College visits produce anxiety, nostalgia

The joke about campus tours is that they’re all the same.

This short video from College Humor captures it nicely.

After taking two such tours this week with my middle son, Harris, I’ve concluded that, yes, touring campuses starts to feel like deja vu after a while, but if you’re paying attention, there’s a lot you can learn about your children… and yourself.

I never took a campus tour at what was then Troy State University before deciding to matriculate there in May of 1988. I took them up on their scholarship offer late in my senior year of high school. It was a practical decision made for purely financial reasons. The first time I set foot on the Troy campus was for pre-college orientation that summer.

Lance and Harris pose with the bronze statue of the Mercer Bear in front of the University Center building.
Harris and I pose for a selfie with the ferocious Mercer Bear outside of the University Center.

I have taken a few campus tours since, and now that I work in higher education, I’ve given a few. Carla and I did a round of college visits with our oldest when he was making his college selection. Visits to University of Georgia, Clemson, and Kennesaw State along with an informal, football-centric trip to Auburn (thanks to our friends, the Hursts!), rounded out his explorations. He ultimately landed at KSU for a year and a half before transferring to Georgia where he is now happily ensconced.

Barron was all about the college experience, particularly the marching band experience. He was coming off two years as drum major of his high school marching band, and he wanted to march in a big-time college band that played big-time games on big-time television and gave him big-time memories. At the time of those tours, he didn’t really know what he wanted to major in, vacillating between communications and music education.

Fast forward three years and he’s now a furnishings and interiors major with a concentration in historic preservation and played his trumpet on the field at the national championship game in Indianapolis back in January. So things worked out just fine. The campus tour did not make or break his future.

Harris Wallace listens to a tour guide outside of the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building on the historic quad of Mercer University's campus.
When we think of Mercer, we think of the historic quad, including the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building.

Our second son, Harris, is different in just about every way possible. While he has loved his marching band experience in high school, he is not seeking that from college. He is already working his 30-year plan, which includes a run for public office concluding with the White House. The two visits he took this week were to Mercer and UGA where one of the chief features the two have in common is a law school. (Emory is on the list to visit as well.)

The rah-rah portions of the tour didn’t appeal to him as much. He did soak up the vibe, which was a hot one this week, but his interests were more about academics, application processes, scholarships, honors programs and dual degrees that allow a student to complete a bachelor’s and master’s in an abbreviated time. His goals are more academic and profession-based than his brother’s. 

As the parents on these tours, Carla and I try to be present and offer advice without taking over. That was easier at UGA than at Mercer from which both of us have a degree. Carla particularly wanted to go into every building to see how it was different from when she went there back in the ‘90s. Spoiler alert: the campus has changed quite a bit.

Harris Wallace poses in front of the University of Georgia School of Law.
Harris can envision himself attending classes here at the University of Georgia School of Law one day.

I think our nostalgia annoyed Harris more than it helped, but our personal connections to the institution made that inevitable. Those connections did lead to Harris getting to meet Mercer President Bill Underwood, something no one else on our tour with Kelli was able to do. I don’t think Harris minded our Mercerian status then.

Here’s what I have learned from the college visit process from two cycles:

Separate emotion from data. Start with your child’s career interests and work backward. It’s not criminal if they don’t know what they want to do, but if they have an idea, it’s a good starting point. Then look at the academic degrees offered. Faculty matter in those fields, too, but don’t get hung up on rankings and reputational stuff. Good students succeed no matter where they are planted. And if you, like us, have some alma maters in the running, try not to let your glory days have too much influence. Our children need to blaze their own trails. If they do choose your school, know that their experience will be different from yours.

Your child’s future is not at stake. Try to relax and help your child enjoy the tour. It may feel like getting into the right school and making the right college choice is a life-or-death decision, but it’s not. Transferring is a reality. There are many paths to success. If you feel your anxiety level rising during the campus tour, take a time out and try not to let your issues infect your child. They will make better decisions without all the extra emotional baggage.

Don’t bring that helicopter. A colleague at another university recently told me that at their college orientation, the student life staff purposely have multiple options for free T-shirts just so they can force students to make a decision. It’s part of their preparation for college. She said all too often parents will step in, or, even worse, the student will turn to the parent and ask them which shirt they should pick. Staff are trained to then redirect the question to the student: “Which shirt do YOU want?” If you haven’t already built the habit of letting your child make some decisions for themselves, the campus tour is a good place to start.

As we wait for test scores and applications to open, I’m working on being present with Harris as he contemplates his future. It’s both a help and a hindrance that I work in higher education. You don’t have to be an expert to help your child navigate this decision, and your child’s choice will not determine the course of their entire life. Their future is still very much in their hands.

We’re on our second of three times through this journey of campus tours and college selection. Harris’ experience is different from Barron’s, and I’m sure Carlton’s will be unique from his older brothers’. 

