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    It Takes a Team

    How one couple worked together to help their son through the college search.

    Interview by Chris Lutes

    Susan Gardner and her son, Grant, often sit at the kitchen table playing canasta—a favorite pastime for mother and son. Susan enjoys these casual times with Grant, calling them "nice bonding experiences." In recent months, these bonding experiences have also become opportunities to open the door, maybe a crack, into her son's search for a college.

    Along with conversations over cards, talks about Grant's college search these days may also take place after dinner, before Grant dashes off to start homework. Or they might happen over beverages at the local coffee shop. Susan sees these conversations as important—maybe even essential—opportunities to help Grant think through his college options and voice his dreams, opinions and concerns.

    Susan and Barry say these kinds of casual, non-planned conversations have been the best way to enter into discussions about Grant's college search.

    "The three of us never sat down and talked about Grant's college plans," says Barry, who is a freelance consultant for non-profit organizations. "Family meetings can be a turn-off. It can feel like you're ganging up on your child. We tend to avoid those types of planned meetings."

    Instead, the Gardners want to pass along their adult experiences, knowledge and insights through a casual, loving and non-threatening way. "I have never attempted to push Grant's feelings or opinions aside," says Barry, "But I have also avoided treating him like an adult who has his thought processes fully formed. I know he's still growing and learning, and needs guidance in making the best decision possible."

    As their son's behind-the-scenes support team, Barry and Susan have worked to guide Grant to a decision that will ultimately be his own. To find out more about the role they've played in the search, Christian College Guide interviewed Susan and Barry Gardner during the final semester of Grant's senior year.

    The Roles They Play

    Susan, who works as an administrative secretary, says her role in Grant's college search has mostly been that of a "sounding board" or an "emotional counselor." She has often probed with gentle questions—hoping to help Grant think through options and process information about various schools. "To a young person, things that are unimportant can seem extremely important," says Susan. "And things that are really important are sometimes missed. I try to ask questions that will help him think more clearly. Sometimes, though, I just listen."

    Barry, on the other hand, has taken on the primary role of planner.

    "I've watched over deadlines and paperwork," says Barry. "I make sure all the details are being handled."

    GPA and Test Scores

    Even before the search began in earnest, Barry and Susan knew good grades and solid standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) would help expand Grant's choices. Barry was pleased that Grant was required to take the PSAT pre-test during his sophomore year. "This pretest helped prepare him for the 'real test' he would take during his junior year," says Barry.

    Barry helped Grant keep track of standardized testing dates and places. With final test scores in hand, they could then look at specific schools. If his scores were similar to or higher than those of the school's average student, Grant would have a chance of being accepted at that particular school. "Those scores just helped us understand what options were reasonable to consider," says Barry.

    Exploring the Options

    Fairly early in his junior year, Grant surfed the Internet to weed down his options. One of his favorite sites early on in the search was princetonreview.com. "Grant liked spending time at the Princeton Review site," says Barry. "The site gives top 10 lists on a lot of topics like 'Top 10 Schools Where Students Pray on a Regular Basis.'"

    Given studies, church involvement and extracurricular activities, Grant could have easily seen the search as one more thing to add to an already long to-do list. But, Barry and Susan say, when he found something interesting, like those Princeton Review top 10 lists, he would get kind of excited about the search. While this is not a Christian site, Barry says the site's lists have served as a great starting point for discussions. "The lists are just interesting and fun to read," says Barry. When a solid Christian college would show up on the list, Grant and his parents would often go to the school's website for more information.

    Gifts vs. Career

    As he continued his search, Grant seemed to be bothered by one thing: He wondered how he could pick a college without knowing what he wanted to study or do with his life. Both Barry and Susan assured their son that this was not the end of the world. In fact, says Susan, college really offers the opportunity to explore various areas of interest. "For Grant, and for most students, college is a time for exploring," says Susan. "This is why I'm glad he's always been interested in a liberal arts education. It opens the door for a lot of areas of study."

    Barry adds that it's extremely difficult for most high school juniors, or even seniors, to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. "I think most kids can, however, identify the things they're good at," says Barry. "This was true of Grant. He might not know what career he wants, but he knows he writes well and he also has a love for literature."

    While Barry has seen these skills and abilities in Grant, he has been careful about pushing his son in the direction of a specific area of study.

    "I simply can't get too focused on a major or career for Grant," says Barry. "I need to remember that what's ultimately most important is how God wants to use him and his gifts."

    Throughout their various discussions about college, Barry and Susan have sought to affirm and identify their son's gifts and talents, help him look for schools that will nurture those gifts and talents, and then simply be content in knowing that a major and career choice would come later.

    Something, though, did become certain: Grant's interest in writing and literature made the search quite a bit easier. "He began to naturally move toward those schools that had solid writing and literature programs," Susan says.

    The Campus Visits

    Fairly early in his junior year, Grant had narrowed his search to four schools with good writing and literature programs. By the spring of Grant's junior year, the Gardner family was ready to plan campus visits. Because of the expense, the Gardners couldn't take a lot of long-distance trips. Mostly, they decided to look at schools within a few hours' drive. But Susan did decide she would fly with Grant to a school several hundred miles away. "He was very interested in the school," says Susan. "We figured it would be a good experience and a nice bonding time for Grant and me."

    As for planning visits, Barry made Grant responsible for going online to find out about special, school-sponsored visitation programs. While some parents prefer visiting during an ordinary school week, Barry and Susan preferred the special visitor weekends because they give a good overview of the school and allow parents to interact with specific school officials. While Barry admits these programs are designed to put a school's "best foot forward," they can also give the visitor a lot of information in a very short amount of time. A wise and discerning visitor, Barry says, can easily discover the reality amid the public-relations talks.

