All of life’s big decisions have a quality that makes them hard to judge in retrospect. Whatever direction you turn at a particular moment affects the rest of your life, but you cannot compare the path you took with any other. Or, for a better way of putting it, see Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken. Only in the movies (or other fiction) can we explore multiple futures.
This morning I have been thinking for a bit one big decision I made in the spring of 1984 when I was a senior at Boulder High School—deciding what college to attend.
I was lucky; college was the default next step after high school for me. I did not fully grasp at the time just how privileged I was that I was to be in that position. I had a good public school education, supportive friends and family. Furthermore, my parents, two teachers who put a high value on education, made it clear that they would find a way to help me go where I wanted. (My mother's mother, had been unable to attend a topnotch school to which she had been accepted, for reasons of money). So I had applied to seven schools, been accepted by six, and then narrowed my choices to three fine options: Cornell, Swarthmore, and Yale.
My Dad took me on a trip to Philadelphia, Ithaca, and New Haven. I enjoyed the parental attention and tried to gather as much information about the schools—and from my Dad—as I could. But I felt that the most important data was impossible to obtain—what friends I might make at the different institutions; who, if anyone, I would date; what courses or activities might inspire me; and, what kind of life might follow when I graduated.
Swarthmore was picturesque and congenial, but it was very small. I wondered if it was strong enough in computer science, my likely major.
I liked Cornell best based on the visit. I thought the campus was prettier and it felt, in my Dad’s words somewhat “more democratic” than Yale. Also, my parents had met each other there so it had a special family meaning. I saw the dorm where my Mom stayed her first year, the street where my Dad lived off-campus, and the library at which they studied together. I also noted that Cornell had excellent bagels in the dining hall.
I was not so sure about Yale. I did not much like the students that I met at the residential college called Timothy Dwight. And it rained in New Haven. But it did have nice Gothic buildings and many other strengths.
I returned home undecided between the two bigger schools. I could have gone either way. I remember two things that affected me. I was surprised that several of my friends had assumed I would pick Yale, which gave me the sense that there was a status difference between the schools, something that I had not been clear about to that point. And I overheard my Dad telling my Mom not to be disappointed if I did not go to Yale. I was not sure that I heard him right, but I had slightly suspected that they preferred Cornell, and that information diminished that suspicion. I wanted to know what they thought the right choice was.
Anyway, for a mix of reasons, I found myself with a decision. I went to Yale College and by 1988 I had earned a degree in computer science. I had a good experience there. I made some lifelong friends (including many of the folks from the legendary Megatable); I met my first serious girlfriend (who unfortunately will no longer speak to me, but who influenced me a lot); and I grew up a fair amount (though some might argue this point). I took many fine courses across a wide variety of subjects (including this, this, and this.) I learned to play pool and foosball and recognize good pizza. I got to live two years on Old Campus (one as a freshman and one as a freshman counselor), and two years in the Berkeley residential college. It was, by and large, a good four years.
I think I made the right call. But would it sure would be cool to re-run the tape and find out what life would have been like if I had gone to Cornell.