It would be a hectic and stressful year. Sarah always had a heavy workload in school, and on top of that, like all college bound seniors, she had the arduous task of getting into the right college for her, and a college we could afford. We would take the shotgun approach - she would apply to a bunch, hoping at least one would offer her scholarships, putting it in our price range.
Step number one - decide on a degree. When we first questioned Sarah about what she wanted to study, she wasn't sure. Art, Graphic Arts, and Art Education were all on the list. When we suggested she might want to really consider the Art Education option, unless she planned to be the typical starving artist, Sarah seemed to seriously entertain that thought. She was an excellent student, and, in our minds, would therefore also be an excellent teacher.
We pressed her to put some limits on her search, so as not to have too large a set of choices. Without much hesitation, she said she wanted to stay within about two hours of home. By the time we really got into the whole process, she had already decided that not only did she want to teach, but she wanted to teach in Sussex County, maybe even our own school district. Disappointment that she would not going to school far away and living in another part of the world where we would see her on occasion was something that never crossed our minds.
She ended up with a list of nine colleges. Two didn't even offer an Art Education degree. But she applied anyway (one was local, and the other was the University of Delaware), thinking a Masters Program might be an option, if she could find one. Some of the colleges offered a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree with the Art Ed, while others offered a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree with the Art Ed. And one offered the BFA with a Masters in Teaching. At that point, we didn't have a grasp on which degree she really needed.
The plan was to push to finish the applications by the end of the year, leaving the spring to apply for other scholarships. When we started, we had no idea how much college actually costs. Initially, we hoped she would get some scholarship money from the colleges themselves, some grant money, and then some scholarships from other sources. The whole thing seemed almost insurmountable given the parameters we had set. We wanted as little debt as possible. We have heard stories of students paying for years on their college loans. We didn't want that for us, or for Sarah.
The colleges were scattered around Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. We largely ignored the cost, figuring it could be reduced by scholarships and other aid. What we discovered was that the cheapest place she could go was a local college, and if she commuted, the sticker price (before any scholarships, grants, or aid at all) was about $8,800 a year. Two were about tied for the most expensive - an incredible $58,000 a year.
Sarah completed her first application on October 24, and finished up the last one on January 7. That last one was sort of a whim - one of those $58,000 options. I told her "Why don't you just apply for fun, and see what happens?"
There was an unintended consequence of spending those two months of filling out 9 college applications. Sarah was forced to write about what she wanted to do with her life. She wrote essays about how her life had gotten to where it is, about how she developed the desire to do what she wanted to do, about what kind of a teacher she wanted to be. In the fall of the year, all that was vague in her mind. By the end of the year, she had pondered on it so much that she had a clear vision for a plan for her future. It may change some later, if she is anything like the rest of us, but she had intense clarity, and she was able to communicate that.
In the midst of filling out applications, we attended a National Portfolio Day in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art on November 22.. These are held all over the country, and are designed to allow colleges to view students' art portfolios. The feedback students receive is meant to help them develop their portfolio, which is a requirement for most art programs. Some of the colleges at these events may actually accept the portfolio that day, some may require the student to travel to the college at a later date. There were three colleges there to which Sarah was applying, including the host college MICA.
We knew Sarah had talent. We just weren't sure how she compared to other college bound art students. Sarah had her portfolio reviewed by Temple University, Rowan University, and MICA. The comments she received were beyond our expectations. It was on this day that we understood that Sarah had the potential of being an excellent college art student.
The representative from Temple, Dani, encouraged Sarah to consider the BFA option for her degree, rather than the BA option. He explained that the BFA would give her many more art courses, and would give her the opportunity to focus on one area and really develop her skill in that area. We communicated regularly with Dani after that day, pestering him with questions about Temple and their art program. He was also quick to respond, and seemed genuinely interested in Sarah’s future, wherever that may be. The more we spoke to him, the more it seemed clear that Sarah should pursue the BFA degree. But at Temple, and all the other schools that offered a BFA with Education, it meant a fifth year of study.
