What Is a Campus Holiday?
visited Oxford University in the summer of 1993. It would have been a great trip, except that it was three years too late. Walking along the manicured greens to Oriel College, I wished I had visited this beautiful university town before rejecting my admission to the college—also my father’s alma mater—to study English literature. Instead here I was, a banker with a business degree from IIM Calcutta, speculating on how different my life would have been had I come to Oxford to study. But then, I hadn’t done the campus tour.
Today’s parents and students don’t let that happen to them. College Web sites offer virtual tours, but many Indian families now choose to visit campuses across continents for a first-hand feel of the place that will be home to their offspring for four years or more. Planned like a summer holiday upto 16 months ahead of admission, these trips typically combine renting apartments by the week and a fun mix of activities, topped off by visits to various shortlisted colleges.
Ajay Srinivasan, chief executive at Aditya Birla Financial Services, and novelist wife Mohyna did just that in the summer of 2009. “We rented a loft in New York, which gave us a sense of being at home in the city,” says Mohyna, who visited museums and enjoyed Manhattan while Ajay attended a golf clinic. Son Aditya, then 13, went for a basketball camp and daughter Mallika, then 15, attended a course at Parsons School of Design. In between, the family rented a car and drove to various colleges on the East Coast. “It’s important to do this when you are sending a child so far away for the first time. Making a trip in person gives you a fantastic sense of the culture of a place, which Internet research simply can’t provide,” says Ajay.
Visiting colleges in person can do revolutionary things to one’s preference ratings. Siddharth Shastri, now a student at Brown, once favoured Princeton University. Over summer 2008, while he was still in Delhi’s Sanskriti School, Siddharth and his family toured the East Coast colleges. At Princeton, the then-16-year-old took the official campus tour, chatted with students in the cafeteria and visited the dorms. “Too intense,” was his verdict. Siddharth discovered Swarthmore, a college that hadn’t even been on his top 10 list, and ended up going to Brown, where he’s currently pursuing an applied maths course.
“Brown is one of the few schools that doesn’t have ‘recs’ (requirements on the kinds of courses you should take),” explains Siddharth’s mother Sudha Shastri, founder and CEO of Inputs India, an HR consulting firm. “This is something we wouldn’t have discovered had we not done the campus tours.”
The Shastris visited 10 colleges over two weeks, talking to faculty and students. “There is a lot of stuff you can’t really find out on the Internet—for instance, the strong programmes in a particular college, the companies that do campus recruitments, the specialisations that get the most jobs or the best jobs,” points out Shastri.
Then there are the intangibles. The Shastris found Harvard seriously supercilious, with even the staff acting snooty. Stanford, on the other hand, came across to them as a warm place while Berkeley was “very geeky”.
Like all parents of children with ambitions of studying abroad, Ramadevi Bommidala, a director at GMR Group, spent many hours on the Internet ahead of elder daughter Susroni’s college admissions. They also met with Prab Singh, a well-known education management consultant, while Susroni attended workshops at her school—Mallya Aditi in Bangalore—on choosing colleges and writing application essays. But, like most school kids, Susroni was confused about what she wanted to study.
Bommidala, on her part, was also not entirely confident about sending Susroni to an unfamiliar place. “I didn’t want to spend a lot of money only to send my daughter to a party place,” she says. So the family decided to catch up on a long-overdue family holiday, visiting 20 colleges over a 15-day trip. It encouraged Susroni to choose Chapman, a small private college that offered flexibility in its academic choices as well as international exchange programmes.
At the end of the holiday, it wasn’t just Susroni who knew what she wanted; the Bommidalas knew what they didn’t want. “I realised I didn’t want to send my children to a large university with an open campus like Columbia, which is spread across the city. Then, while visiting Harvard, we discovered from other parents that professors don’t teach undergraduate classes; most of them are taken by teaching assistants,” says Bommidala. The trip also inspired Susroni’s younger brother Santosh, now in Class XII at Mallya Aditi, to study hard!