Harris Wallace talks with a female UGA tour guide on the Million Dollar Staircase on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens.
Harris gets to know “Lou” our UGA tour guide from Greensboro, NC, as they walk down the “Million Dollar Staircase.”

Carla likes to talk about seasons of life. This is one of those seasons that I’m learning to enjoy. It’s fun to reminisce, but I’m trying to let Harris make his own memories.

Hey, let me tell you about that time my roommate Scott skulled a possum in the parking lot of our dorm…

What was your campus tour like? How has it been different with your children? Did you find it stressful? Let’s process this together. Leave a comment and contribute to the conversation.

Mercer pride

Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people's Facebook profile across my network.
Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people’s Facebook profile across my network.

I had just wrapped up a conference call and had about 15 minutes until I needed to leave my office for my next meeting on the other side of the Georgia Tech campus.

A quick check of the Mercer-Duke score revealed Duke had pulled ahead. No need to get excited. The Number 3 seed was doing what Number 3 seeds do in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I spent some time working on a PowerPoint presentation and managed a few more productive edits before I clicked back over to see the score. With just a couple of minutes left, Mercer, the overwhelming underdog, had pulled ahead.

“This might get interesting,” I thought.

So like a lot of other Mercer fans – an almost nonexistent term until yesterday – I indulged and gave up a few minutes of my day to see an improbable upset, leaving my office only when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

I wasn’t much good in my meeting. I kept checking Twitter and Facebook to see my myriad social media connections to Mercer light up with jubilation. The unbelievable had happened.

That’s when I felt it, a moment I had never felt as a holder of a master’s degree from Mercer: school pride. Did I mention I used to work there, too? No? Well, I did, and now that Mercer has defeated Duke in the NCAA tournament, you can bet I’ll be mentioning it a lot more in the future.

“Yeah, I used to work there… you know, Mercer? Yeah, that’s right, the school that beat Duke.”

The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.
The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.

In the South, you must have your teams. I know this is more of a football phenomenon in the Deep South, but when you look to the Appalachian or coastal regions, basketball is king.

Having pride in your school’s athletic accomplishments is not just a Southern thing, but in the New South, it definitely gives you markers with which you can identify yourself on social media. You are either a Dawg or a Jacket, an exclaimer of “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle,” a fan of Florida or Florida State and so on. This is a socially acceptable and even socially expected way to identify yourself.

And up until yesterday, the shorthand “Mercer fan” had not existed. Yes, I have plenty of friends who work at Mercer and some whose children go there, and a lot of people in my personal network, including my wife, went there, but even those with close connections to the school weren’t really rabid with Mercer basketball pride.

Even my wife, who has not one once of athletic interest, managed to come up with a Facebook post that entered the realm of euphoric fanaticism… for her:

“Be the Bear, Mercer Proud, and all that jazz!”

Lame, I know, but that’s the point: Mercer has a bunch of graduates and “fans” like this who are ill-prepared to celebrate a success of this magnitude. Even I didn’t know what to do with these feelings of Mercer pride at first, but now that I know what this is, it’s growing on me.

For all the academic purists out there, this is where you have to admit that athletics plays an important role in higher education. For every alumnus who goes on to invent something great or achieve a lofty position or have a national nightly cable show, not even Nancy Grace can give a school the kind of profile that a bracket-busting victory in the NCAA tournament can.

This is why schools have athletic programs. This is ultimately why Mercer reinstated its football program this year after a 72 year hiatus. Sports get people excited. High-profile victories against national powerhouse programs put you on their level, at least for a day. Alumni feel pride. The general public talks about your school. High school kids suddenly think they may want to go there. Donors are inspired to write big checks.

We’ll see what happens Sunday when Mercer takes on Tennessee, but for now, there’s plenty to celebrate for “Mercer Nation” … another term that has never before been used in the English language until yesterday.

I, for one, will break out my “Be the Bear” T-shirt and wear it with pride.

OK, Mercer fans, it’s your shining moment. Share what you were doing when Mercer beat Duke. Were you at the game in Raleigh? Were you at work sneaking a peak at the ESPN gamecast? What was it like? Leave a comment below and let the celebration continue.

An encounter with the irascible Dr. Sams

Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.
Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.

Dr. Ferrol Sams died this week at the age of 90. If you don’t know who he is, then shame on you.

He might have said something to the effect of “You ain’t got a lick-a-sense if you’ve never read my books.”

The author of “Run With the Horsemen,” “The Whisper of the River” and “When All the World Was Young,” is one of Georgia’s best-known and best-loved writers. His passing this week reminded me of my discovery of his work and my dealings with the mischievous and sometimes profane Southern literary luminary.