On December 6, we traveled to Rowan for Sarah’s official portfolio review. Beth from admissions had reviewed her portfolio at MICA, but it was not counted as the official review. While waiting for Sarah, we spoke with a current student of Rowan. She discussed how she was in the BA w/ art ed program, but wished she had gone the BFA route, and that if she had realized how close she would have been in getting her BFA, she would have. Sarah emerged with her reviewer, Dan, who spoke about Sarah’s potential, and the excitement he had for her work and her future.
December 11, Sarah’s first acceptance came in the mail from Towson University. It wasn’t that we doubted Sarah would get accepted… but having done so confirmed that we were successful in navigating through the process of applying. We had gotten it right, at least once. And we did the happy dance.
On December 18, the next acceptance came, this time from Rowan University. Make that two on that day – the other from Salisbury University. Rowan’s came with a pretty generous scholarship offer, but it wasn’t at the top of the range that Rowan indicated it could be based on her SAT scores. Salisbury’s offer also came with some scholarship money, not quite as generous as Rowan’s.
It must have been around this time that we took advantage of a quiet Sunday at home and had a long discussion about what we had been so deeply involved in for the past few months with Sarah. We discussed Proverbs 3:5-6, and what that meant for us. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” It has always been one of my favorite verses, as I seem to constantly be seeking direction for something. We talked about how we needed a straight path for Sarah – one she could follow, one that was affordable, one that would help her fulfill the desire of her heart. We agreed that God wasn’t saying for us to sit around and wait for a path to suddenly open up, but rather we were going to start out in a way that seemed fit, as we had been doing, and then trust Him to eventually make the way clear. Along with that, we also hoped that “way” was kind to our pocket book.
I shared this with a friend of ours while working at his home. He said that to his heart, the “straight path” was ONE path. His prayer was for God to narrow the choice down to one option. Yeah, that’s what I wanted too.
On January 11, the whole game changed. Temple University’s letter arrived. As was our habit, we viewed college mail together. I handed the letter to Sarah and watched her face as she opened it. She says, “I got accepted, and there’s something about $4,000.” Upon closer inspection, the $4,000 was a stipend for summer work, times two. But that was just the icing on the cake. She had also earned a scholarship for full tuition for four years. We would still have to cover room and board, but it was an extraordinary offer. One small caveat – it would not extend into her 5th year, which she would need in order to earn that BFA with Art Ed degree she was leaning towards (we did ask, and almost pleaded for that, unsuccessfully). That fifth year carried a sticker price of about $46,000.
Our communications with Dani from Temple ramped up after this. We discussed her options, how to pay for that fifth year. He was as excited for Sarah as we were.
Sarah’s acceptance from Arcadia University arrived on January 20. Arcadia’s scholarship offer was greater in amount than Rowan’s, and almost as much as Temple’s, however Arcadia’s tuition was about $10,000 per year more than Temple’s. We made our first visit to Arcadia on February 6. The campus was small, intimate, attractive, and had a feeling that Sarah enjoyed. Once we were there, it moved towards the top of her list, in spite of the cost. On the way home that day, we stopped at Temple and met a student friend of ours who gave us a brief visit of Temple and its Tyler School of Art. We figured we would ease into the idea of Sarah going to a city college. Temple did not move to the top of her list, in spite of the easing in.
Towson’s scholarship offer came on February 3. It was significant, but relatively small compared to some of her other offers. We made a visit to Towson on a sunny day a week later. The campus was beautiful. We left Towson after lunch and hit a second college - UMD at College Park. By that time, the weather was gray, the campus was huge, we got lost going in, and left in a bad mood. Even though Sarah had already received her acceptance from UMD, none of us were feeling it.
We attended a Temple Open House on February 20. After an introductory session, we moved to the Tyler School of Art for a session there. A panel of students talked about their particular concentrations. After their presentation, we spoke to the Art Education student. She was working on her BA with Art Ed, and meeting her finalized Sarah’s decision to pursue the BFA option. This student confirmed the difference between the two programs. It would no longer be up for debate.
