In an attempt to give the whole "figure out what you're doing with the next part of your life" endeavor a wee nudge forward, Type-A-Mom proposed an exploratory field trip into the hinterlands--I mean "rural-ish-Virginia"--to check out the two schools in that state that Derek has proclaimed to be registering at least a blip on his Interest Meter.
Only one of them, however, offered an official tour at this point in the Summer: James Madison, located in Harrisonburg. (I can hear you asking, "Where the HECK is that?" In a nutshell, it's in the far west part of Virginia, about 2/3 of the way up, if you're driving from NC as we were. Geographically satisfied? Excellent, moving on...) I'd scheduled a visit for 10:30 on Friday morning, but according to the good old GPS, it would take around 4 hours for us to get there. Soooo, doing the prerequisite Sleep Math calculations, this clearly indicated "book a hotel nearby", NOT "drive at the crack of 'why am I even awake right now?'".
(As a random aside, they should totally teach this in school, right? Much more applicable than, say, that ridiculous subject known as "Calculus"! I mean, who actually uses that in their real life? Yeah, yeah--the Engineers and Astronauts can put their hands down. Rhetorical question, scientists--sheesh! But I--literary person-- digress...as my Poetic License permits me to do...)
Anyway, I found us a room on the outskirts of Harrisonburg, in a little venue that bills itself as a "local institution"...and crossed my fingers that the description wasn't some secret code for "sketchy". Next up in the preparations, I checked our route...which proved to be...less straightforward...than I'd expected. You see, there were several options, the supposed shortest of which incorporated a myriad of turns, tiny local roads...and potential for disaster, frankly. The less complex highway path, however, was supposed to take 20 minutes longer...so I decided to try the crazy convoluted way. "Hey," I figured, "I have a navigator. What could possibly go wrong?"
Fortunately, nothing did go wildly amiss--although Derek and I wholeheartedly agreed that we would NEVER, in a million years, be able to reproduce these particular directions to return to JMU if we wanted to do so in the future. Also, at one point as we were driving through the center of what resembled a tunnel of towering trees, on a winding, hilly rural road in--oh, I don't even know where we were, to be honest--I turned to him and commented, "I'm so very, VERY glad we're not doing this in the dark!" Also, because we still had some daylight, we did get to appreciate that we passed Shenandoah National Park...and we also had the opportunity to ooh and aah over the mountainous scenery all around us (as we would do many times over the course of the next day, but I don't want to get ahead of myself...).
When we finally arrived at our inn-for-the-evening, somewhat frazzled, moderately tired, and ravenously hungry, we dropped our bags and headed back out to find sustenance. Aaaannnd, about that...on the plus side, we discovered that if you continued on the road we'd taken to get to our hotel, it would lead you directly into the heart of Harrisonburg. So--even though it was after sunset by now--we did get to see a little bit of the university, as well as the cute downtown area. As for the latter, it made such a positive first impression that it prompted Derek to exclaim, "We definitely need to come back and look around during the day tomorrow before we leave!" But it was already pushing 10:00, so nothing appeared to be open, eating-wise. Oh, well...Sheetz dinner, anyone? (The perils of travel, I tell ya...)
We both suffered a fairly lousy night of slumber--it turned out that our quaint, charming throwback one-story-motel-thingie was situated RIGHT on the main road, with what sounded like semis and...I don't know, tanks, maybe?...and stuff barreling by at all hours of the night. So yeah, it was pretty dang LOUD and disturbing to those of us accustomed to a peaceful residential area. (Siiighhhh....Memo to Me: if we ever visit the area again, reserve a room in a TALL building...) There was no time to dwell on our weariness, though, as James Madison awaited.
Once there, we sat through the usual information session, getting an overview of the institution and blah blah blah. One thing that stood out for me--and which would be reinforced by everyone we talked to during the day, as well as any alumni I've queried--is that while JMU is a "medium-sized school" (about 19,000 undergrads), it cultivates a smaller, more personal feel on campus, by placing an emphasis on community, relationships between teachers and students, individual attention, etc. In other words, the atmosphere felt very "homey" and welcoming, which immediately appealed to me.
