Spending time on the campuses of schools is an invaluable experience. When Savannah was a toddler we regularly walked the gardens and grounds of the Montessori school where she would be attending. She became very familiar with every sidewalk and building long before she ever attended.  She even came for recess a few times (by the principals invitation) and played on the playground with her future classmates.    When she was an elementary student we toured Prestonwood together a couple of times then she spent time in the classroom with the students and teachers. On weekends we went to the campus and played soccer for an extra level of familiarity.  We even attended church there (our church home was elsewhere) so she could walk the halls and get a feeling for the building from a different vantage point.

She has always been one to analyze and talk things through to process,  so those investments of time have always proven beneficial for her transition into new places.  Likewise, Ive always been a huge believer in actually walking into an atmosphere to see what it feels like against your own skin, not just taking someone else's word for it or simply reading about it, but truly experiencing it. So that is exactly what we are doing now that we are intently looking at her university interests.

We started communicating with Vanderbilt last year and have been in regular email and phone conversations since that time.    They have many strengths, obviously, but as a wise man once said, putting a boot on is the only way to know how it fits.

My job on these trips is to get Savannah around the city, giving her a taste of what living there will feel like.  Where are the neighborhood hangouts for the students?  What are the coffeeshops like near campus? What does the city have to offer in terms of letting off steam?  Are there hike and bike trails nearby?  Is it a foodie community or not?   Where are the Christian supports for the campus, and what is their attendance like?  And about that food again?  These are the types of questions that are deal breakers for her.  May sound odd, but the schools stand for themselves by this point in our research.  She already knows how they perform in terms of preparing a dedicated student.  What she wants to know now is what Life looks like in these communities.

I have laughed so many times in recent months as we ask students what they were looking for in a university or what made them choose one over another.  Most students we talk with apply to many schools, all of which they really like for one reason or another.  But over and over again we hear three reasons why ultimately a school was chosen:  the climate (weather)  of the area where the university is located, what the city the university is located in has to offer in terms of lifestyle, and what the food was like.  I can tell you, those three will be deal breakers for Savannah as well!  Especially the food.

Being a homeschool mom, my main job is research.  My days are spent finding and placing tools in front of my daughters.  I research probably an average of 6 hours of every day of the school year.  Sometimes that is for class content or my own teaching needs, sometimes for books, sometimes for programs for the girls, sometimes it is for new ways to connect and keep it fresh living alongside these two day by day.    But, can I tell you, researching for these trips is one of the most fun things Ive gotten to do in this homeschooling journey?

Ive spent hours and hours reading restaurant reviews, college campus suggestion guides for the different cities, Yelp, Urbanspoon, Google, TripAdvisor.  Ive sent emails to her university advisors at each school, as well as to faculty asking for their suggestions and overhearings on great places to get a feel for the school and city…and ultimately along the way have made some very fun friends.  Who knew the chair of the architecture department had such a soft spot for live country music?  Im not a country music fan so his help was priceless!

When I began to plan this trip to Vanderbilt, I not only looked at Nashville but what might be fun along the way - to get a better feel for Tennessee in general.  It became evident that since Savannahs favorite food is BBQ, we had to stop in Memphis for her to get the real deal.

Central BBQ and Down South BBQ made my cut.  Both had near perfect reviews from everyone who has ever gone there.  But Central is in a great area of town and Down South just isn't.  Both have been featured on countless foodie networks and are very well known for their offerings.  Ultimately I chose Central.  It did not disappoint.  As Savannah said to her dad on the phone, "Dad, your ribs are the best in Texas and Colorado."  He knew she was on Tennessee soil at that moment.  She laughed while he threatened to hang up on her.  Then she said, "this is the only time Ive seen mom eat her meal faster than me!"  And she wasn't kidding.  Those things were so good we stopped back by on the way home and got 3 slabs to take to Doug, Peyton and my dad.  Dougs response when he found out we were bringing them back, "those ribs aren't welcome here."  Until he tasted them.