It was January of 1993, six months into my stint as a features writer for The Macon Telegraph. I was given the assignment of researching and revealing Macon’s “secret places” – those rumored and legendary haunts around town that many had heard of but few had ever seen. It was a great story that took several weeks of interviewing and reading to pull together. It was in the reporting for this story that I first learned of Ferrol Sams and his work.

One of the secret places I was including in the piece was a room at the base of the spire of Mercer University’s administration building where Porter Osborne Jr., Sams’ main character from the “The Whisper of the River,” lost his virginity. Incoming Mercer freshmen are required to read “The Whisper of the River,” but since I had not matriculated at that fine institution at the time of my story assignment, I hadn’t even heard of Ferrol Sams.

I devoured the book – a thinly veiled autobiographical novel of Sams’ time at Mercer. In the book, Osborne, a country boy, goes off to Willingham College in the fictional version of Macon, and mad-cap and bawdy adventures ensued, including, of course, the chapter when Osborne has his fledgling sexual encounters in the secret room in the bell tower.

It was just such chapters that led my friend and fellow church member, the late Dr. William Shirley, to tell me one day after church “Lance, that’s a dirty book.” Dr. Shirley was a classmate of Dr. Sams at Mercer, and although I went back and re-read “The Whisper of the River” looking for him, I couldn’t figure out which character represented Dr. Shirley.

At Mercer University's 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.
At Mercer University’s 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.

It was somewhat awkward the day I went with Telegraph photographer Maryann Bates to Mercer to do interviews about the room. A young, rather attractive woman from the University Relations Office escorted us up to the room where she told us all about the space and how it achieved notoriety.

I remember blushing and stuttering the question “So, is this the room where… you know… IT happened?”

Maryann couldn’t suppress a laugh at my poor attempt at euphemism.

When the story appeared, I received a letter from retired – and now deceased – Macon attorney Hendley Napier. Mr. Napier insisted my story had incorrectly identified the location of the secret room as the Kappa Alpha fraternity’s chapter room, and he was most offended.

My editor, James Palmer, and I went back and forth over how best to respond to Mr. Napier. It was this experience that taught me there is no one more tenacious than a retired attorney with time on his hands. James determined that Mr. Napier reached his conclusion about my story erroneously. I had not said the KA chapter room was the secret room, but some imprecise language, specifically the antecedent of the impersonal pronoun “it,” was the source of the confusion. We did not run a correction or even a clarification.

This didn’t sit well with Mr. Napier who proceeded to carry out a one-man campaign against me and The Telegraph until justice was done and the KA chapter room exonerated. In one of the letters, Mr. Napier threatened to contact Dr. Sams himself to set the record straight.

About a month later, as I struggled with writing original prose about the 1993 Macon Cherry Blossom Festival, the phone at my desk rang. (The following is a loose transcript based on my memory, not the actual notes.)

“Macon Telegraph, this is Lance Wallace,” I recited.

“Is this Lance Wallace?” came the agitated response.

“Uh, yes… yes, it is. How may I help you?”

“You the one who did that story about the secret room at Mercer?”

“Yes… yes sir, I’m the one.”

“Well, I don’t know what you did, but you sure got Hendley Napier all stirred up.”

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry.”

“This is Dr. Sams up in Fayette County. It seems you have written something about my book and have Hendley Napier all out of sorts. He asked me to give you a call to clear this up. You got a pen?”

“Uh… yes, yes sir, right here.”

The cover of the copy of "Whisper of the River" I read back in 1993.
The cover of the copy of “Whisper of the River” I read back in 1993.

“Good. You take this down: The Kappa Alpha Chapter Room at Mercer University is a hallowed and sacred place. Many significant rites and solemn vows were made in that room where the bonds of brotherhood were firmly established with the utmost fervor and conviction. No male human could possibly attain an erection much less consummate the act of sexual intercourse in so grave and somber an environment. Furthermore, any rumor contradicting the widely-known and indisputable fact that Hendley Napier graduated Mercer University anything other than a virgin is an egregious and bald-faced lie.”

“Uh… Dr. Sams… uh… I can’t…”

“Son, you ain’t got no hair on your ass if you don’t put that in the newspaper.”

“Well… I don’t  think…”

“If that Hendley Napier calls you again, please tell him I called. Have a good day.”

Stunned, I slowly returned the handset to the base and stared down at the scribbling in my reporter’s notebook. When I relayed the conversation to my editor, James laughed so hard he nearly had tears. Shaking his head he said to me, “Yep, that sounds like Ferrol Sams. You be sure to keep those notes.”

Well, I’m sure I have those notes somewhere in my basement, but the memory is so vivid they are unnecessary.

I’m sorry to learn of his passing, but at 90, it can be said that Ferrol Sams lived a full life. I’m glad he shared it with us through his books.

Have you read any of Ferrol Sams’ work? If so, which is your favorite? Leave a comment with your assessment of his writing. You don’t have any hair… well, you get the idea… if you don’t leave a comment!