Then the real fun began, as the Student Guides stood up and introduced themselves. Unlike at other places we've visited so far, once the young men and women tell you who they are, what year they're in, and what they're studying, you get to select the one with whom you want to spend your next 1-1/2 hours. Well, let me tell ya, when they got down the line to "My name is Justin, and I'm from Chapel Hill, North Carolina", our choice was made for us. What a quirky twist of fate, yeah? Even more amusing, although this guy attended a different High School than Derek, once they began chatting, they figured out numerous people they both know. And obviously, it was super-helpful to get the specialized perspective of someone who both 1) came from our home environment and 2) absolutely LOVES a university that Derek might want to apply to! (That's what we call a...collegiate Win-Win, y'all...)
During the chaperoned portion of our campus experience, we made all the stops you'd expect: a sample dorm room, an academic building, the Student Union, the library. Also, although we didn't actually go in them with Justin, we were encouraged to also seek out the Bookstore and the brand-new, state-of-the-art Recreation Center on our own wanderings when the guided walk ended. We also strolled by the stadium (a hypothetically important location for my extremely-sports-minded son), and the new Dining Hall under construction--which is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2018, just in time for Derek to (theoretically) arrive and chow down, incidentally. We ended at "The Quad", an inviting grassy field surrounded by picturesque stone buildings, where during the academic year Justin assures us students congregate and socialize on every spare inch of turf, making it a central part of JMU life.
Everything was lovely; we were definitely getting those friendly vibes everyone talks about...there was only one tiny thing that could be...problematic, really. During the formal presentation, the speaker let us in on a tradition practiced among JMU's students: whenever someone yells "J-M-U", everyone else within hearing distance is supposed to stop what they're doing, slide their arms out to the side (exactly like the "Safe" call in baseball, if that helps you picture it) and respond with a cry of "Dooooooks!" (The mascot, obviously.) Now...coming from the home of UNC, that just sounds uncomfortably, awkwardly like..."that other rival school 9 miles away whose name we don't EVER mention". When we made this comment to Justin, of course he totally understood, but he shrugged philosophically and replied, "Eh, you get used to it...you just have to learn to reeeaaallly emphasize the 'S'!" (Ha! We might have to work on that...)
Whew! Trust me when I say, it was a LOT to take in...but we weren't even done. In order to get the fullest picture we could, Derek and I still wanted to meander over to the Rec Center and the East Side of campus, where the Science classrooms are evidently clustered. We were glad we did, since I can sum up the new fitness building in one word: WOW. It's 4 floors, including several pools, courts for every game imaginable, group workout rooms for classes, a yoga studio, enough weight training and cardio equipment to keep a league's worth of professional players in shape, a jogging track...and probably some other cool stuff we missed...all in a light, airy, glass-enclosed structure with vistas of the mountains and forests for you to gaze upon while exercising. It was...um..."impressive".
At this juncture--hot, footsore, and starving again--we chose to end our exploration of what had been a very well-liked university by both of us. Naturally, whenever the vegetarian's involved, this becomes more of an "odyssey" than a simple "pick up lunch" activity. This time was no exception, but it worked out well in the end, since we had to drive around to find something that fit my dietary restrictions...which led us to stumble--by happy accident rather than any brilliant planning on our part, mind you--into the retail sector of Harrisonburg. There we encountered such useful vendors as Target, Best Buy, Staples, Kohl's, and even a mall, all of which lay just off campus, so if students require pretty much anything at all, it's within easy reach. Derek seemed pleased that the stores he's familiar with would be available in this setting, relieving any residual fears he might have had about JMU being "in the middle of nowhere" as the Blue Ridge Mountain setting might lead you to believe at first glance.
While we dined (at a Panera, of all places...So, yay, we've pinpointed at least one Johna-approved eatery in Harrisonburg already, without too much deep research!), Derek and I discussed not only our time at JMU, but also the overall College Tour Experience thus far. I was pleasantly surprised that, for the first time, he seems to be actively comparing and contrasting the schools he's seen, identifying the pros and cons for him, and beginning to form opinions about how they rank in his mind in terms of desirability. He admitted that, while it might be due to the fact that it was the most recent, and therefore freshest in his mind...or perhaps a function of the thorough, educational, and entertaining tour that Justin provided us...JMU "might be the front-runner now".
Alrighty, then! Our day was FAR from finished, as we still had to drive 2.5 hours south to Virginia Tech and conduct our own site visit (since they weren't scheduling any, right before the students return for the Fall semester...rats!), but at least we'd had a successful journey up to this point. Next up: more time in the car...and Blacksburg!