Upon arrival in Nashville I knew that Savannah really wanted to hear some live music.   Music is a huge part of who this girl is.   Let me say, live music can be tricky without finding yourself in a bar-type atmosphere, which just isn't our scene.   But, again the research paid off.  Pucketts Grocery was our ticket.  Again, no disappointments there; just fabulous food, a great atmosphere and live music from Ravencliff.   Savannah was beaming as we sat front row near the stage and caught the whole show.  We all three had a blast.  Oh, and I had a fried green tomato BLT; now thats Southern!

Next day was the full day on campus.  From dawn to dusk she was meeting with faculty and students, touring and taking in.  Again, the school stands for itself in terms of its quality.    And with the research and conversations we have had over the past year, most of the generic information given in a prospective student tour we had gathered long ago, although we did do that too.  What we were there for was how the campus lives.  Personal meetings with professors, faculty and students gave us exactly what we were seeking.

A few interesting things about Vanderbilt which are not the norm:

- if accepted to their school, each and every students tuition is covered (beyond the required family contribution, sliding scale) at 100% by loans which are not to be repaid.

 - All students are required to live on campus all 4 years, promoting a true community

 - No cars allowed.  Every student.  No exceptions.    Instead there are free shuttles and bus passes that run everywhere at every hour and are on call to the students.  All the students we talked to say this is a a benefit, not a hindrance in any way.

 - each semester every student is given $250 to get out and about in Nashville trying the restaurants, going to shows, enjoying the culture.  They truly want a community that gets out, enjoys and can speak to offerings surrounding them.    Serious students sometimes need help in having a bit of fun.

Her favorite part of the day was her time with her advisor.  The moment they really made a connection was when Savannah went through the list of places we had been around town.  Her advisor said in all her years there she had never heard a prospective student with such an agenda.  Two of our stops are her all-time favorites!  So they talked lifestyle (food and music) for over an hour.  And homeschooling.  Her advisor is fascinated with the homeschool way of life.  She says without exception, with every advisor there,  the homeschoolers who have the test scores to compete there are head and shoulders above in terms of interesting applications and their community involvements.

What were our top 3 places after visiting?  Pucketts, where we heard Ravencliff perform.   Fido, where we had breakfast 2 times; hands down best coffee any of us has ever had.  And Mas Tacos.   Oh my stinking cow!  Sweet, Fancy, Moses!  Wow.  I don't even know how to tell you how good this place was.  I mean the reviews told me, but its so not the same until you eat there.  We tried everything on the menu - 6 kinds of tacos, ague fresco (pineapple and cilantro that day) plantains and black beans, the soups, coffee with horchata…every.single.thing was incredible.    Its not exactly fancy, which only adds to the charm of it being better than many 5 star restaurants my mom and I have enjoyed.    My mom said, "oh my gosh" and paused when she took her first bite.  Savannah looked at her and said, "Nana, how good can it be?" Then took her first bite and  said the same.   So as not to be left out I quickly grabbed my fried avocado taco and took a bite.  Yes,  indeed, that was the only appropriate response.  Incredible.  Its about what they add to what is normal - shaved cabbage and dill yogurt to the fried avocado, roasted tomatillo to the quinoa and sweet potato.  And handmade horchata (rice milk with cinnamon, almond and vanilla essence) to the iced coffee.  Over the top.

But enough about food,  you probably want to know if she liked Vanderbilt?  Yes, she did.  

Vanderbilt has a small student/professor ratio and is very personal; it fosters community in every regard.  She likes the city where it is located and the lifestyle it provides.  The academics there are taken very seriously, which for some students is a plus.  Savannah is one of those. doesnt have a great Architecture program.  And it is very lacking in athletics.  And alongside the positive fact that students there are academically serious, they also may be a bit stiff overall in terms of personality.   There wasn't a lot of laughter we heard in our time there.  Obviously another trip would be necessary before a final decision was made, but those were her initial impressions.

Do I think she will go there?  Not mine to decide.    The Lord knows the Plans He has for her and He will guide her.  

But what a blast gathering the experiences!

Next stops?  Rice and Tulane.