Archive for November, 2011

It’s been twenty years, America

November 26th, 2011

In the last few years, among all of the celebrations of family birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, and even national holidays, this particular date has descended into relative obscurity. I might have completely forgotten it by now if my Mom did not bring it up during the Thanksgiving dinner the other day.

Twenty years ago today our family landed in New York’s Kennedy Airport to start our new life in the United States.

How do you commemorate the start of your new life? Is it even worth mentioning anymore after so many years? After all, what was left behind in my old life was only childhood and the first few years of adulthood – hardly anything that constitutes a body of life worth a memoir…

My parents – that’s a different matter. Their old life was not rich on things to regret about, but nonetheless, starting anew in middle age in a different country, handicapped by language and culture, with just a few hundred dollars practically smuggled on our bodies to separate us from being entirely destitute – that’s an incredibly brave step. They knew what they were doing it for, and I am eternally grateful to them for going through with that. And immensely proud of them for building themselves pretty amazing lives in these intervening years.

Me, I occasionally joke that I wish they brought me to the States many years earlier – and, maybe, I would be a baseball Hall of Famer by now. Or a top golfer. Or a movie star. As it were, I was already a bit too old to pursue those vocations when I arrived in the States, so I picked a more obvious trade for a bright and scientifically-inclined new immigrant, and did reasonably well for myself as a technology professional. If I wasn’t this lazy, I probably could have done even better.

No matter how you slice it, America quickly became my home. I could never get rid of cultural oddities – or accent – that mark me as a non-native and to this day make it challenging for me to sustain close friendships with people who do not share my background. But I have long become assimilated. I have long become, in the best sense of the word, an American patriot, truly appreciative of the liberties and opportunities my adopted country offered me that the country of my birth would never want or be able to offer me had I stayed.

This is probably the best summary of the effect of that event twenty years ago: I cannot imagine what my life would be if it did not get a new start on a Thanksgiving week twenty years ago. And for that, America deserves my most heartfelt thanks.



November 23rd, 2011

One of those songs that I cannot get out of my head for days once someone plants it there. Maybe, if I pass it on to someone…


College tour wrap-up

November 19th, 2011

Twelve universities. Roughly 3,200 miles driven. Plenty of impressions that started to crowd each other towards the end. A few obvious judgments and a number of decisions of greater nuance.

Four additional colleges that did not fit into our travel plans were also in the mix. Two of those were from the cheaper/safer category. One was a school with a tremendous appeal to Becky which was located too far for a day trip and yet not conveniently enough to combine a visit there with a stop at another college on a two-day journey. Finally, one other was initially removed from our target list despite placing near the top in terms of matching Becky’s interests, because of mixed reviews we had about it from acquaintances; we eventually reinstated its candidacy but only after we could no longer make reasonable arrangements to visit it before the start of the holiday season. For all of those we figured that we would apply to them regardless and then visit them in spring before the enrolling deadline if they ended up as finalists.

Clearly, we positioned ourselves towards stretching the accepted upper boundary of the number of applications, with the common wisdom suggesting six to eight would be most appropriate. It was mostly down to the disappointing returns for a few of the last-year high school seniors we know who got turned down by many of their top-choice institutions despite having superior credentials. We wanted to give ourselves a wider range of options in case the few colleges we really would jump at a chance of attending did not feel as warmly about us. (In full “hedging risk” mode, I insisted on adding those couple additional “safety” schools to the mix even though I was confident that the chance of Rutgers deciding to pass on Becky was virtually nil.)

If you have been following this series of posts, you know that one of the schools on the itinerary was not really ever in the mix. Of all of the others, we outright eliminated just one single institution which ended up with little in its favor over others on our scale of combined parameters (standout/unique academic opportunities, distance, location, cost-vs-assistance, etc). Which still left us with 14 destinations.

