How to make college tours fun

I recently found myself back at college, ferrying my niece around five California universities in five days.

UC Berkeley carillon
A former UC Berkeley student plays the carillon bells at the top of Sather Tower. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Yes, it’s that time of year — when parents and others take kids to visit schools they might want to attend.

Driving more than 1,200 miles, we didn’t have a lot of free time, but we managed to squeeze in a few unplanned diversions. Those activities helped balance the stress of a packed schedule, information overload and endless alphabet soup (GPAs, SATs, ACTs, FAFSA) with some fun and exercise. Here are some highlights with tips at the end on how to make your college visits fun for everyone:

University of California, Berkeley

We were an hour early for our scheduled tour, so we walked through campus. We stumbled upon Sather Tower (see featured photo at top) — also known as the Campanile for its resemblance to the Campanile di San Marco in Venice, Italy. Opened in 1914, the 307-foot tower is one of Cal’s most well-known symbols and can be seen from miles away. We were lucky it was noon, when one of the students plays the carillon, a set of bells at the top of the tower, using complicated-looking mechanism. The panoramic views from the top of the San Francisco Bay Area are a nice reward after climbing 38 steps from where the elevator drops you off.

Four Ice Cream Cones
The Manetti Shrem Museum on the University of California, Davis, campus is free. “Four Ice Cream Cones” is from the current exhibit of Wayne Thiebaud’s work. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

University of California at Davis

After 90 minutes of walking around UC Davis, we stopped by the new Manetti Shrem Museum on the edge of campus adjacent to the university welcome center. The small gem, which opened in late 2016, is free. Its wonderful Wayne Thiebaud 1958-68 exhibit, which runs through May 13, focuses on the California artist’s colorful paintings of common objects, such as pies, delis and cans of paint. He teaches at UC Davis as professor emeritus.

We also took an easy stroll along the Putah Creek trail into the city of Davis for lunch, passing through a lovely Redwood tree grove. Most parts of the 267-acre Putah Creek Riparian Reserve through campus are open to the public.

Putah Creek trail
Walkers meander along Putah Creek trail near UC Davis. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

After more than four hours of tours, we took a short hike up to the famous Poly “P,” one of the oldest hillside initials in the West, for impressive views of the entire campus, the city of San Luis Obispo, Bishop Peak and other hills. The dirt trail starts behind Parking Lot K. The 50-by-35-foot concrete P that overlooks campus today was built by the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity in 1957. The original, rock-and-lime letter was slightly smaller.

Cal Poly
You can hike up to the Cal Poly “P” that sits above campus. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The first mention of the P was in the Cal Poly student newspaper in 1919. The story goes that the letter emerged from an intense rivalry between the original California Polytechnic School and San Luis Obispo High School. The high school students arranged large stones in H letters on the nearby foothills; Cal Poly students changed the Hs to Ps; and so on. Students and school rally groups have lit the P before football games — first by bonfire and later by dragging a generator up the hill. They’ve replaced the P with a V for football victories and used the P to spell marriage proposals and other messages, such as GOP in 1964, POT in the 1970s and SPRINGSTEEN in the 1980s.

View of San Luis Obispo from Poly P
This is the view from the Poly “P,” looking toward Bishop Peak. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The next morning in San Luis Obispo, we rose before dawn to watch a SpaceX rocket streak into the sky with a flaming tail and expanding aura of gas on its way into orbit from the nearby Vandenberg Air Force base. The Falcon 9 rocket carried with Spain’s PAZ radar satellite and a pair of SpaceX prototype broadband satellites.

4 tips to make college tours fun

  • Eat on campus — either at one of the dining halls or a private eatery.
  • Stroll through the city or town closest to campus. Check out the shops. Stop for an ice cream or catch a movie.
  • If your child or family has a special interest, such as amusement parks, look ahead to see if there’s one along your route or not too far out of the way.
  • Stay overnight near the college at someone’s house through a home-booking website like Airbnb or HomeAway. You can see a neighborhood and your hosts may be a fountain of information about the school and region.
  • Sometimes it’s the small things that make a difference. While on the road, I initiated my niece to the joys of In-N-Out Burger, a giant California burrito and a Slurpee.

Map of colleges

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