This past weekend my son made his first official college visit as a high-school junior. We took a long weekend (Sat–Tues) trip to Boulder, CO to visit the University of Colorado, Boulder. CU is not high on his priority list, but my Dad just moved to a retirement community in Boulder, and two of my siblings live a few miles away in Nederland. Doing a combined family visit and college visit before classes start here at UCSC seemed like an efficient use of time.
We spent Saturday traveling (walk, bus, taxi, plane, bus, walk) to get from our house to The Carillon, where my Dad has just started renting an apartment. The AB bus from Denver International Airport to Boulder is quite convenient, stopping right on the edge of the CU campus. It is $13 for adults, but as a student, my son was half price. Rather than stay in a hotel, we stayed in a guest suite at The Carillon, which turned out to be quite a good room (a fully furnished one-bedroom apartment, with full kitchen) for only $100 a night. And that $100 was an honest price, without the usual 25% increase that hotels tack on for incidentals and taxes. Of course, it isn’t a hotel, but a service for the families of residents, and I think that the somewhat high rent is subsidizing this service, since the same apartment unfurnished would rent for more than $100 a day. The Carillon is on Boulder Creek right next to the CU campus, which was very convenient for our visit.
Sunday was family time, and we went “leaf-peeping”—driving out into the surrounding area and walking around looking at the brightly colored aspen leaves. We went up Boulder Creek (stopping at Boulder Falls for some photos) past Nederland (which, despite its name is 3000′ higher than Boulder) to the old mining town of Eldora, which has recently become popular for summer homes. We walked around Eldora admiring the aspens, which were just past their peak.
We then visited my brother’s house (and business). It is a big log house with several outbuildings (a garage, a full-size racquet ball court, a 4-horse barn, …) on 30 acres of land, which he had just bought for under $400,000—the previous owner had paid 3 times that for it. It’s a very pleasant house, but I don’t think that it would suit me, as you have to drive long distances (on sometimes treacherous roads) to get anything, power and internet service are unreliable, and the water from the well needs massive treatment to be usable even for bath water (they have to buy drinking water separately). I’m not that fond of heating with a wood stove either, especially in such a huge house. Still, it seems to suit my brother well (he rented it for several years before buying it when the former owner was foreclosed on).
Monday was our visit to CU. We walked to the Center for Community (C4C), where the tours start, and had the 9:30 a.m. official information session and tour. One thing that was very clear from both the information session and the tour is that CU is obsessed with sports. Just about everything they talked about was somehow tied back to sports, as if that were the only thing that high school students would understand or care about (or perhaps all that the admissions office and tour guides cared about). My son felt that he was unlikely to fit in on campus or to be able to relate to most of the students that he would meet there, as he has absolutely no interest in sports. I suppose that CU is interested in maintaining the rah-rah sports culture, so they see the fact that their tours and information sessions drive away those not interested in sports as a benefit, not a flaw.
The campus itself is beautiful, particularly at this time of year, and fairly compact for such a large school. We appreciated that there were very few cars or trucks on campus, and that the whole campus seemed eminently walkable and bikeable, with easy access to both downtown Boulder and surrounding suburban-style malls without needing a car.
The tour ended at the University Memorial Center just after noon, and we had found out on the tour that there was a tour of the Engineering Center at 12:15 (at the opposite end of campus). We hurried to get there, but I got turned around at one point and headed north instead of east (we did manage to get one of the few cloudy days in Boulder, so there was no sun to help us stay oriented). We did eventually get to the Engineering Center, but it turns out that I wasn’t the only directionally challenged person in Boulder that day—we’d been told that the tours started at the north entrance to the Engineering Center, but there isn’t one. We eventually found where the tour was supposed to start (at the West entrance), but it had left already. I followed some signs to the Student Affairs Office, where they called to find out where the tour was and gave us confusing directions how to catch up with them. Luckily, they also gave us maps of the Engineering Center, so we had fairly little trouble catching up to the tour.
It would have been nice if the main tour had handed out campus maps (so that we would not have gotten turned around on the way to the Engineering Center) or if there were maps posted around campus. Scheduling the Engineering Center tours to make it easier to get across campus to them would also make sense.
The Engineering Center has a couple of nice buildings in it (for the aerospace engineers—NASA and Lockheed were repeatedly mentioned), but for the most part the buildings looked run down and the equipment fairly old. It was a very different feeling from the shiny new recreational building which was getting renovated and improved yet again, and the palatial football stadium (the price of season tickets for students was explained in detail). Clearly CU invests in sports, but not in engineering.
After eating at a cafe in C4C, we went back to the Engineering Center to meet with a CS professor that my son had contacted by email and who had agreed to meet with him. I had left the office number in the apartment, so we went to the CS department office in the Engineering Center Office Tower (ECOT) to ask for the office number—I remembered that it was in ECOT but couldn’t remember the number. They’d never heard of the professor! (OK, he was a professor emeritus, but still … ).
They looked him up on the department web page and sent us to a different building in the Engineering Center (ECEE). The office we were sent to was occupied by the graduate director for electrical engineering, who had heard of the professor we were looking for—the former occupant of the office who had been moved out a few months earlier. Luckily, he was able to look up the professor’s new office number (which was in ECOT, but on the 4th floor, not the 7th and 8th floor with the other CS faculty). I think he looked up the address on paper, knowing that the CS department was incapable of maintaining their web pages.
We went back to ECOT and found the professor with no trouble. Since I had made my son do a little web research ahead of time, he was able to ask a couple of meaningful questions about the professor’s research project, and we ended up getting almost a 2-hour chat with the professor, including a detailed tutorial on how to use the system he’d been working on for the past couple of decades. It was interesting enough that my son plans now to download the open-source software and learn to use it on his own. Of course, the only research groups left working on this project are in Australia and Europe (other than one retired professor at CU), so it is not a major draw for CU.
One thing I noticed about CU was how little diversity the student body had. I’ve always thought of UCSC as being a bit of a bastion of white privilege, since our student body does not have as many black and Hispanic students as a proportional sampling of the state would lead one to expect (equivalent headcount is 61.6% Euro-American, but California is less than half Euro-American). But UCSC is nowhere near as white as CU (74.3% white according to CU statistics), where I saw few Hispanics, few Asians, and few blacks. Even the engineering school (which at UCSC is 35% Asian-American) was overwhelmingly white. I don’t know whether this is just a reflection of the demographics of the state, or a lack of interest in having a diverse student body.
I don’t think that CU has suddenly become high on my son’s list of colleges, but it was good to have visited. He learned a lot about the value of a little web research ahead of time—the chat with the professor was the highlight of the college visit.
In the evening we walked with my Dad up Boulder Creek path to the Pearl Street pedestrian mall and had a nice dinner in a somewhat pricey Italian restaurant.
On Tuesday, we spent half the day with my Dad walking the other direction on the Boulder Creek path and coming back for lunch at a fast-food noodle place. The Boulder Creek path is a bit dangerous for pedestrians—some of the bicyclists are traveling fast enough that their braking distance exceeds their sight lines, and there isn’t always room for them to swerve around pedestrians. Still, the path is fairly pleasant to walk and well used. My Dad is still walking fairly strongly for someone who is almost 87 (he did 2–3 miles a day at a brisk pace every day that we were there). The community he has joined seems like a friendly one, and we’re hopeful that he’ll thrive there for the next decade or so.