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Tete-a-tete: Youngest Brother finds a hobby thanks to ‘The Great British Baking Show’

Over the past few years, I have developed a talent for finding binge-worthy shows on Netflix and getting the rest of the family sucked into them. Often, the only result is hours of entertainment, but my recent discovery of “The Great British Baking Show” has led to tangible benefits for 20-year-old Youngest Brother.

If you have not had the pleasure, “The Great British Baking Show” features a dozen talented amateur bakers vying to be named the U.K.’s best. Each week, the show’s judges, renowned cookbook writer Mary Berry and top artisan baker Paul Hollywood, assign a new set of challenges to test the bakers’ skills.

With the exception of the final week of competition, which is among three remaining finalists, one competitor is eliminated each week and one earns the distinction of being that week’s star baker. The tension is diffused by the wonderfully dry observations of hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc.

What makes “The Great British Baking Show” so delightful to watch is the attitude of the competitors. Though all of them want to be the last baker standing, they want to win because they baked well and proved they deserved that honor rather than because others baked poorly and were eliminated.

There seems to be a genuine air of camaraderie among the bakers. They cheer each other on, sincerely compliment each other’s work, offer comfort over the judges’ criticism and even lend a hand if someone else is in trouble. It’s quite refreshing, especially when you’re used to competitive cooking shows like “Hell’s Kitchen.”

When I first began watching “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, there were no takers among the family. I eventually converted Mom, who found it absolutely enchanting after she realized it wasn’t an instructional cooking show.

Enter Youngest Brother, home from college on his winter break and looking for quality time with the family and a quality viewing experience. Quickly swept up in the British baking awesomeness, he found one competitor particularly impressive: Andrew, a 25-year-old aerospace engineer.

In the course of a single episode, Andrew modified his rolling pin to achieve a more uniform thickness of dough, used the word “tessellate” properly and constructed a three-dimensional gingerbread scene according to detailed schematics he drew up himself, accompanied by a checklist that allowed him to track the status of all his gingerbread components.

Youngest Brother, a second-year electrical engineering student, was inspired.

It must be said that Youngest Brother is no stranger to the kitchen. He started cooking as part of Boy Scout campouts in elementary school, and in high school, one of his merit badges required him to plan and prepare three days’ worth of meals for at least two people.

I was one of the beneficiaries of the fruits of his labor, and I still remember the tuna salad he made that had shredded cheese and raisins in it. Youngest Brother, please consider this my official request that you make this again the next time you’re home.

His cooking skills fell by the wayside during his first year of college due to his dining hall-based meal plan and adjusting to the rigors of the electrical engineering major, so last semester was his first time being responsible for his own meals. Regrettably, he wasn’t able to do much advance planning on that front and ended up getting by on cereal, instant ramen, and smoothies purchased at a beverage stand on campus.

When he came home for winter break, he had hopes that perhaps he could recalibrate and get organized enough to eat better next semester, but given how stressful his course load was looking, he wasn’t very optimistic.

And then, he watched Andrew bake a set of savory, hot-water crust pies inspired by a da Vinci spiral. The gear-shaped pies were of different sizes and presented on a series of platforms in such a way that when he turned a mechanism, the pies all rotated like an interlocking set of gears – and they tasted wonderful, too.

If Andrew could accomplish such an incredible feat of pie engineering, why not Youngest Brother? At the very least, he felt confident he could manage more than instant ramen and was excited to explore the possibilities.

It helped, too, that Mom and Dad were supportive of his culinary aspirations. A few days before he went back to school, they reminded him of a cookbook of simple recipes they had given him when he started college and took him to Costco to stock up on easy-to-prepare staples like tuna fish and oatmeal.

Youngest Brother expressed a desire to pick up some ingredients for baking, so Mom suggested they stop at Sauders in Seneca Falls, NY on the drive back to school. It was his first time in what is essentially the Mennonite equivalent of Walmart, and he was astounded by the variety of spices he could buy in bulk – and their very reasonable price tags. He may be the only student on his campus whose post-vacation move-in involved huge sacks of flour and brown sugar and a tub of apple butter.

