The First High-stakes Decision of a Young Person’s Life
How can it already be time to decide where I will go to college? Well, I guess I am a junior in high school. It should not have come as a surprise. I always knew I would be going to college. It was an expectation my parents had for me and my three older siblings, and my teachers all said that a college education would be especially essential for me, a person with a disability. I had vicariously experienced the excitement of my siblings as they applied to and left for college, even longed for the day when I would apply to colleges, not necessarily because I was looking forward to more years of school, quite the opposite actually. But I longed for relatives to crowd around me at family gatherings to converse about career ambitions, campus environments and scholarships, as opposed to the monotonous conversations of childhood.
“How’s school going?” “What’s your favorite subject?” “Did you get your homework done?”
And I longed to visit colleges all over the country like my sister who took an airplane trip out east with Dad spring break of her senior year to visit colleges. I was in sixth grade at the time and while I knew that college was just a more prestigious and challenging form of the school I was already in, the fact that I could choose from schools all over the country rather than just feeding in to the next school in my district, seemed like such a thrilling prospect.
But now that I am a junior, it has occurred to me that as an outsider looking in, I only saw what my imagination wanted me to see. In reality, while of course I am a little excited, I am mostly wracked with stress and anxiety. How is it that so far the biggest decisions I have had to make have been whether to take American literature or British Literature, or whether I wanted chocolate or vanilla ice cream, and yet now I am expected to make this high-stakes decision that will determine the trajectory of the rest of my life?
Half of me longs to go to college far from home to experience independence, meet new people, experience a new culture and defy my parents who say that given my special needs, it would be unwise to be far away from home at such a young age. Yet the other half of me knows they are right. What will I do if I fall on hard times and all I can do is call them from my lonely dorm room when what I really need is a hug? With these conflicting voices fighting in my head every waking moment of every day, I start researching and visiting colleges.
I actually don’t want to get on an airplane and visit colleges out east. That is too far away even for me, and while my grades are excellent, they are not as excellent as my sister’s were, so even applying to colleges out east would be a waste of time. But I am fixated on Saint Olaf’s College in Minnesota, a five hour drive from home. I love singing in choir, and Saint Olaf’s choirs are amazing. They even perform a Christmas program that is broadcast on TV every year. I don’t know what academic programs they offer but who cares? I’ll be in a choir prestigious enough to call my parents and tell them when we will be on TV! I get the chance to informally visit Saint Olaf’s when my high school choir is invited to a choral festival there. I don’t have a chance to inquire in to disability services or academic offerings, but the people are kind and the food is fabulous. I get back on the bus for home ready to apply and ask more detailed questions later.
But my parents are adamant it is too far, and even as I fear being so far myself, I am angry at the feeling that I am being held back. I almost cry at times over the stress of choosing which of these conflicting voices to listen to.
“You know, it is easy to get caught up in where to go to college, but what is really important is what you want to study,” Mom said one day in the car when she can tell I am stressing about the college decision again, “so you should first decide what you want to study, find out which schools offer what you are interested in and go from there.”
Such obvious and logical advice. Why hadn’t that occurred to me sooner? Given how much I love a mentorship program I am participating in with a local newspaper, I know I want to study journalism. Finally able to think rationally, I research Saint Olaf’s and find out they do not have a journalism program. So to my parents’ relief, I rule out going that far away.
But I find another college three hours away in Illinois that I hear has an excellent journalism program. On the drive down to this campus with my parents, I am on cloud nine, but quickly fall back to earth when upon arrival, I am thrust in to a huge tour group. It is a hot July day and the ground is uneven in places making it hard to keep up, and this tour group isn’t waiting up. By the time I catch up at the next point of interest, I am in the very back of the group and can barely hear what the tour guide is saying anyway. If my struggles weren’t being noticed by a tour guide whose job it is to make prospective students feel welcome, I know it is unlikely I would get the support I needed as an official student either. And to top it all off, the disability services department says they have never worked with a blind student, despite the fact that this seems like a large institution.
At this point, the voice that says I should stay close to home is starting to win. If the college was too big to know me by name, at least I could go home for a hug after a rough day. Part of me still wondered what it would be like to live independently in a dorm though.
In the spring of my sophomore year, we had visited the local university my brothers attended. My parents remind me that this campus is far enough to justify paying for a dorm so I could stay downtown, yet close enough that I could come home anytime I needed to. It also had an excellent disability services department experienced with helping blind students. But thinking back on that visit, I remembered feeling like a number there too. I decide I don’t want to feel that way, even if I can come home any time. I also decide I don’t want to go to the same college my brothers went too. My oldest brother studied journalism too and he always had interesting tidbits to share from his classes, but I fear that if I have some of the same professors that he had, I will be constantly compared to him.
A few weeks after visiting the college in Illinois, we visit a large private college about the same distance from home as the university my brothers attended. Same story. I am welcomed with the usual huge tour group and impersonal attention. At this point, I am beginning to wonder if I am really suited for college. Maybe my parents and teachers have underestimated my abilities all these years. What if I cannot find a college I like, or at least a college that doesn’t feel like a bottomless pond that I will be thrown in to with no idea how to swim.
And then on August 27, 2007, we visit Carroll University, a small private college half an hour from home. The campus is peaceful and quiet. Mom says it is pretty with its stately old buildings and well-kept landscaping.
A sign that reads “welcome Allison Nastoff” greets me as I enter the first stop of our arranged visit, the Admissions Office. I am the only prospective student there. The person scheduled to meet with us offers my parents and me something to drink as we sit across from each other at a table and casually talk about what Carroll University has to offer. I am happy to learn they have a journalism program. From there we go to Disability Services which is located in an old house re-purposed for this office. My parents, the director of disability services and me sit around another casual table. I am told I will have to advocate for myself more than I did in high school, but this director is so friendly and genuine that I am not scared of this prospect as I was at the other colleges. Then an older student takes us for a one-on-one campus tour. She too is kind and genuine, taking things at my pace.
That was the day all further college visits were unnecessary. I had found where I belonged, a place that felt like home.
Of course there were some hard times over the course of my college years. College is a learning curve no matter where you choose to go, whether you have a disability or not. But in this community where everyone from classmates to faculty knew me by name and treated me like family, I had the attention and support I needed to overcome them. And on May 13, 2012 when my service dog Gilbert and me walked across the stage to accept a bone and a diploma respectively to the loud cheers of so many friends I had made over the past four years, it occurred to me that as tough and anxiety-ridden as the process of deciding where I would go to college had been, I had risen to the occasion when it came to my first high-stakes life decision, and made a very wise one.