Temple had offered us a free lunch, so we went to a dining hall and sat together and ate. Sarah was kind of quiet, unexcited, staring off. I made a habit of watching her on these visits to see how she was responding to the campus. As I did during lunch, she appeared lost. I pictured her attending this college – in that lost sense- not lost physically, but alone, lost in a crowd, lost in the immensity of this city. It seemed clear to me where she was with Temple. On the way home, we questioned her about her thoughts. Sarah had always been a trooper, saying she would go to the college we all agreed was best, and affordable. I asked her to put that aside, and just tell us what she thought of this college. She said something to the effect “When I picture a nice place for me to live for five years, a place that will inspire me to produce art, this isn’t the place.” It was what I needed to hear. Art was, after all, what Sarah was going to study. It was the purpose of being there. In that instant, with no further debate, the issue was settled in my mind. We told Sarah we would take Temple off the list, and would work to make something else happen. We had known from the day she received the scholarship offer from Temple that we may be tempted to make a decision based solely on finances – that finances may cloud our decision. On February 20, the clouds cleared.
As a result of that visit, and in an effort to make one of the other colleges work, we decided to appeal the scholarship offers from Arcadia and Rowan, as these two options at that moment were most appealing to Sarah, they seemed like the closest in affordability, they offered the exact program she wanted, and it looked like both colleges may have had more funds available. Sarah and I drafted the letters together, and tried to point out some things the scholarship committees may have missed. Off they went in the mail on February 22.
On that same day, Sarah received notice that she had been accepted at MICA. MICA was the one college we weren’t sure she would get into. It is an all-art school, very small, and somewhat renowned in the art school world. Just getting accepted would be a good mark on her resume. As was our habit, we immediately started a dialog with Sarah’s admissions counselor, Matthew. Matthew was extremely responsive and helpful. He was also very encouraging to Sarah about her possibilities at MICA.
By this time, Sarah had received acceptances from every college she was seriously considering. The only two left were our two Delaware colleges. She expected to hear from them any day, but was not considering either any longer. This may have been one of the more difficult times I had during the whole process, because there wasn’t much to do but wait to see how the finances would work out. On February 25, I sent a text to my friend Bill. He had just read a letter from a listener of the Christian Radio station he manages, talking about being reassured while in the midst of a difficult situation. My text read:
“I caught the tail end of the Just Breathe letter you read. Interesting. I think I am at that stage with Sarah. We have been working on college for months. Offers have come in. We have appealed for more funding. We have done all I know to do. The past few nights I have looked over the current status and said to myself - there's nothing more I can do but wait. I wonder if The Lord intentionally puts a period of waiting in just to remind us that we are dependent on Him making something happen. Without the wait, we may be tempted to take credit for the outcome of our diligence. So we wait, and just breathe, and trust... not necessarily for the exact outcome we may want, but for the outcome of His choosing.”
Bill was supportive, in his Bill kind of way. A while later, I sent him a second text:
“It’s been almost two hours. How long does this breathing business take?”
At the end of that very day – Sarah received an email from the Rowan Art department asking her to apply for an Art Scholarship. She was being invited due to the strength of her portfolio. Of course, Sarah completed the necessary requirements right away. The scholarship was for four years, and covered half her tuition.
Eight days later on March 4, Sarah received a response concerning her appeal to Rowan for additional scholarship funds. Her original scholarship was in the about of $15,000 per year. Rowan raised the amount to an unbelievable $24,500 per year. We had been hoping for $20,000 per year.
We made our second visit to Rowan on March 6. While there, we met Jan, who had contacted Sarah about the art scholarship, and who was on that committee. We also spoke at length with the head of the art education program. We briefly toured campus, but Sarah had seen what she needed to see. She could see herself attending there.
Ten days later, on March 16, we were eager to hear news about the art scholarship. Jan had said they would be making a decision by then. We shot off an email in the morning, asking in the most polite way we could, if she knew anything yet. In 20 minutes, Jan responded. She said she didn’t ordinarily do it this way, but apparently she couldn’t contain herself. Sarah had won one of the four scholarships offered to incoming Rowan Art students.
Arcadia responded to our appeal a little later, on March 21. They offered a very gracious but small increase to Sarah’s original award in the form of a need based grant. It was a bit of a let down, as we had hopes that it would be more. On that day, Arcadia for the most part came off the list of potential colleges. It was just out of range.