Cooking has now become part of Youngest Brother’s daily life as well as one of the ways he manages stress. In addition to making his meals, he’s made apple streusel muffins for his friends and a pumpkin Swiss roll for a party. He’s become quite popular at his on-campus job (everyone loves a good and generous baker), and his roommate even bought him an apron.

Should anyone try to convince you that there are no benefits to binge-watching a TV show, please feel free to present Youngest Brother as a binge-watching success story. Thus far, there have been no negative effects.

Well, except for his tendency to speak with a British accent while baking, but that’s a consequence we’re willing to live with.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published March 1, 2018


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Tete-a-tete: Streamlined technology makes it easier to come home for the holidays – unlike when I was in college

Youngest Brother and Younger Sister will soon be coming home from college for Thanksgiving. Along with their dirty laundry, they’ll be bringing something I was never able to bring home for a weekend when I was in college: their computers.

It amazes me how quickly technology has changed. Even though it’s been a little more than a decade since I was a college student, from a technological standpoint, it was essentially a different epoch. Laptops existed but had not yet come into widespread use. I had a decidedly-non-portable desktop PC, as did most of my friends.

Each person who lived on campus had their own landline in their dorm room, the extension for which was listed in the campus phone book. I remember being excited to have a T1 internet connection, as it was so much faster than the dialup connection we had at home.

Facebook was in its nascent stages; YouTube and Twitter did not yet exist. Our main social media platforms were a campus-wide system called FirstClass, AOL Instant Messenger and LiveJournal. No one referred to it as “social media” at the time, however, because the term hadn’t been invented yet. We simply called it what it was for us: procrastination.

Digitalization of entertainment was in its infancy. Overall, if you wanted to enjoy a particular type of entertainment, you needed to have it in tangible form, along with the appropriate equipment to play it. Watching a movie required a TV and a videotape and VCR or a DVD and a DVD player. Listening to music required a CD and a CD player. Reading a book required, well, a book.

As you can imagine, dorm rooms were rather crowded when I was in college, especially if you or your roommate was a bit of a movie buff or a bookworm.

Going home for a holiday weekend was an exercise in decision-making and deprivation. You couldn’t take your computer with you. If you had a computer at home, the internet connection likely wasn’t fast enough to keep in touch with your friends. You had to choose what movies, music and books to bring with you, especially if you had a long distance to travel.

And all Youngest Brother and Younger Sister have to do is grab their laptops or tablets, their smartphones and the respective chargers, and they have all of that and more. I mean, I even had to bring my portable alarm clock home with me. They just set the alarm on their phones.

Even more impressive is that Youngest Brother and Younger Sister’s computers fit in their backpack and purse respectively. Try doing that with a monitor, keyboard, tower, mouse and the tangle of cords needed to connect all the components. And their phones fit in their pockets!

I don’t mean to sound naïve or credulous (Phones! Phones that fit into pockets!), but I do believe we’ve become so comfortable with our current technology that we sometimes forget how incredible – and how fast – these advancements have been.

My college computer had a 1 gigabyte hard drive. A little more than a decade later, my smartphone has a capacity of 13 gigabytes, with additional storage in the cloud. Had you mentioned the iCloud to me back in college, I would’ve assumed it was something that built up in the center of a hurricane.

These developments are mind-blowing, yet we often take them for granted. It’s easy for me to get frustrated with slow or spotty Wi-Fi – until I remember the days when I would wait half an hour to connect to the internet through our phone line, only to be booted off every time someone called our house.

Technology has not always been a servant at my beck and call, doing its utmost to make my life convenient. It wasn’t that long ago that I would change my habits to suit the technology. During my college breaks, I would use the internet at home in the wee hours of the morning when I could be (relatively) sure of an uninterrupted connection.

How very odd to think that my parents would tell us how fortunate we were for not having to walk to school (uphill, both ways) in the freezing cold, and now I’m telling my youngest siblings to appreciate their instantaneous internet connectivity and have patience when their apps are slow to refresh. Hardship is indeed relative.

Overall, I’m pleased that Youngest Brother and Younger Sister don’t have to make the choices I did when coming home for a holiday and can enjoy the benefits of compact, effective technology. But I am anticipating a definite downside to it.