Then, events took an unexpected, although definitely positive, turn. Not fond of procrastinating until the last possible moment, we have been working through and submitting applications to our firm target schools just as we were completing the trip itinerary and deciding on whether to apply to others. Since Rutgers has always been one of those firm targets, it was one of the first in our queue to submit. Unlike most of schools on our list, it employs a rolling admission process. To our immense surprise, it took but a single week for them to come back to us with a congratulating letter on being accepted to the university.

Now all of the remaining schools had to be additionally considered along the “would you go there instead of Rutgers?” parameter. That quickly eliminated three more schools from the list – one of the “hedges” and two that did not excite us enough to compensate for the disadvantages of their cost and/or location. (The other “hedge” did not get eliminated because we had already applied there by the time we received Rutgers acceptance, in order to maximize scholarship chances.) It also left one school hanging in the air, as I argue that acceptance to Rutgers makes it irrelevant but Becky leans towards applying and pushing the final decision to spring.

So, the end count is more manageable: Either 10 or 11 schools, of which we already fully applied to more than half. The remaining applications, bar aforementioned one, are to the schools that we would strongly consider over Rutgers if accepted, so the work is not yet finished.

It will be full four months before we know what we are finally choosing from. I’ll keep you posted.

And in case anyone is interested, only five states of the Union eluded detection of their license plates on our travels: Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Yes, we saw both a Hawaiian and an Alaskan plate, curiously within a couple of miles from each other.

College education

College tour impressions: Georgetown

November 17th, 2011
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The last stop on our tour. A level of fatigue certainly sets in. It’s not that we are not enjoying campus visits anymore, rather we are challenged to differentiate. Our first few visits each generated a couple of pages of notes. Our last few – less than a dozen lines each.

But Georgetown scored in top three on the initial matching test, so it had to be part of our itinerary.

The campus is a self-contained little city with very little vehicular traffic. There are some impressive Gothic buildings around the main green, the rest is more block-y and utilitarian, but well coordinated in its entirety.

Outside the main gates are pretty residential streets. Less than ten minutes away by foot is the vibrant commercial center of Georgetown, with theaters, cafes, shops and markets. Anyone who’s been following my ruminations on the subject will immediately recognize that close proximity to city life vaults the college to the top of Becky’s personal rankings.

There are some unique programs offered at Georgetown that blend Becky’s various interests rather well together. We already know it from our online research. After spending half an hour of our own on campus, addled by aforementioned touring fatigue, we are ready to conclude that we like the place and will be applying here.

Then the info session and the campus tour make an effort to spoil the impression. First, we get an admission officer who not just talks fast, but also has clear problems with diction. She breezes through her Powerpoint-aided presentation swallowing sounds, words and sometimes whole parts of the sentences. Not that big of a deal for us – we sat through a dozen of these already, we can piece together what she is telling us from seemingly unrelated sounds. And the slides are in front of us anyway. But some people in the audience are obviously new to the process, they want clarity, they can’t keep up, and yet they are uncomfortable stopping the lady and asking her a question – they neither want to appear dumber than the rest of listeners, nor can they expect a comprehensible response (which may no longer be accompanied by a visual aid).

Not surprisingly, the Q&A session at the end of the presentation peters out several minutes before the tour guides show up – a definite first on our trips. Once the simple yes-or-no questions are done, no one dares to ask something that would elicit a long series of sounds from the presenter.

Only a few colleges allowed us to pick the tour guide whose introduction appealed to us the most (the majority randomly matched a kid with a section of the auditorium). We had better returns on average with the random assignments than with picking our own guide. At Georgetown, we did not fare too well at that. The kid we thought would be the best choice turned out to be reasonably personable and articulate, but he was so married to his script that he would undergo an almost visible transformation every time something messed up his cues. He would then stutter, search for words, construct incoherent sentences. He could not answer any single question any way other than to put it off for later (if the script did not reach the appropriate point) or repeat word-for-word a previous part of the script (if we already went through that part before). Watching him trying to conjure an answer to something outside of the script was downright painful.

