I never went on any official campus visits before I applied to college. I didn’t need to. As a student at Clay City High School in the 1980s, I visited many college campuses as part of our high school activities.

Most frequently, we visited Olney Central College. They held academic competitions for local high schools, staged plays for the public and offered "Kollege for Kids" classes during the summer. Just walking down the halls, looking at the flyers on the bulletin boards and watching the college students hang out in the cafeteria on the south side of the building gave me important hints about college life.

My high school drama club took trips to Eastern Illinois University to attend plays, and I glimpsed student life when my friend and I visited her uncle who was a student there. Southern Illinois University began to feel like a comfortable place after going there to attend a week-long: yearbook camp, take the SAT and participate in a day of workshops for students involved in their high school newspaper. Our whole team went to the University of Illinois for state championship tournaments.

Every one of those high school field trips made the abstract idea of "college" tangible for us. That was important, especially for small-town students whose lives seemed far removed from college and college towns.

Now I am on the other side of college visits.

Before COVID 19 closed our campus, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign offered campus visits several days during the spring semester. Potential college freshmen and their families would spend the day at the university, attending talks, taking tours, eating at a dorm cafeteria, and talking to current students. I was given about 45 minutes to spend with students who were interested in the Spanish major. I led them through the Foreign Languages Building, let them peek into classrooms, took them upstairs to our department, listed the specialties of our faculty members, encouraged them to study more than one language and laid out the opportunities for students in our major and finally gave them time to talk with our advisor.

After all this information, the parents always have one question: What kind of job can my child expect after graduation?

That’s understandable, and I share examples of the jobs my former students landed.

But from my perspective as someone who works closely with students, I would encourage parents to focus on common problems, issues that I see arise long before the job search.

Students get sick. They can’t succeed when they are ill, and if they don’t take care of the initial illness, problems can spiral. So visit or ask questions about the health center. Is it easy to make appointments, and do they give out common treatments for free? When you eat at the dorm cafeteria, look at everything they offer, then talk to your student about how to eat for health with the foods they provide.

Students fall behind academically. Your child is definitely smart enough to succeed in college, otherwise he/she wouldn’t have been accepted. I highly encourage you to sit in on a class during a college visit. Are the seats full? Students are often tempted to skip classes, but attendance really helps. Who participates? Do only a few students raise their hands when the professor asks questions? Encourage your student to participate in class; it can be scary but it helps them engage with the material and form relationships with their professors. Attendance and participation are two very easy ways for students to stay on top of their courses.

Students don’t build a well-rounded profile. Yes, choosing a major is important, but colleges are bursting with extra opportunities. Visit the study abroad office to see how easy it can be for your student to graduate with global experience to add to her resume. Ask if there are cross-campus programs on leadership or entrepreneurship. That way you don’t have to be a business major to develop solid skills that are sought after in the business world.

College isn’t for everyone, I know. Still, visiting colleges when I was in high school made it seem within reach. Next week I will share more about college life.