Since they don’t have to cram their luggage with DVDs, books and CDs, they have more room for dirty laundry. The internet has become much faster since I was in college, but it still takes the same amount of time to do a load of laundry. Happy Thanksgiving, Mom and Dad.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Nov. 2, 2017


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Tete-a-tete: The ins and outs of the college moving experience

Given the option, most of us would not choose to move four times in as many years. Packing and unpacking, protecting delicate items, moving large pieces of furniture – it’s a stressful process. And yet, it’s considered perfectly normal for college students to move in and out of their living arrangements each year as dorm assignments change or apartment leases expire.

This usually ends up being a family endeavor, with parents and siblings pitching in to help the move go as smoothly as possible. Unfortunately, there are always things you can’t prepare for that inevitably complicate matters.

Architecture poses one of the biggest unexpected challenges. In my sophomore year of college, I lived in a dorm that was entered by walking down a flight of stairs. This was not a mere two or three steps down – we’re talking about a good two dozen steps.

This flight of stairs did not appear to serve any significant architectural purpose apart from being part of an incredibly dysfunctional design, for they only led to the lobby, which included the elevator and stairs leading to four floors of dorm rooms.

The day we students were scheduled to move in, the elevator happened to be out of order. And guess whose room was on the fourth floor? These circumstances led Dad to question whether I had employed my critical thinking skills when I had selected my dorm. (I believe the exact turn of phrase was, “Are you an idiot?”) I chose to live in a different dorm for the remainder of my college career.

Oldest Younger Brother fared well with dorm living, having been graced with a functioning elevator when moving in and moving out. Impractical architecture reared its ugly head once again, however, when he began living off campus as a sophomore.

That year, he and his roommates rented the top floor of a triple-decker. There was no elevator, which was fine because we hadn’t really expected one, but the architect had seen fit to design a narrow staircase that had a landing, immediately followed by a 90-degree turn, every five feet.

Dad and Oldest Younger Brother labored valiantly to heft his new-to-him loveseat up the stairs by passing it from landing to landing, up the center of the stairwell, only to discover it wouldn’t fit through the doorway of the apartment.

They borrowed a hacksaw and cut off the legs of the loveseat, but it was still too tight a squeeze. Dad and Oldest Younger had to remove the doorframes in the apartment – yes, the doorframes, not just the doors – before they could settle the loveseat in its new home in the living room. Even then, it barely made it.

When it was time to move out, Oldest Younger Brother opted to leave the loveseat. There was no way they were getting it back out of the apartment unless it was in pieces, and it might just save the next renter some hassle.

Another unexpected challenge you might encounter is the unpreparedness of your college student. My junior year, I was living in a dorm with a reasonable arrangement of steps and a functioning elevator, so Dad figured the two of us could handle the moving-out process by ourselves. He told me to make sure I obtained boxes so I could be all packed up when he arrived.

I don’t know really know what my thought process was, but I didn’t get boxes. Nor did I tell Dad I didn’t get boxes.

I do remember he thought I’d be able to get them on campus. Apparently, some colleges sell boxes and other packing materials at the end of the school year to make things easier for their students. Given that my school did not consider a broken elevator on Move-in Day to be an issue, it was no surprise that boxes were not being sold on campus.

Getting boxes would have involved taking the college shuttle to the mall, walking to the home supply store several plazas over and carrying the boxes back to the mall without getting flattened by unconcerned urban drivers. It was not a risk I was willing to take.

So when Dad arrived, expecting to load up the van and go, he was shocked to find that I was, by and large, not packed. He made an emergency run to a nearby drugstore and returned with a pack of lawn bags – big, heavy-duty paper bags used for grass clippings and other byproducts of lawn maintenance.

I don’t think a dorm room has ever been packed up so quickly. Parental frustration is an excellent motivator.

On the plus side, we did discover that the lawn bags were more durable (and easier to store) than the banker’s boxes we had been using previously. I was glad my lack of preparation had resulted in some sort of positive outcome, but I didn’t mention that to Dad until, like, next year when I was packing to move in.

