By Rory Gilchrist
College is perhaps the first of the most significant of the choices you make for yourself, as an individual (reflect on that for a bit, it’s kind of awesome… and a little scary?). It’s certainly not a decision set in stone, but it’s one that a lot of high schoolers—and their parents—spend a lot of time worrying over. I remember when I was deciding between colleges, I felt I had to choose wisely. I could always transfer if I wasn’t completely happy, as my parents reminded me, but I still wanted to go somewhere that I felt I had a connection. My research into possible colleges extensive, I started looking at visiting.
It’s important to remind yourself that glossy admissions brochures give you one perspective, not necessarily inaccurate, but a perspective that the college has chosen to show you. When you visit, you get to see the environment that you’ll be spending up to the next four years of your life, or even more in some cases. There’s no way that a pamphlet will be able to answer your questions satisfactorily, or give you a realistic glimse to what actually living there is like. Visiting a college, therefore, becomes almost necessary.
A couple of practical concerns about visiting. Yes, it gets expensive. It’s usually not worth it financially to visit every college you’ve ever heard of, but if you have a handful of colleges you’re truthfully interested in attending, then a visit can be super valuable. Also, try and get a perspective from many different people on campus: faculty, students and admissions officers. Try to take all of the information you’re given in context with everything else. Take it all with a grain of salt. College students love to complain, and if they tell you the cafeteria food is horrible, they may be exaggerating a little. Same goes for admissions people. Be cynical, be critical, but if they say something that bears out what you’ve seen, feel confident in your ability to make decisions for yourself.
That lesson, to examine the college experience with which I was presented with a critical eye, took me a while to learn. Junior and senior years of high school, traipsing around college campuses nearly indistinguishable from one another, I was struck by the sameness of each tour I went on. The guides would show off the same facilities, give the same statistics, even make the same jokes. I had to choose between these? They all seemed so similar, so… ordinary.
I went to visit St. John’s in Santa Fe right before Thanksgiving my Junior year. It had snowed a couple of days before, and the mountains were still capped with a thin layer of snow. It was stunning. It was a campus that was nestled in an area of natural beauty, one that was architecturally in keeping with its surroundings, not just brick-building monstrosities clumped together with no rhyme nor reason. This was different.
There were no massive tours, no pushy parents dictating the path of the tour. Just me and a student at St. John’s. I was able to ask the questions I wanted to know, and get a response that felt sincere, not just regurgitated facts and figures but an honest reply that let the Program speak for itself. It’s a unique and valuable undertaking, a Johnnie degree, so it shouldn’t need gimmicks to sell it. It sells itself.
I was enthralled. I wanted to see the library, so I asked my tour guide if we could see it. I wanted to see what students do when they have time off, so we went to the coffee shop. Students were typing essays on laptops, or working out Apollonius propositions on one of the chalkboards. Sure, they were talking about things that any college-aged student would be, like Flight of the Conchords, or the party in the Great Hall that weekend, but they were also talking about Heidegger. They were complaining about their workload, and they were extolling their tutorials. These were the kinds of things that were on their mind, these are the kinds of things I would be talking about if I were a student here. It was genuine. Those coffee shop conversations gave me a real sense of what my life would be like, what I would worry about or laugh about. No way anyone could have told me that on an admissions website. If they had, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Seeing it firsthand, I thought “this is what being a Johnnie feels like.”
And of course, seminar. It’s the biggest part of the Program, and there’s no way to communicate the magic of it without seeing it for yourself. I can’t think of a better word than magic. The seminar was a freshman one, on Plato’s Phaedo. Witnessing the give-and-take, the decorous exchange of ideas I knew I wanted to join in. I think I had read that St. John’s was about collaboration, not competition in class; I don’t really think I knew what that meant until I saw a seminar and beheld the curiosity on the part of students and tutors. Everyone in the room wanted to get at the hardest parts of the reading, to understand the text not just for themselves, but for the benefit of each participant in the dialectic. It truly is an education in common, and I wouldn’t have realised that until I got here had I not visited St. John’s.
After visiting St. John’s, it felt like I had gone from “this seems like an interesting place” to “this is possibly the most exciting and engaging education I can imagine.” Looking back on it, it was probably the clinching factor in getting me to submit my application. My enthusiasm for this Program started then, and I am continually reminded how lucky I am to study in such a fabulous place.