    During this stage in the search, Barry remembers doing a little nagging. "Like most students," says Barry, "Grant is very busy and focused on what's right in front of him—like his studies. I needed to remind him to get going sometimes."

    Using information Grant found and printed out from each school's website, Barry and Susan figured out the best time for visits. After Grant e-mailed schools about his visit plans, Barry then handled any needed travel details, like airline tickets, hotel stays and rental cars—anything that needed a credit card.

    Before long, either Susan or Barry was on the road (or in the air) with their son. Grant's response to each visit?

    "He would seem pretty excited about each visit," says Barry. "I wouldn't say much right after a visit. I just knew that time and distance would have a bit of a cooling effect on his excitement."

    A week or so after the visit, Susan and Barry would begin asking casual questions about the school. "With a little distance, we felt Grant could think a little more analytically and less emotionally about the visit," says Barry. "Asking questions was especially helpful after he visited more than one school. He could begin to compare and contrast one college with another."

    Wrestling with Options

    After visiting four different schools during the spring of his junior year, Grant's excitement often shifted from one school to another. One school was located in an urban setting and close to a nationally known church he was interested in attending—both those factors were big and exciting pluses for Grant. The campus was also located hundreds of miles from home. While he didn't mind being away from home, this school seemed like a very long way from home. Two other schools were a few hours drive from home (far enough, but not too far). One school in particular had a solid and respected writing program (a very big plus). Another school was known for its excellent writing and literature programs (a huge plus), but it was walking distance from his house (and seemed a little too close to home).

    Without getting overly concerned or emotionally involved, Barry and Susan simply chose to hear Grant out.

    "I would ask questions," says Susan. "Then I would make some very casual-sounding observations. I sure didn't want to preach at him—or to be perceived as preaching at him. When I would ask a question or make a comment, I wouldn't always get a response.

    "He just wanted to own his decision, and he didn't need to feel like I was trying to influence him. He was trying to process everything."

    Barry and Susan were actually pleased that Grant had not yet made his final choice. They knew it was too early for him to lock himself into one favorite school. "If you have that one perfect school in mind," says Barry, "you'd be very disappointed if you're not accepted by that school."

    Applying to His Top Choices

    Based on his visits, Grant eliminated one of the schools. While he felt it was a good school, he didn't think it was as good as his other three options. He did, though, decide not to completely eliminate it as a possibility. If he applied and failed to get accepted to the other three schools, he would then apply to this fourth one. It would serve as a sort of "safety net."

    As for his top three choices, Barry encouraged his son to apply early to those schools. So in the fall of his senior year, Grant started working on applications. "Along with finding out whether your student is admitted before the first of the year," says Barry, "many schools have no or reduced application fees if you go the early admissions route. It just seemed like a smart thing to do."

    "I read all applications materials," says Barry. "I'd double- check, making sure he had all the pieces together: essays, transcripts, test scores, anything else he needed. I also made sure I was aware of all deadlines.

    "As deadlines approached, I could stay on his case if I needed to. After all, a good essay isn't going to get written the night before it's due.

    Of course, no matter how hard they tried and no matter how hard Barry planned, there were still occasional glitches.

    "Grant had one teacher who got the reference form in about a week later than he said he would," says Barry. "Then there was the time Grant started working on an essay the day before it was due. These things happen, even with the best plans. Some things are just beyond your control. I had to live with that."

    Three Good Options

    By early spring of his senior year, Grant had received letters of acceptance from the three schools he'd applied to in the fall. He suddenly had three good options, so there was no need to apply to his "safety net" school.

    Two schools even offered Grant generous scholarships. Although these were attractive, Barry and Susan had always made it a point not to overemphasize the cost. No, money does not grow on trees at the Gardner home. But Barry felt there were other more important factors. "Money has been the last consideration," says Barry. "I want Grant to have the best education possible and I want him to get the best possible value for his education.

    "I wouldn't want to encourage him to make use of a large scholarship, if it's not from the school that is the best choice."

    Moving Toward a Final Decision

    As Grant has moved closer to his final decision, it hasn't always been easy. And it has occasionally been difficult for Susan and Barry to read their son. They've struggled a little with talking to him during this final stage. They've also tried not to make Grant feel pushed in a certain direction.

    Barry also says he knew it was time for him to step out of the way and let Susan offer what guidance she could.

    "If I'd jumped in and started some heavy-handed advising, I might have done more harm than good," says Barry. "Grant would see my involvement at this point as parental pressure. I'm always looking for a logical response and answer. But Susan is like a wise friend."

    So Susan continued having intentional, yet casual, conversations with Grant over coffee or during a card game. While Susan occasionally offered advice, she usually just listened—feeling that Grant probably needed to simply verbalize his fears, dreams and expectations.

    As the Gardner family moves ever closer to that final decision, they focus on their love for their son, their confidence in him, and their desire for God's best for him.

    "I just hope that I have planted some ideas to think about," says Susan. "I don't want to pressure him. I just want what's best for him. I want him to develop into the person God really wants him to become."

    Barry adds, "At this time, I believe praying is the most important thing we can do. I'm praying that God will lead him to the school that's the best fit for his unique gifts, skills and future dreams."

    Shortly after Susan and Barry were interviewed for this article, Grant took another trip to one of his top choice schools—Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After that visit, Grant decided to enter Calvin this coming fall.