We just moved Youngest Brother out of his dorm after his first year of college, and I’m pleased to report that this was quite possibly the easiest move-out process we’ve ever had. Neither architecture nor student unpreparedness interfered – there were no inappropriate stairs, the elevator worked properly and he did some packing beforehand. The half-dozen large tote bags Mom brought easily accommodated everything else.

Our cousins who live nearby volunteered to help, and between the five of us, everything took three trips, the last trip being devoted solely to the refrigerator. We were even able to go out to dinner afterwards without anyone being grumpy or frustrated due to moving day mishaps.

I hope things will go as smoothly for Younger Sister when she starts college this fall and we move her into her dorm. She’s a very responsible young lady, so I doubt preparedness will be an issue, and the dorms appear to be laid out in a logical fashion.

But then again, there’s always the elevator.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published June 1, 2017


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Tete-a-tete: ‘Family court’ has a whole new meaning at our house

Deciding what you want to be when you grow up is a fun and imaginative exercise when you’re a small child, but it’s slightly more stressful when you’re a high school senior filling out college applications and realizing that, with perhaps the exception of theater, you can’t major in being a fairy princess.

Sometimes you might have an interest or a skill that corresponds to an obvious course of study and career path, making for an easier decision. An affinity for building things with LEGOs, for example, could translate to a career in mechanical engineering.

Other times, the clues are more subtle and have more to do with personality traits than personal interests. Such has been the case with 17-year-old Younger Sister, who has spent the past few months applying to colleges and wrestling with these all-important questions.

Being the loving and supportive family we are, we’ve done our best to help by offering suggestions and guidance, which has involved some serious reflection on her character and what makes her tick.

Younger Sister is a very straightforward young lady who is not afraid to speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in. She is articulate, logical and adept at defending others who are afraid to speak up or simply do not know what to say.

When coming to a decision on a contentious matter, Younger Sister speaks with confidence and decisiveness, giving the impression that her conclusion is not only the obvious one but the only correct one.

Mom and Dad, veterans of numerous discussions and debates with Younger Sister, have come to the conclusion that she would make an excellent lawyer.

I concur, having recently been the defendant in what Dad considers Younger Sister’s first court case: Older Sister Who Parked Her Car in My Spot.

One day, I happened to arrive home before Younger Sister. She usually parks close to the house, while my typical parking spot is on a part of the driveway overhung by trees. Having recently divested my car of an accumulation of pine needles, acorns, leaves and other natural debris, I thought I would give my car (and myself) a break by parking close to the house, in the spot where Younger Sister normally parks.

Younger Sister arrived home later that evening, after the sun had set. Upon entering the house, the first words out of her mouth were that I should not have parked in her spot and that I needed to move my car immediately. Because she had to park where I normally do, she had had to walk about ten feet in the dark before she was close enough to the house for the sensors to pick up her presence and the outside lights turned on.

This, she informed me, was unacceptable, as she was away from the house for much longer periods of time than I was, often leaving and returning when it was dark outside. Since I drive less frequently than she does and mostly during daylight hours, I should therefore be the one to park further from the house.

As previously mentioned, it is unwise to debate Younger Sister unless you are prepared to bring your A game. I did my best, reminding her that “her spot” had been occupied by numerous other family members over the years before she got her license and that she did not have a monopoly on it. Objection overruled.

I then attempted to argue that, since she does drive more frequently, her car would end up with less of an accumulation and it would thus make more sense for her to park under the trees. Objection overruled.

As a last resort, I pointed out that when I get home after sunset, I have to walk that same distance in the dark, which makes that aspect of the parking issue equally problematic for me. Younger Sister’s rebuttal was that there’s a difference between me walking that distance once in a while and her walking it every morning and every night.

Verdict: Further deviation from the established parking arrangement will not be tolerated. Any exceptions are to be submitted for approval ahead of time and will be accepted or rejected based on their legitimacy.

On second thought, perhaps Younger Sister should skip being a lawyer and go straight to being a judge.