The highlight of the tour was the ascent to the rooftop terraces of senior housing, with sweeping views over Potomac and parts of DC. In sunny weather, the vistas are magnificent.

It was a brilliant sunny day, so we capped our last leg of college tours with some leisurely downtime in Georgetown village, where Becky met up with her pals from a summer immersion program and I had lunch with our Virginia-residing friends. It’s always nice to augment business with pleasure.

I felt it was a bit ironic that we managed to come away with a positive impression after both main components of our visit proved disappointing, but Georgetown definitely makes the cut.

College education

College tour impressions: College of William and Mary

November 16th, 2011
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For a student who wants to aim high and cannot be lured to a no-name school, cheaper college education these days means a single option: Going to a public institution. Even as an out-of-state student, your costs at a state school will be at least 25% and possibly 40% lower than at most upper-tier private universities. And quite a few of those state schools can hold their own in comparison with most non-Ivy-League institutions.

A couple of state colleges (not counting Rutgers, the cheapest for a NJ resident) popped up on our initial target list, and we specifically aimed at visiting at least one on our itinerary. W&M got selected not only because we could combine going there with another visit, but also because it tested the boundaries of how far from home Becky was willing to go.

Killing all the suspense, I’ll say right away that we came to a conclusion it was a bit too far for her tastes. Around six hours driving, coupled with serious restrictions for having a car on campus for freshmen and sophomores, basically eliminates any possibility of weekend trips home, which may not end up as an important ability once she starts her studies, but is an important nice-to-have as she chooses the place to go.

We liked the campus. I expected the architecture to be more grandly colonial and felt it was somewhat undistinguished, but it is mostly pleasant and pretty.

We did not hate the surroundings. The campus sits next to a large shopping and dining area, which continues into the Colonial Williamsburg section. I imagine the town of the size of Williamsburg cannot sustain a variety of off-campus entertainment for too long, but the W&M campus location is definitely livelier than in some other cases on our earlier visits.

Becky had a pretty good interview with a current W&M senior. It only lasted twenty minutes or so, but she felt she managed to impress the girl she was speaking to, for whatever that’s worth.

We enjoyed the info session. It started with an engaging video presentation that was not a straight-up advertisement of the likes we’ve seen elsewhere. It mixed fast-sequence photo slides with short monologues by professors and students extolling virtues of each other, all of that interspersed with quick takes of a guy running around campus on a scooter who turned interesting facts about the school into instant comic relief.

The video was followed by an admissions official who probably did not tell us anything that we did not know already, but had an excellent stand-up comedy sense and kept the audience entertained with pointers on how avoid application mishaps. There was one kid senior assisting her, who gave canned answers to a bunch of mediocre questions. I was not impressed with him until he was thrown what turned out to be a curveball by the admissions lady, and he dealt with it with a kind of self-deprecating humor that I always admire.

The campus tour lasted a bit longer than we thought it had to. The kid leading it was talkative and natural, but peppered his speech with too many instances of “like” and “so”. He was likeable, nonetheless. He took us into a few buildings, which were all serviceable if not exactly remarkable.

In terms of fields of study, W&M has everything that Becky would find interesting but nothing that could be called unique. It did not especially impress us, but also did not put us off in any way. On balance, it is a pretty good school and the first words out of Becky’s mouth when we started our trek back were “I like it”.

And then she qualified it: “It’s probably too far”.

College education

I need to get myself a bumper sticker

November 13th, 2011

It will say in sufficiently large and light-reflecting letters: “If you see cars passing you on the right, MOVE TO THE SLOWER LANE, ASSHOLE!”