It seemed prudent to start sending letters to the colleges Sarah would not be attending, letting them know as much, with the hope that some other student would benefit from the scholarships Sarah had been offered. I helped her work on those letters, wanting to express our gratitude for the offers. As we worked on this, I felt some sadness about it. We had worked so hard just getting to this point, and now we had to start telling colleges no. I mentioned this to Sarah, and she responded with this message to me:
“Yeah it is a little sad. But because we put in so much work with so many colleges, we were able to realize what will be best for me, and we had a lot of encouragement along the way from some of the colleges. If we had only done the minimum amount of effort, we wouldn't have gotten so much feedback and experience, and we might be wondering if there was something better out there for me. Plus, the other colleges got to communicate with someone who made them think a little. AND we made a few 'friends' who believed in me. I think it was worth it :) Rejecting colleges is sorta good because it means a lot of places wanted me and were willing to pay part of my way.”
Best message from daughter to dad ever.
We were still waiting for notification about the scholarship offer from MICA. Matthew had assured us she would be getting one, we just didn’t know how much. Most likely, even a very generous amount still put MICA out of reach. And Sarah wasn’t sure she would even attend under ANY circumstances. It just didn’t feel like Rowan.
On April 3, on another quiet Sunday at home, we discussed Proverbs 4: 5-6 for the second time. I asked the kids if they remembered what we had discussed. They all did, of course, and Sarah put it into words. She reminded us that once the path becomes clear, and we walk down it, it isn’t just a matter of finding the right path; It is a matter of walking down a path that is good, not just for us, but for what God has in mind for what He wants to accomplish. It is matter of discovering a path that God knows we will enjoy.
After she said the important stuff, I produced a minuscule part of the spreadsheet I had been using to keep track of Sarah’s search. There was one column that gave the bottom line for the cost for her to attend at every school, taking into account her scholarships and financial aid. That morning, in the midst of talking about wanting a clear path, and perhaps even ONE path, the numbers looked like this:
Some of these numbers included funding from a federal TEACH grant, which would have carried with it a commitment to teach for 4 years in a certain kind of school. She hadn’t applied for the grant yet.
University of Delaware $7,300/yr
University of Maryland $30,700/yr (after TEACH grant)
Salisbury University $4,400/yr (commuting, no Art Ed)
Towson University $14,000/yr (after TEACH grant)
Temple University $4,000/yr (after TEACH grant)
Arcadia University $9,700/yr (after TEACH grant)
MICA $50,000/yr (after TEACH grant)
Rowan University -$3,000/yr (no TEACH grant required)
Yes, that is a negative $3,000/yr. And that fifth year that her degree will require? Of all the colleges Sarah applied to, it looks as though Rowan may accept the most credits for work she has already completed, including her Advanced Placement Credits, and her college credits earned through Academic Challenge. So she should easily be able to finish that 5-year degree in 4 ½ years, and maybe even 4.
We felt that since Matthew from MICA had worked so hard, and been so encouraging, that Sarah should at least wait to hear their offer before making her decision. We waited until the following Thursday, when we learned that MICA did offer her $21,000 a year in scholarships, leaving a balance of about $30,000/yr. It just wasn’t meant to be.
If you have stuck with me for this whole long story, then you’ve gotten to the main point. This isn’t just about Sarah, or college, or dads helping their daughters. This is about our faith, and how will live it. Our faith resides where we live, in the midst of the things we are involved in. Our faith isn’t some vague idea, it is a trust in God Himself, a trust that God knows what is going on. Our faith involves us walking through our lives, with a view towards how that coincides with our God. It’s the exact relationship Christ had with His Father as He walked here on earth. Our faith is best under the most trying of circumstances because we are forced into a position of having to rely on Someone larger than ourselves.
This is how we live our faith. We generally do it quietly, without broadcasting it to everyone. And that’s partly due to our belief that it’s not so much what you say, but rather what you do, that demonstrates your faith the best.
Our faith does not tell us that God will give us everything we ask for, or will always present an easy path. In this situation, our prayer for a clear path was clearly answered. The fact it worked out so beautifully financially was a bonus. We weren’t counting on that, and we are certainly thankful. But most of all, we are thankful for the opportunity to spend the past 6 months wading through a process that has brought us all closer together and to God, a process that produced part of our story as a family.