Though my points were all valid and reasonable, Younger Sister’s were more so, and they were delivered with her characteristic confidence. I was right, but she was more right. And she has since generously permitted me to park in “her spot” on occasions when I have had a legitimate need to do so, such as after running errands and needing to bring a number of bags into the house.

Younger Sister has not made a concrete decision as to whether she’ll be going into law and is still keeping her options open in terms of future professions. Regardless, it’s obvious that advocacy and debate are among her strengths.

I just hope that wherever she goes to school has assigned parking spaces so she can focus on honing her skills inside the classroom rather than outside.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Dec. 1, 2016


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Tete-a-tete: With family, you have to give it the ol’ college try

Family dynamics change when children go away to college. Some new college students relish their newfound freedom and independence and distance themselves from their families while they spread their wings. Others crave the security of home and invest more time in their relationships with their parents and siblings through texting and social media.

Nineteen-year-old Youngest Brother recently started college in upstate New York, six hours away from us. I’ve been giving him space to adjust, being unsure as to how our family in general and I in particular fit into his new college life. In this season, older siblings are sometimes considered an asset, sometimes an embarrassment, and I figured I’d wait and see which one I was and take my cues from there.

The verdict came last month when Mom and I went to upstate New York to visit Grandpa and help him with various errands and medical appointments. Our itinerary also included visiting Youngest Brother, whose school is about an hour away from where Grandpa lives.

We drove to his campus early in the week and took him out to lunch between classes. Youngest Brother talked with us about his heavy workload and the expectations of his professors. While he was pleased to see us and enjoyed our company, he was also anxious to return to campus.

It’s a feeling I remember well from my own college years – that daily, generalized sense of panic over having a lot to do and limited time in which to do it. Want to make a college student spontaneously combust? Take them off campus in between classes in the middle of the week and give them a vague idea of when you might be bringing them back. You could power a small city off the resulting nervous energy.

We were far too kind to do that to Youngest Brother, and we made sure he was back on campus with time to spare before his next class. Mom stocked his dorm room with cereal and snacks and promised to return in a few days with some additional supplies. Youngest Brother asked if I would also be coming back, to which I responded that I would.

When the time came for Mom’s second trip, however, I decided to stay back and take advantage of a quiet day to get some of my work done. I didn’t think it was especially important for me to put in a second appearance, reasoning that Mom and Grandpa would provide more than sufficient companionship for Youngest Brother and that they were probably the people he wanted to see the most anyway. I’m just his big sister, so I figured he wouldn’t mind my absence.


Shortly after they left, my cell phone rang. It was Mom. She had just gotten off the phone with Youngest Brother, having wanted to let him know that she and Grandpa were on their way.

Youngest Brother asked if I was in the car with them and she responded that I was not, having elected instead to stay back and work.

He was not pleased. “What do you mean she’s not with you? Turn around and go get her!”

When Mom said that, I started to cry, partly because I was touched that my presence really did matter to Youngest Brother and partly because I was angry at myself for missing the opportunity to be there for him. College is a crucial testing ground for family relationships. Family members have to make an extra effort to show they care and to be part of their student’s life from a distance while still giving them the space they need. Those who don’t run the risk of jeopardizing that relationship post graduation.

I’ve always told Youngest Brother and Younger Sister that they can reach out to me at any time and I’ll be there for them. (I’m there for Oldest Youngest Brother too, but given our much smaller age difference, I’m not sure I ever vocalized that to him back when he went off to college.) And here I was, about a month into Youngest Brother’s college career, completely negating that promise.

Mom and Grandpa obligingly came back to get me while I took one of the fastest showers I have ever taken and made myself presentable. This time, our arrival coincided with the end of Youngest Brother’s classes for the day (and the week), so after giving him the rest of his supplies, we took him out to dinner.

Given that his birthday was coming up the weekend after our departure and Mom, Grandpa and I were all in attendance, Mom decided to make it Youngest Brother’s official birthday dinner. When we got out of the car at the restaurant, Youngest Brother gave me a big hug and told me how happy he was that I had come with them. Somehow, I managed not to tear up again.

Maintaining family relationships when a child goes off to college can be challenging, especially when you’re an older sibling who wants to respect their freedom while still being supportive. Knowing where you stand makes all the difference.

