The college race is an ever-increasing source of stress for teenagers in America. With standardized scores, extracurriculars, essays, and countless other tests of ability to worry about, my peers and I hardly have enough time to reflect on what this “race” is all about. This spring, however, I had the chance to tour three of the oldest and most prestigious universities in this country. My journey down a small section of the East Coast opened my eyes to the incredible educational tradition of the United States and renewed my focus in academics.
My parents and I flew into Boston on a crisp, sunny morning in the first week of April. A lifetime Southerner, I was stunned by the sudden and biting chill I walked into when I exited the airport. It was supposed to be spring! Huddled inside the rental car, with the heater turned to full blast, my parents and I drove along the glittering Charles River into the city of Cambridge, home of Harvard University. I arrived just in time to sit in on a lecture in Memorial Hall, which resembles a huge Gothic cathedral. The official university tour began soon after the lecture ended, and my tour guide, a talkative theater major, led a throng of parents and teens through both the colonial buildings of Harvard Yard and the more modern structures on campus. I finished my tour by rubbing the John Harvard statue’s infamous left foot. Overall, Harvard’s bustle and cheerful cosmopolitanism impressed me greatly.
Next on our agenda was Columbia University in New York City, a four-hour drive through forested highways. We chose to return our rental car and take a bus, which dropped us off two blocks from the heart of campus. While we walked down the city streets, I gaped continually at the towering buildings all around me and the current of people passing me by on the sidewalk. Our tour began in Low Library, a domed white building much like the Roman Pantheon. My tour guide led us through campus, which – despite being located in New York City – was much calmer and quieter than Harvard. The buildings were squarely gridded and all very stately, and there were several well-manicured lawns where students played soccer or read in the grass. After the tour, as I came down the steps of Low with my parents, I noticed an enormous swarm of people gathered around one of the lawns. I edged into the crowd and heard someone say that a film crew was here. Then, that Daniel Radcliffe was here. I managed to squeeze to the front of the crowd and caught a glimpse, as well as a few photos, of him in old-fashioned clothes. Well played, Columbia Undergraduate Recruitment Team. Well played.
The next day and an hour’s Amtrak train ride later, I was at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. I had visited the campus once, three years ago, and I admit I have a giant soft spot for it. This time around, my bias toward it was confirmed. The tour guide wowed us with old wood-paneled halls, Gothic architecture, rolling green lawns, gnarled trees that provided ample shade, and just off campus, the most picturesque college town I had ever seen. It was more than the idyllic landscape, it was a gut feeling – one of utter relaxation and peace. I felt at home immediately.
Though Princeton was my favorite college, I’m infinitely glad that I got to visit Harvard and Columbia. These institutions are a staple of American higher education, and I definitely benefited from experiencing a slice of them.
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