Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Encounter with Frank Bruni


A year ago Frank Bruni wrote a series of columns that were to become his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, published March 17. I read those articles avidly. After many years of offering words of wisdom and comfort to many anxious and wigged out teens and parents during the college admissions process, I, a seasoned psychologist, had become one of them.

Worried that my olive branch wouldn’t stand up to the armored vehicles that now hovered on the junior year turf, I had started to doubt myself – both our family values and our child rearing style. I wrote to Bruni thanking him for his insights and burdening him with the details of what many people call the hell that passes for junior year. We communicated a few times via email. Even though my son’s class dean had warned us all to “stay in your own movie,” I found myself straying into other people’s movies almost daily.

I’m not alone. Both professionally and personally, I’ve now had more conversations with parents about college admissions than I even thought possible. The topics can dizzy one – pre-college summers, Saturday music school, tutors, connections with board members, the lack of middle-class financial aid and legacies, especially legacies with money. All of this I shared with Bruni when he asked to interview me.

Admittedly, seeing my worries and vulnerabilities fully revealed in the last pages of Bruni’s book caused a few internal shudders. Bruni had caught me with my guard down.

Yet, I’m glad that he did. It’s time to reveal the truth about what parents endure when their kids apply to college.

Yes, even a psychologist who teaches at Teachers College, Columbia, works as a private practice practitioner and writes with expertise about important topics in psychology can feel terror when it comes to college admissions.

Last year, the loss of control tugged at my heart. My first-born child was about to leave home. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to ease the transition with the same love, support and creativity that I had drawn upon my whole life.

I soon realized that we parents can’t, shouldn’t and won’t be in charge of college admissions. This next step in our son’s life would be as wonderful, frightening, disappointing and exciting as the life upon which he was about to embark.

I think this separation takes most parents by surprise. Some bring every ounce of power to bear in maintaining control of it. Others just give up and don’t even try. Most, like my family, muddle through feeling shaky and upset but trying to do the right thing.

Being interviewed by Bruni became a gift to my family. Talking to him enabled me to calm down enough to finally work effectively with my son’s gifted college admissions counselor.

Reading the book in the late fall allowed me to temper the crazed early decision dynamics with different and kinder narratives. My son hadn’t applied early. He decided to take more time for himself and to complete some projects that mattered to him. As we heard about which kids had been admitted to and could afford the various dream schools, I kept thinking about the many different ways the amazing people about whom Bruni wrote had started their journey to adulthood. This book can be both a shoulder to cry upon as well as a reassuring source of real-life alternative stories.

In the end, I really wanted the next best step for my son. What difference did someone else’s pathway to college make to what would be most right for our son?

Bruni’s smart, friendly and sane book makes exactly that point. Where you go to college won’t determine your future. What will determine it are your character, your hard work, your imagination, your dreams and your courage to enact a vision.

Our son has just begun to hear from schools. We don’t yet know what mix of acceptances, rejections and wait-lists he will receive. We do know, however, that thanks to a loving dean, a superlative counselor and a journalist with a passion for stating the truth, our son applied to college as his most authentic self. He and his school will have chosen each other. He will begin his college education honestly and on his own terms.

As a psychologist, that is what I wish for every senior, and for every parent sending a child to college. I think this book can help anyone get there.

Bruni’s sharp insight and his journalistic telling of real people helped me hear my own intelligence again. The book also encouraged me to rediscover my son. Somehow, along the way, he has become a very lovely young man – not my child, really, any longer.

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2 Responses to “Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Encounter with Frank Bruni”

  1. Diane Vacca Says:

    Beautiful, heartfelt and enlightening

  2. Ruth Jarmul Says:

    Bravo, Susan for a beautifully written and spot-on piece!

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