Which is why when Mom went to see Youngest Brother a third time to drop off some paperwork, I didn’t hesitate to accompany her. I’m not about to miss another opportunity to be there for him.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Oct. 6, 2016


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Tete-a-tete: Slacker movies offer unlikely heroes

For every goal we want to achieve in life, there’s a corresponding checklist of instructions. Want to go to a good college? Take all the AP classes you can in high school, be involved in extracurricular activities and score high on your SATs. Want to get a good job? Join professional organizations in college and find internships in your field. Want a better job than the one you have? Engage in networking and professional development.

And so it continues, with checklists for what you should do to get married, buy a house, have children, raise children, enjoy a comfortable retirement. Step after step after step after step.

If you follow all the instructions and check all the boxes, supposedly you’ll achieve your goal. But what if you miss a step? Can you still succeed even if you don’t do everything right?

These questions weighed particularly heavy on my mind throughout high school and college. I’ve always been a diligent box-checker, but it was somewhat terrifying to feel like my future hinged on the choices I made from the ages of 14-22. I see 18-year-old Youngest Brother experiencing some of that uneasiness as he prepares to leave for college.

In these circumstances, it helps to have your heroes. I found mine in a rather unlikely place: slacker movies.

Loosely defined, a slacker movie is any movie that features an underachieving protagonist who bucks the conventional way of doing things. They don’t follow the instructions, they don’t check all the boxes and they still manage to achieve their goals.

As a disclaimer, I do not condone juvenile delinquency, disrespect for authority or any other dangerous or unhealthy behaviors that slacker movies may glorify. What I find fascinating is the ability of the characters to succeed in spite of not following the rules.

Take, for example, the cult classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (1979). Punk rock chick Riff Randell dreams of writing songs for the Ramones, today considered one of the most influential punk bands in music history. A high school senior with more detentions than anyone in her school’s history, Riff would rather fantasize about meeting lead singer Joey Ramone than study for her classes. As Riff admits, she only uses her math book “on special equations.”

She butts heads with Miss Togar, the new vice principal in charge of discipline, who tries to keep her from attending the Ramones concert and enlists the parents to help destroy the students’ rock albums. Sparks fly, and Riff emerges victorious. She manages to go to the concert anyway, the Ramones like her song so much that they put it on their next album and she makes it clear to Miss Togar that demerits, overzealous hall monitors and black marks on her permanent record have no power over her.

As a student who had far more in common with Riff’s academically successful friend Kate than with Riff herself, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” was music to my ears. It was eye-opening to consider that the things that carried so much weight at that stage in my life – GPA, class rank, SAT scores – weren’t that important after all. It was refreshing to think that success could be achieved by thinking outside the box, working outside the system and, if all else failed, shredding the vice principal’s discipline records with a chainsaw.

In college, I was introduced to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), a more fantasy-driven take on the slacker movie. Bill and Ted are not exactly high academic achievers – they confuse George Washington with Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick.” Their history teacher gives them an ultimatum: if they don’t get a good grade on their final report, they’ll fail the class. To make matters worse, Ted’s father will send him to military school in Alaska, breaking up Wyld Stallyns, the boys’ nascent metal band, before they even learn how to play their instruments properly.

Unbeknownst to Bill and Ted, their music is destined to change the world, putting an end to war and poverty and bringing peace. A man named Rufus is sent from the future with a time machine (cleverly disguised as a phone booth) so that they can do research for their report and pass their history class, thus keeping the band together and preserving the utopian future.

This movie was a continuous source of encouragement for me throughout college. If Bill and Ted could manage to pull off their history report, then surely I could write a paper on “Paradise Lost,” memorize the kanji for my Japanese midterm and compose a counterpoint to a cantus firmus in Phrygian mode by the end of the week – although I certainly wouldn’t have minded having a time machine so I could bring Milton, Li Si and Johann Joseph Fux to give me a hand.

When life seems like one long checklist after another and missing a step the difference between success and failure, it’s encouraging to remember those slackers of cinematic fame who managed to achieve their goals in spite of their blatant disregard for the rules.

