You don’t know until you go

Junior Joleigh Underwood walks through her road trip revelations while touring colleges last summer.

Joleigh Underwood, Managing Magazine Editor

Not a single thing was out of place that day. The sky was blue, the courtyard’s grass perfectly green, and the surrounding buildings were beautiful stone and brick. This was everything I dreamed of. The perfect university that carried prestige and eliteness in its name. Vanderbilt. When you say you’re going to Vanderbilt, people know exactly what kind of person you are, and I was convinced that kind of person was me. But as I stood listening to our tour guide drone on about engineering and the school’s famous scientists, I couldn’t help but dream of the small campus with big spirit, the place that felt like home to me. The ornate, historical buildings. The sense of unity while tailgating before the big game. The southern charm and laid back friendliness found in every face and smile. That’s what I wanted. And at that moment, standing in the courtyard of my former dream school, I realized that you just don’t know until you go.

I’ve always been the girl who likes to be three steps ahead, and college is no different.  My top choice has varied throughout the years, but it always followed a very strict list of criteria: prestigious, private and located in a big city. But after touring four different Southern colleges over the summer, all my preconceived ideals were flipped upside down. 

We looked at Ole Miss first, then Vanderbilt, Emory, and finally Alabama, and at each college, I discovered a new piece of the puzzle. Contrary to my prior expectations, things like major programs, financial aid, dorms, and campus size are actually much more crucial to the decision than all the other things I worried about.

I’m interested in majoring in business, but I never looked into any specific programs before the trip. On every tour I went on, I got a lot of intel about their business schools that you can’t find from just a few clicks on Google. At Ole Miss, they have a Marketing and Communication Studies major -a hybrid between business and journalism- the perfect blend of the fields I’m interested in. Later on in Alabama, we were told that their business school has 95% job placement within the first three months of graduating. Crazy. The most surprising discovery was at Vanderbilt, where we learned they don’t even have a specific business program. I never bothered to look into my specific major because I just assumed a prestigious private school would give me better opportunities than a public school like Ole Miss, but the tours showed me the complete opposite.

Another component I never fully considered is financial aid. I looked into it some online, and on the surface it looks like schools like Vanderbilt and Rice offer the best aid. Those colleges boast about meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need- emphasis on demonstrated. While touring, however, I learned the difference between need-based aid and merit-based aid… In other words, different schools hand out money differently. Alabama and Ole Miss offer merit-based scholarships, meaning they offer money to out-of-state students based on SAT scores and GPA. For me, that’s a really great option because I’ve worked all of high school for a near-perfect GPA and exceptional test scores. Without having to submit a bunch of records about my family income, I could get a full ride. But at Vanderbilt and Emory, that isn’t the case. Many low-income families benefit from need-based aid, but middle class families that aren’t struggling but still can’t afford $30,000 semesters receive close to nothing. Both aids have pros and cons, but for me, merit-based provides the opportunity for free tuition. Before touring, I just assumed that most schools offer the same scholarships, but now it’s clear that a public school is my best option for paying as little as possible.

Both major and financial aid are logistical revelations I had while touring, but more than anything, the feeling on campus was the deciding factor. You can look at pictures online and stalk student Instagrams and watch dorm decorating videos all you want, but those will never be enough to truly know if that college is home. Ole Miss’s buildings are historical landmarks, so the exteriors cannot change. I could leave campus and come back 20 years later for a bowl game and it would look exactly the way I left it. The campus is also special because of its compactness- we walked the entire length of campus in 12 minutes, no buses or maps needed. Alabama had a similar feel to Ole Miss, but everything was slightly ostentatious, from the sorority houses the size of the White House to the three-story work out facilities with pilates classes and free rock walls. The campus is large and spread out, so I would have to take a bus from class to class- something I never considered. Emory’s campus was very unique, with beautiful marble buildings and modern interior with glass walls and nap pods and mac books. The quad had beautiful trees and was very peaceful, but the feel on campus wasn’t that classic college aesthetic I’m looking for.

 After walking across the courtyards and exploring the halls of four different universities, I felt the pulse of each campus and knew which one matched my own. My top choice college ended up being my least favorite, and the one I never considered ended up being my new dream. 

My plans have completely changed after personally experiencing each school, and I’m sure anyone that has toured can say the same thing. For years, I was so passionate about going to Vanderbilt, but standing in that perfectly groomed, beautiful courtyard, something was missing. I couldn’t see myself roaming the halls with a friend, studying in the library, or even enjoying a meal in the cafeteria. The culture didn’t have an energy similar to my own, and I could feel that lack of connection all around me. You’d think I would be disappointed about not loving my dream school, but I wasn’t. I found a new dream, one in the cutest town with the friendliest vibe. But I never would’ve found it without experiencing it in person, because really and truly, you don’t know until you go.