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Notes to Our High School Students – Part 1 of 3: College Choice & Coronavirus

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During the current COVID-19 crisis, one group in the biggest limbo – at least socially – is high school students (mostly juniors and seniors) engaged in the college search, application and acceptance process.  How the virus will affect those students’ paths isn’t completely clear yet, but Windsor Square resident and former UCLA writing professor Bruce Beiderwell (recently retired from the university for the second time), has graciously shared some thoughts in a three-part series for the Buzz.  This is part one. (Part 2 is Distance and the College Experience.  Part 3 is Loss and the Big Picture.)

Not lost on some in the neighborhood (high school seniors and their parents) is that the college admission and selection season, while delayed, is still upon us. For those with a stake in the process, even the most normal March and April provoke much unnecessary anxiety…and this year the process takes on a whole new level of uncertainty.

The greatest stress in usual times arises from a false presumption: that the right college choice will determine future success. From that presumption, it’s easy to place inordinate hope on one particular school, one best decision. It then follows that any wrong decision results in a diminished life. That line of thinking piles mistake upon mistake. And it has led to some spectacularly bad behavior. The admission scandals of the past year are an example of that.

All the emphasis on the one best choice has had the effect of shifting power away from the individual and to the institution. Lost is an essential sense of human agency. Simply put, a college doesn’t determine the value of an education as much as a student does.

That’s not to say the college choice doesn’t matter, but that the choice involves an assessment of fit—a meshing of a student’s values, aspirations, and interests in relation to a college’s mission, size, location, and culture. And since this meshing requires an ongoing working dynamic—not some static quality that can be ranked US News and World Report style—there is surely more than one good choice.

Once that’s understood, there remains much noise to filter out—even in the best of times.

And these, sadly, are nowhere near the best of times. Many new unknowns have been thrown into the mix, which greatly complicates a student’s choice. In the midst of a pandemic, parental pressure to stay near home—and student fears about going away—are likely elevated. The local or regional choice may come to seem the only choice. That’s understandable, but students and their parents should pause to remember: away isn’t always best; near isn’t always the safest. And miles are only one way to measure where we’re going.

I’d suggest that staying put in both a literal and figurative sense isn’t really an option.

Whether the campus is just down the street or across the country or abroad, it should offer a new world. Given the current crisis, it is easy to pit comfort and safety against growth and opportunity. But that’s a false opposition—one that is built upon an illusion of perfect control.

Stripping away misguided notions still leaves a great deal to worry about given the uncertainty we now live amidst. Will schools even be open in the usual sense come fall? Will modes of instruction change over the summer? Will the culture of an institution remain stable enough to make assessments meaningful? Taking a gap year—one planned to engage life, not merely escape from it—could be an especially attractive option for the high school class of 2020. But whatever their final choice, I hope students aren’t robbed of the excitement that a college choice presents. Or more to the point, I hope they don’t rob themselves of that excitement.


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Bruce Beiderwell
Bruce Beiderwell
Bruce Beiderwell was Director UCLA Writing Programs from 2000 until his retirement in 2017. He was called back to that role in November 2019 on an interim basis. He is now again retired and, of course, staying at home.

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