Though I wouldn’t recommend following these characters’ approaches to life, they do serve as a comforting reminder that you don’t have to be perfect or do everything right in order to succeed. Even if you’re convinced that Caesar was a “salad dressing dude,” you can still bring about world peace.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Aug. 4, 2016


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Tete-a-tete: Admissions about the college admissions process

In the decade since I earned my undergraduate degree, the entire concept of college has changed dramatically. Aside from the price tag, the biggest shift has been in the expectations that schools have for their prospective students.

I came to this conclusion during an admissions presentation at Oldest Younger Brother’s alma mater, which we were touring because 17-year-old Youngest Brother is also interested in attending. Required ranges for SAT scores and GPAs flashed across the screen as the admissions representative stressed the importance of taking classes in high school that would prepare you for your chosen major in college, in addition to taking as many AP classes as possible.

As our family was exiting the presentation room and joining our group for the campus tour, I asked Oldest Younger Brother if he thought he’d still be able to get into his school today. He hesitated and then replied, “Probably not at the same the level.” He had been in the honors program, a distinction awarded to the top 10 percent of applicants.

I was somewhat less confident of what my results would be if I reapplied to my alma mater. I was certainly no slouch as a student – I graduated from high school as third in my class – but my college was extremely competitive academically, and I can only imagine how that’s escalated over the last ten years.

Our tour guide did little to boost my confidence. He chatted cheerfully about his major, his minor, his internships, and the various student activities and off-campus volunteer organizations in which he participates. Though I admire his dedication, I simply cannot fathom how an already busy student has time to be involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters. It was challenging enough for me to stay in touch with my own siblings.

Mom reminded me that campus tour guides are typically exemplary individuals, as this presents a more impressive image of the college to prospective students, but I still believe that college applicants today are expected to be more ambitious and accomplished than those of yesteryear. In addition to higher expectations for grades, test scores, class load, and extracurricular activities, there’s a greater emphasis on community service and experiences abroad.

Even typically even-keeled Youngest Brother was momentarily overwhelmed as the realities of the admission requirements hit him. “Why didn’t you guys tell me this stuff sooner?” he asked as we traipsed about the campus.

Mom and Dad gently reminded him that they had been telling him these things since at least eighth grade. It’s just that the extra GPA points you earn from taking a weighted class, for example, don’t seem that important until you realize they may be the difference between studying in the state-of-the-art engineering lab in which you are now standing and being waitlisted.

And with so many high-achieving, community-minded global citizens competing for admission, it’s harder – and more important – than ever to set yourself apart from the other applicants. When everyone has the same GPA and SAT scores and a glowing list of extracurricular achievements, your admissions essay is what can make you stand out.

I firmly believe that I got into college on the strength of my personality and sense of humor, as expressed through my admissions essay. The prompt directed me to write about difficult circumstances in my life and how I had overcome them, a classic that likely shows up on applications today.

Everyone goes through difficult circumstances in their life, whether it’s the illness of a family member, growing up in poverty, or experiencing racism. I figured the admissions staff would be reading numerous essays on such topics and grappling with the challenges of measuring one person’s difficulties against another’s, so I decided to take a different approach and interpret “difficult circumstances” a bit more loosely.

My essay focused on the differences in international bathrooms and the difficulties in adjusting to these differences as a traveler. I had been fortunate to participate in several international excursions during high school, so I had plenty of material from which to draw, such as having to remember, in spite of my jet-lag-induced brain fog, that the toilet in my Athens hotel room did not have an actual seat.

This led to an admissions interview, which quickly turned into swapping stories about cooking disasters with the admissions representative and us laughing so much that we lost track of time. A few weeks later, I received my acceptance letter.

To clarify, personality and a sense of humor did not take the place of the admissions requirements – I did have the academic and extracurricular background to be considered in the first place. These qualities and the way I expressed them, however, are what set me apart from a sea of similarly accomplished applicants.

If you or your child or your grandchild happens to be stressing over GPA points, AP class availability, and leadership roles in school activities or community organizations, allow me to share with you the same advice I gave to Youngest Brother: do the best you can in these areas and take the time to write an admissions essay that expresses who you are as a person, not just as a list of accomplishments or your life circumstances.

