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


Art be mine: Art-o-mat machine vends art at an affordable price

This is how an Art-o-mat machine works. (Sheryl Jean)

Looking for a fun gift for your sweetie that no one else will have and doesn’t cost too much?

Art. I’m not kidding.

I just fell in love with a vending machine that sells mini pieces of original art — at $5 a pop.

On a recent visit to Minneapolis, I spied a beautifully restored cigarette machine (see photo at top) in the lobby of Le Meridien Chambers hotel. After closer inspection and a few questions to the hotel staff, I learned that it spits out little packages of art instead of packs of smokes.

What a great idea!

The credit goes to Art-o-mat, a North Carolina artist collective whose mission is to encourage art consumption in an innovative and approachable way. You can use a map on Art-o-mat’s website to see if you’re near one of the more than 100 vending machines across North America.

While the art would make perfect Valentine’s Day gifts, half of the fun is in working the machine, which mixes the thrill of an arcade game with an element of surprise.

This small sculpture by artist Sandy Wilcox comes with directions for assembly. (Sheryl Jean)

The Art-o-mat machine at Le Meridien offers 20 pieces of art. In place of a display of cigarette brands are images of the artwork with a sliver of writing so you can just make out whether it’s a necklace, mini sculpture or something else.

You exchange money for a token at the hotel front desk. Slide the token into a slot at the top of the machine, pull the knob for your selection and — Shazam! — a small package slides out the bottom (image at top right).

New artwork is delivered once a month to restock the machine. The art comes in a cardboard box or is painted or mounted on a block. Each item is about the size of, well, a cigarette pack (roughly 3″ X 2″ X 1″).

Two painted blocks by two different artists. (Sheryl Jean)

For research purposes, I bought a handful of art: a small sculpture (image at upper right), two paintings on blocks (image at right), a mixed-media fortune cookie (image at lower right) and a painted piece of driftwood (see image at end). I purposefully did not select any jewelry, but there were a few choices.

It felt like Christmas over and over again.

I thought most of the art was quite well done, and I was happy with the variety and condition of the work. Each item is wrapped in cellophane for protection.

Did I like the art? That’s a different question. Art is subjective: Everyone who looks at a piece of art can have a different opinion about it. I have an appreciation for art even if it’s not my style.

This creation of mixed media and found objects is by Millicent Jones. (Sheryl Jean)

Some of the artists include their website, email address if you want to find out more about them or contact them. I learned that Pollux, the painter of “The Trumpeter” (image at right) is based in Los Angeles and Nicole Gagner, the Bismarck, N.D. painter of driftwood, also sells her creations (image at bottom) on

I’m not the only one who’s enamored of these little bundles of joy.

Hotel clerk, Thomas Rainiere, said the Art-o-mat machine is popular with guests and locals. He told me one man comes in every Sunday to buy a piece of art to add to a wall covered by such mini artwork at his home.

Artist Nicole Gagner paints sky scenes on driftwood. (Sheryl Jean)

Here’s the story behind the Art-o-mat idea: In 1997, artist Clark Whittington was preparing for a show at a local cafe in Winston-Salem, N.C. Alongside his paintings, he installed a cigarette machine — the first Art-o-mat — to sell his black and white photographs mounted on blocks for $1 apiece. He formed Artists in Cellophane to expand the idea.

In addition to being a thrill for buyers, Art-o-mat gives artists a wider canvas for their work. About 400 artists from 10 countries create work for Art-o-mat machines.

The Art-o-mat at Le Meridien Chambers offers 20 art choices, but the number of options differs depending on the type and size of machine.

The Minneapolis hotel has had its machine for a decade. It’s in keeping with the hotel’s art theme: One of its original owners, a local real estate magnate Ralph Burnet is a well-known art collector.

I plan to give most of my Art-o-mat art as gifts.