 a.m. Anxiety level: high.

We walked through an arch into a lovely green quad and left the concrete jungle behind; green space and well-aged architecture are immediately soothing.

The personal interview went well, Benito said. The interviewer, a senior, seemed like a baby to me; is my son’s career in the hands of children? What will be, will be, I suppose. If he didn’t get into a Northeastern school, he could have a challenging and enjoyable experience here, he thought. He was happy.

I wasn’t, after listening to the school representative; on paper, the school seems to be competitive and to offer multiple opportunities, but in person, the rep seemed to cater to the kids who are “most improved.” I was afraid she was going to break into “Kum ba yah.” Maybe it was an off day — maybe the school should switch duties among its administrators.

The campus tour was interesting enough. In Benito’s mind, perhaps, and even in mine, gargoyles should be a part of a college experience. UChicago had gargoyles galore. I resisted the urge to point out that a couple of the buildings at Notre Dame also have gargoyles; I snapped Benito’s picture and a shot of the gargoyles against a beautiful summer sky, and kept my mouth shut.

Every school we visited mentioned that the dining halls are like the one in Hogwarts of the fictional Harry Potter world. Each mention renewed my annoyance, as my first thought when seeing the dining hall in the Harry Potter movies was that it looked just like the South Dining Hall at Notre Dame. My son had eaten in that dining hall as an infant, as a 4-year-old, and as a visiting adolescent. The imagery he remembers? Hogwarts.

At UChicago, we dined on gluten-free vegetarian Indian food in a Hogwarts-ian room and gazed at portraits of past presidents — much tastier and safer than New Haven.

So many trips to Chicago, and we hadn’t yet visited Sue, the quite-complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton at The Field Museum, so off we went. Spoiled with New York’s museums, we still enjoyed our trip seeing 100-year-old preserved specimens like narwhals and pandas. The fifth-grade-level exhibit descriptions were a bit disappointing, as was the hustling by museum employees at the door to “upgrade” our tickets, but science and good intentions prevailed, and our day in Chi-town was complete.

At Notre Dame, last on Benito’s list, the family celebrated our return “home.” We met my old friend and professor, after whom Benito was partially named, for lunch at the student center, then wandered into the Basilica together and into the Grotto — two magnificent places for prayer and reflection, and major parts of the Notre Dame experience.

I went to the Roman Catholic school as a Protestant, and I loved it. Faith is a quiet, but present, part of life there; no one is considered stupid or less competent for expressing or holding a faith, and buses are provided weekly for students who want to travel off-campus to a temple, church, or mosque. I don’t think Benito will be welcomed that way at MIT, and, when I realized he was looking so closely in the Northeast, where Greek life and atheism sometimes trump individualism and acceptance, I started to push Notre Dame, with its single-sex dorms that each hold a small chapel for 10 p.m. Mass (attendance optional).

Two weeks before our trip, with the worry only a mother could understand, I pulled out a card from Erin, a Notre Dame admissions officer who had traveled to Troy two years ago.

Harvard and Yale send Benito emails twice weekly, I wrote in an email to Erin. Does Notre Dame have a different policy? You do remember my son, a possible legacy student? He sent you his scores?

Yes, I sounded desperate. I think my hair gained a bit more sparkle.

Within 20 minutes, Erin wrote back, saying that Notre Dame sends one item in the sophomore year, summer school information in the junior year, and a larger packet senior year; Benito was scheduled to receive it, and they had a record of every correspondence with him, she said. They try not to inundate students with too much attention, she said.

Well, that strategy backfired with Benito, for sure. He thought Notre Dame didn’t want him, so he started looking elsewhere. However, looking at the mailbox contents of college material that we move directly to the recycling bin each day, I can understand Notre Dame’s laidback approach.

At the Notre Dame visit this summer, Benito found more things to like about our alma mater, which, thankfully, has stayed on his list while RPI and state schools have fallen off.

Benito sat with his father in an info session, and I took his sisters to the beach at the end of Notre Dame’s twin lakes. Running the trail around the lakes was a favorite activity when I was there; walking it this summer was refreshing.

I dragged the girls away from their sand castles to join the boys on a campus tour.

The library was open, and we walked by the rare-books collection. Benito was excited to go back and see a Gutenberg Bible there after the tour, but a second trip to the beach, a run up the administration building’s steps, and a necessary trip to the bookstore to buy T-shirts took too long. I fear the only access to the Bible is electronic, but it would have been nice to explore.


A fraction of Heaven’s glory: Every inch of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame inspires awe, from the paintings on its ceiling to its old wooden kneelers. Benito’s sister, Marcela, is getting an early look at college. The Enterprise — Jo E. Prout


We toured the new science building; its biodiversity museum looked so amazing that Benito was tempted to leave the group. We stopped at the God Quad to take pictures of the golden dome, and we walked through the new Campus Ministry building on our way to the Grotto, where Benito’s 6-year-old sister stopped to light a candle. She isn’t Catholic. I asked her what she wanted to pray for, and she said she would pray for Jesus and for me.

“OK, then, Honey, you go pray,” I told her.

That may have been the last straw for Benito at Notre Dame; too much religion, too often. An annual visit to the Grotto is fun for us; daily life on campus is different, and whatever you make it, but it’s hard for him to see that on a quick tour. He likes Notre Dame as a family home, but sometimes, a boy wants to grow up and move away.

As a trial run, we sent him away this summer to Assumption College in Massachusetts. Benito loved his classes, and he was thrilled to discuss philosophy with a teaching assistant who just returned from studying at Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and a professor who studied at Oxford. Assumption and Notre Dame share a program that offers a liberal arts degree from Assumption in three years and an engineering degree from Notre Dame for a final two years. Even as a legacy student, there is no guarantee for Notre Dame, so we like the dual-program as a fall back, and he likes its flexibility and the college’s proximity to Boston.

Assumption was great for him, even if its admittance numbers don’t seem as restrictive, or impressive, as those of other institutions. Everyone wants to be proud of where they go, but I hope he will find his fit, grow and learn, and come to be proud of himself for who he is, regardless of the university name on his degree.

After all, anyone can run for president.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.