That’s one thing that hasn’t changed about colleges over the last decade. Even though they’re looking for people of a certain caliber, they’re still looking for people. Show them what a desirable candidate you are as a person, and you’re one step closer to admission.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Aug. 6, 2015


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Tete-a-tete: When you have a really good reason to skip class

Though it seems impossible that this much time has passed this quickly, it has now been ten years since I graduated from college. I attended my reunion and they had a nametag for me, so it appears this is an incontestable reality.

Although academics are intended to be the main focus of the college experience, reminiscing with friends reminded me that some of my fondest memories have little to do with what went on in my classes. Indeed, one particularly special memory has to do with quite the opposite: skipping class.

Skipping class is a relatively normal occurrence for many college students. My school, however, was very academically-focused, and the overwhelming majority of students prioritized class attendance. As part of that majority, I also had the perspective that I was paying for an education. I didn’t understand why someone would invest good money in a class and deliberately choose not to attend.

I found out one day during the second semester of my junior year.

I had switched to an English major at the beginning of the academic year, and I was taking mostly literature classes. All of my courses had very interesting-sounding topics, such as gender and ethnicity in modern literature and writers of the American Renaissance.

One unfortunate day, however, the readings for all of my classes fell under the heart-wrenching topic of Horrible Things That Happen to Women in Various Time Periods and Geographic Locations.

My first afternoon class would feature an in-depth discussion of “Comfort Woman” by Nora Okja Keller, a novel based on the real-life experiences of Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. I had already cried my way through the book once for another class the previous semester, and I was not looking forward to doing so again.

My other afternoon class would focus on “The Scarlet Letter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale of adultery and hypocrisy in Puritan New England. Having spent most of my academic career in New England, I’ve read “The Scarlet Letter” several times, and each time I just get angrier at the townspeople and at Reverend Dimmesdale.

I expressed my anguish to my friend during lunch, asking her why the English curriculum focused so extensively on such harrowing subject matter – to the point of repeating it in multiples classes – and why it didn’t include uplifting, meaningful material that didn’t center on suffering and despair.

My friend empathized and articulated her own lack of desire to attend her science class, an introductory course in which the professor taught directly from the reading assignments. As a Japanese Studies major, the class was not particularly useful to my friend – she needed to take it to fulfill a graduation requirement – and she was frustrated at putting so much time and effort into a class that she was getting so little out of.

Speaking in hushed tones over our hamburger wrappers in the student center, we discussed doing the hitherto unthinkable: skipping our afternoon classes. And not just going back to the dorm and watching a movie, but taking the campus bus into Boston and doing something lighthearted and fun.

Neither of us had done anything like this before. The only reason we had previously missed a class was due to illness. But there are times when the need to preserve your mental and emotional health outweighs your academic obligations, and this was one of them.

And so, in spite of our initial trepidation, we took the bus into Boston, went shopping (which, for us, meant going to places like the anime store and the sci-fi bookshop) and ate sushi.

It ended up being just what the doctor ordered. We were able to return to our regularly-scheduled academic lives feeling refreshed, revitalized and ready to take on the challenges of distressing subject matter and rote learning.

In addition to being an enjoyable experience, it was also an important reminder that taking a break when you need it is not only OK, it’s beneficial. This was an easy reality to forget on a campus where some students prided themselves on their overloaded schedules and regular all-nighters.

For those of you who will be starting or returning to college soon, I offer you the following advice. Study effectively, learn well and get a good return on your investment of time, energy and money. This will make it a little less painful when you have to start making payments on your college loans.

When college starts to get overwhelming (as it sometimes does), take a moment and consider how the situation that’s troubling you will affect you ten years from now. If it’s something that needs to be dealt with, ask God for strength and guidance – He never failed me during college, and He still hasn’t failed me now.

And if it turns out it’s time to take a well-discerned break, take it. Choose a safe and fun activity, enjoy it and return to your academics refreshed. You’ll have a great memory to share with your friends at your reunion, ten years later.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Aug. 7, 2014.

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