Hacked but recovered

November 5th, 2011

I have spent the last hour or so recovering my blog from backups after it was hacked by some f***ers who had replaced my WordPress installation with a single sound-hotlinked page in Arabic. On a plus side, I am pretty diligent with backups, so I was able to restore all of my stuff pretty quickly. On a minus side, I apparently did not back up all of the WordPress plugins, so there may be some things that will not be working correctly until I get to them later in the week. For instance, clicking links right now seems to result in an error… (fixed – 11/6/11)

If anyone notices anything else missing or behaving strangely, please drop me a line, I’d be very obliged.

The interesting part is that the Travelog section was untouched. Of course, there is a question of what kind of protection my hosting provider has that allows such hacking to occur.

Back to our regular [scarce] programming…

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College tour impressions: NYU

November 1st, 2011
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NYU had a chance to become my own alma mater. They blew that opportunity when I was offered way too few transfer credits based on my Russian undergraduate studies. (I went to a cheaper school that offered me full two years of transfer credits plus a generous merit-based scholarship.)

I don’t hold grudges. And when a school features as an excellent match for my kid’s interests and has the built-in advantage of being located in a vibrant city district just an hour away from home, it clearly pushes to the top of our list even before we had a chance to try it on.

It so happened that we were visiting NYU during the inexplicable October snowstorm. Our first bad-weather college visit could, theoretically, skew the overall impression towards negative, but Becky happily concluded in the end that she liked it even in the bad weather.

We first had a very lively information session. The value of those talks greatly depends on the person conducting them, and I have already noted in this series my lukewarm feelings towards some of those. The session at NYU was lead by a talkative and very natural lady who made jokes at the right time, emphasized critical points without going on boring tangent, moved things along, avoided sounding patronizing, and generally kept our attention throughout the hour.

She spent a fair amount of time explaining NYU’s global presence, which seemingly takes the idea of studying abroad to the next level. A student can enter NYU at two (soon to be three) “home” colleges in different parts of the world, but then can go and study within NYU on a dozen of campuses in Europe, Asia, or Australia. Apparently, even freshmen have the opportunity to do that, and the only limitation is the availability of specific classes that one wants to take at a particular location for a semester. Anyone familiar with our family’s wanderlust would recognize how appealing that sounds to Becky. (Not to minimize study-abroad opportunities at other schools, but they are normally presented as something available primarily to juniors, and often through collaboration with local institutions abroad, which could mean better immersion, but also an added hassle of logistics.)

There is also a School of Individualized Studies, which is not something we’ve seen elsewhere. Yes, many colleges offer students ability to double- or even triple-major, or sometimes even “create your own major”. But this is the first time I’ve heard of an institutionalized approach to shaping undergraduate studies to the interests of the specific student. Given wide-ranging interests of my daughter, we find it very intriguing to shed the “undecided” label in favor of “individualized studies”.

The weather obviously interfered with our college tour, so we were only able to quickly move from one building to another, with our tour guide giving us a talk and conducting a brief Q&A session at each stop. The library was impressive in a modern, 12-stories-high atrium kind of way, but the student center, one of residence halls and one of the academic buildings left minimal impressions. We recognize that in the middle of a huge city we are not looking for either surpassing beauty or quaintness.

The tour guide at first seemed as if he was trying too hard to make us like him and the college, and when he slipped in that he was both a Rhodes and a Marshall finalist this year, I thought the kid was blatantly making it up. But then at some point he started talked academics, specifically about his own studies, which incidentally were an eclectic mix of computers and philosophy through the Individualized school, and he practically morphed before our own eyes into an articulate lecturer with a clear command of complicated subjects, which was rather impressive. We had an annoying family on our tour who wanted to know “how well someone who needs a lot of hand-holding would have their hand held at NYU” and “how would a conservative student fit into the left-wing mayhem that is New York City”. I felt sorry for the kid for being publicly labeled by the parents, but our tour guide showed a lot of maturity in deftly dispatching those questions. I liked him a lot more towards the end of the tour than at the beginning.

With all that New York has to offer in terms of lifestyle, networking and career development, plus the appealing things about the college itself, NYU firmed up its position as one of our top choices after this visit.

College education