Acceptance Letters: Parents, college and letting go

Carrying Kenyon Into Adulthood

Ralph Gardner Jr.
March 30, 2018

As parents help their teenagers sift through college acceptances — fingers crossed there’s more than one — probably the last thing on their minds is what their children’s circumstances will look like several years after college. But long-term success, however one chooses to define it, is really what it’s all about.

If Kenyon, where both my daughters attended, is in the mix, the questions on your mind probably include whether your kid can find happiness in rural Gambier, Ohio. Well, if their experience is anything like Lucy and Gracie’s, I can assure you they’ll be in for some of the best years of their lives. But the real test of an education is whether it helps give our children the skills to navigate the world beyond college — a support network that encourages them to take risks and gives them the occasional shoulder to cry on, as well as an open-hearted outlook on life.  

So, I’m here to say — to boast, rather — that both of my children are gainfully employed, living back in New York where they grew up, and surrounded by a network of Kenyon friends who are some of the most articulate, thoughtful and generally lovely people I know, of any age. Their parents are pretty cool, too.

“There’s something deeply smart about Kenyon people that makes you want to be around them,” said my daughter Gracie, a history major who is now a chef at the restaurant and education center Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. Her older sister Lucy pursued her passion for nature fresh out of college at the American Museum of Natural History. Today, she is living the Brooklyn dream — commuting to work by bike at the Prospect Park Alliance where she serves as its marketing and communications manager.

A small liberal arts college in the middle of Ohio might not be for everyone. But the college’s relative isolation seems to have amplified my daughters’ educations, helped raise their political consciousness and reinforced their love of nature, the importance of which can’t be discounted with our planet in peril.

Kenyon’s lyrical architecture, ancient trees and Middle Path — the picturesque lane that runs like a spine through the center of the College — reminds one that education can be both serious and fun. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. The campus is perennially voted among the most beautiful in the United States.

There’s also something to be said for the medicinal properties of Wiggin Street Coffee. There, students can score an excellent cappuccino and a booth, plug in their computer, and work on their term papers or simply watch the world go by.

The shining Kenyon Athletic Center, known as “the KAC,” proves that a well-rounded education includes exercise and makes parents rue that their own college experiences didn’t include a glassed-in Olympic-size swimming pool.

Family Weekend, or a different weekend when it’s easier to find accommodations, is not only fun, but reassuring, because you can audit your kid’s classes and revel in the quality of the education — even if your undergraduate is mildly mortified when you raise your hand to ask, or, even worse, answer a question.

Gracie also often cites the influential role of her professors, particularly Sylvie Coulibaly. Professor Coulibaly not only taught Gracie history but also helped her set up her professional website and hone her palate. “I’d bring her food to eat and she’d bring me food to eat,” Gracie remembered. (If I seem to be calling solely on Gracie’s reflections, it’s only because Lucy is on vacation in Costa Rica.)

She recalled how her education came in handy recently when she was called on to make a presentation at Blue Hill. Her talk about a new dish the restaurant was making included a history lesson about how the Chinese would cultivate mung beans on long ocean voyages as a source of Vitamin C to stave off scurvy.

My hunch is that it was more than her fellow chefs bargained for.

“That’s something I knew I needed to do to make it interesting for me,” Gracie explained. “Kenyon really taught us how to learn.”

I expect that learning the value of discipline and hard work in the service of intellectual curiosity will serve Gracie and Lucy for years to come.