Road scholar: Families combine college campus visits with mini vacations

| Friday, June 22, 2012, 6:08 p.m.

Abigail Sugrue, 18, of Export, has taken a few road trips with her family since her junior year in high school to places like Penn State, and schools in upstate New York and Ohio. While in New York, she visited family. Although Sugrue thought she wanted to go out of town for college, she happily chose St. Vincent College, in Unity, where she will be studying vocal performance. The campus visits played a significant role in her decision, says Sugrue, who returned to St. Vincent last week for another tour so she could show her new home to her older sisters, Megan and Kelsey.

“You only can learn so much from a website or a pamphlet,” says Sugrue, a recent graduate of Greensburg Central Catholic High School. “Actually visiting the campus, you get the feeling of, ‘Do I like it here?'

“It's kind of an internal feeling of, ‘This is where I feel comfortable, and this is where I can feel at home the next four years,' ” she says.

Allison Haas, who visited Robert Morris University last week from Minerva, Ohio, would agree. She hasn't yet picked her future alma mater — she is considering studying pharmacy or actuarial science — but she has visited several schools. She and her mom, Jeannette Haas, 40, plan to visit the Columbus area next.

The visits “help me see what the campus is like,” says Allison, 17. “It helps me to see the differences.”

Visiting several colleges in a row, she says, makes the schools fresher on her mind. “You can compare more wisely,” Allison says.

Educators and admissions officials at high schools and colleges says an in-person campus visit a critical part of choosing the right school. Although the summer may not be ideal for tours, because fewer classes are in session, prospective students have the time now to take road trips to visit several colleges in the region in one shot.

While they're traveling, many families turn the college-research trip into a fun vacation.

“We see a lot of that,” says Don Orlando, spokesman for St. Vincent College. “A lot of (families) combine trips where they visit schools with a mini vacation. Our location here in the Laurel Highlands is perfect for that. They'll go to Fallingwater and Idlewild. ... It's really the best of both worlds, where they can have some fun and combine a vacation with a visit to the college.”

When Kalra Romero came to Western Pennsylvania all the way from Florida to visit colleges, her family planned to take time have fun and explore the area with her family.

Romero toured the campuses of St. Vincent College, Seton Hill University in Greensburg, and Duquesne University in Uptown. While she was here, Romero visited Linn Run State Park — now one of her favorite hangouts — along with Kennywood Park, Downtown Pittsburgh and more.

She fell in love with St. Vincent, which she says felt like home, and the surrounding area, as a result of the visit. Romero, now 22, who recently graduated with an anthropology degree,. She works as an admissions assistant at the school, and hopes to find a full-time job in the area as an admissions counselor.

“It's not only about the school,” she says. “Sometimes, you've got to step outside of school to experience the world a little bit. It's so much more than just the campus. ... This is really where you're building the foundation of your life.”

Trevor Rusert, associate director of college guidance at Sewickley Academy, says most high school students start doing college visits during the spring break of their junior year. If families are able to take a trip and visit several out-of-town campuses, teens will benefit, he says.

“You're able to really draw some extra comparisons ... and contrast the schools, as you visit one school after another,” Rusert says.

Rusert recommends visiting no more than two schools a day, so they can give each school adequate attention. While traveling together, parents and kids should take the time to have fun and enjoy each other's company.

They're going to be leaving in a year and a half,” he says. “This may be one of your last opportunities to spend time with your young adults before they head off to college.”

Another advantage of the out-of-town campus visit is that people can get a feel for the surrounding area, he says. There is much more to a student's life than just the campus: Where the campus is located is important, Rusert says. If you want to live in a big city with many things to do, for instance, even an Ivy League school in a small town won't be a good fit. And if you're visiting schools in New York, why not enjoy a tour of Manhattan and visit some museums while you're there?

Visiting the prospective schools at least once is vital, Rusert says.

“Every year, the websites get better and better ... but, it's just not the same as actually stepping foot on campus (and) walking the grounds,” he says.

Kellie Laurenzi, dean of admissions at Robert Morris University in Moon, agrees: The in-person visit is very important.

“You have to definitely get on the campus and get a feel for the environment, and get a sense of whether you can see yourself in that place,” she says.

Prospective students should take tours of the schools, ask to speak to a faculty member in their area of study, and sit in on a class if possible, Laurenzi says.

She sees many families who come in to Robert Morris from out of state, and combine their campus visit with a Pittsburgh vacation. Sometimes, the families will visit one school in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and do something like attend a Pirates game in the evening.

“They want to not only check out the college campuses to see if they're a good fit,” Laurenzi says. “They also want to get a sense of the city.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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