A College Tour’s Unexpected Surprise

What began as a journey to picture the collegiate future of one child shifted to serious soul searching over that of another. During MEA weekend my wife and I took our daughter Clara, a junior at Edina High School, on a college tour of the Carolinas. What drew us down to Dixie was our son Miles, a sophomore at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. We planned to watch him play in a rugby match between Clara’s college visits.

Starting out from Charlotte, we drove to Elon University in central North Carolina, between Greensboro and Durham. Set on a pretty campus in the small town of Elon, the college has much to offer its 5,600 students. Along with 60 majors to choose from, Elon’s undergraduates are strongly encouraged to take one of the college’s many programs for study abroad, which almost three-quarters of them do. Elon’s students come mainly from the Carolina-Virginia-Maryland region, even as the university’s reach is now broadening to attract applicants from the northeastern states and indeed nationwide.

While Elon students are encouraged to think globally, those attending another college on our tour most definitely think locally – and in particular about how to secure good seats at football games. The students of Clemson University ooze school spirit. Clemson, whose hilly, well-landscaped campus serves 16,000 undergraduates, is a public institution near Georgia in the northwest corner of South Carolina. On the weekend we visited, at least 100 students, many clad in orange with tiger paw logos, had pitched tents on the sidewalk outside Death Valley, the stadium whose box office would open Monday morning to sell tickets for Saturday’s game against Syracuse. Helpfulness and good manners stood out in the conversations we had with several students. As Northerners, we were delighted to experience Southern hospitality up close.

In between our travels to Elon and Clemson, we visited Miles at Furman, whose campus is mentioned frequently among the country’s most beautiful. On arrival, Miles greeted us with firm hugs and huge smiles, then took us to our surprise. He introduced us to a woman he’d been seeing recently. Her name was Annette Woods. But no, Annette was not our boy’s romantic interest. Quite the opposite. Of late, she had been counseling Miles to make war, not love. Ms. Woods is Furman’s recruiting operations officer for the U.S. Army.

She told my wife and me that Miles was at the top of her list to earn a scholarship through the Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. Even though today’s military was downsizing, Miles had the academic and athletic credentials the Army wanted. For the upcoming semester, he would have to take a class in military science alongside his four regular courses. He would also have to complete a 28-day Leader’s Training Course this summer at Fort Knox, Ky. Those requirements satisfied, Ms. Woods was confident that Miles would get Uncle Sam’s most generous financial award for the rest of college: tuition, room and board, books, fees, transportation, everything, all covered 100 percent, with a monthly stipend besides.

Wow. Miles gets financial aid now based on both scholastic achievement and rugby; our family, however, would save tens of thousands of dollars were he to go ROTC. But what would we, no, what would Miles, have to give in exchange? Upon graduation from Furman, our son would become a lieutenant with an obligation of eight years’ service to the Army. While pursuing a civilian career, he would join his unit one weekend a month, as well as for one two-week period each year. If needed, the Army could change his status from reserve to active, especially in time of war. That’s the scary part.

My wife and I left the meeting choked up. It looks like Miles, who spoke of all the selfless reasons for wanting to serve, may well be on his way to a military future. While his choosing that route will leave our family richer in more ways than one, it may be years before we know whether the price paid was too high.