The Many Universities of California

While nerve-racking, one of the most exciting times as a parent has been my daughter’s junior year of high school. This has been the year to visit local universities to help whittle down her college list. This is also the best way to show her it’s not all about the big popular universities with ridiculously low acceptance rates. Sure, USC and UCLA are the powerhouses of southern California but they are not the only options out there. California alone has an immense list of options.

Local Batch

There are plenty of options in and around Los Angeles that we could visit throughout Kiddo’s school year. She’s been to the aforementioned biggies. USC consisted of an introductory presentation and a 90-minute walking tour. When it was all over, we hit up University Village for Trejo’s Tacos before the short drive back home. Her tour of UCLA happened as part of a high school camp. She also had the opportunity to participate in tennis and softball events there in the past.

USC Hall of Champions

We visited two different community colleges in the area: Los Angeles and Glendale. LACC is in the center of our concrete jungle and is highly accessible. A quick jump on the 2 to the northern edge of Glendale gets you to Glendale Community College. Both would be good options to go the Associate’s Degree and/or transfer route.

There was also a tour of Whittier College; a school I didn’t even know existed until about a year ago despite living in Los Angeles all my life and hanging out in uptown Whittier on a few occasions. This small liberal arts college sits at the edge of Worsham Canyon in Whittier. The placement of the school gives you the best of both worlds. You can get away from the noise in the hiking trails or walk to uptown Whittier and join in on all the noise. Its rival school, Occidental College, is scheduled for later this year.

The Cal States

The Cal State University system consists of 23 schools in California. Kiddo’s been to Cal State Long Beach, Dominguez Hills (my alma mater), and Northridge. We have a visit to Channel Islands scheduled for later this year as well.

California State University, Long Beach

The trip to Cal State Northridge was perhaps the best example of why college trips are important. When she was in middle school, there was a class field trip to CSUN to watch a play. They took a school bus out there, walked to the theatre, watched the play, jumped back on the bus, and drove away. The trip also took place early in the year, on a cool day.

This time around, she and I drove out to CSUN on a Wednesday in late April. The temperature was in the low eighties in Echo Park to start the day. As we sped down the 101, I watched the temperature reading in the car climb. The AC was on the whole time so the change was not noticeable to my daughter.

It was 92 degrees according to the car when we got to CSUN but the actual temperature was much higher. There is nothing inherently wrong with CSUN. It’s a good school and having attended high school in Woodland Hills back in the nineties, I knew it well. Once inside, you tend to get lost in the feel of the school once inside. There are large areas of greenery but also plenty of walking on hot pavement with no sun protection as you move from one building to another.

One part of the campus significant to any Angeleno who remembers the Northridge earthquake of 1994, is the Earthquake Sculpture Garden. The quake devastated the school and after completing the repairs, CSUN set aside an area of the campus with sections of debris from the quake. It’s a permanent memory of a day that changed the life of so many in the city.

By the end of our self-guided tour, Kiddo was ready to jump back into the comfort of air conditioning. She knew then even though the campus was great, it was not the right campus for her.

One Weekend in NorCal

As the school year came to a close, it was the right time to plan some northern California school visits. We needed to be a little more selective here as we would only be able to drive out once.

The plan was to visit four schools in one weekend. We would start by driving to UC Santa Barbara on a Friday morning and then continue driving north to the Bay Area. We’d visit UC Berkeley Saturday morning and Cal State East Bay in the afternoon. Finally, Sunday, we would swing by UC Santa Cruz, hit the road, and be back home that evening to get back to work on Monday.


Our appointment at UCSB was at 10 A.M. It was after eight when we jumped on the 10 Freeway at Arlington Avenue after picking up my mother-in-law for this road trip. Google Maps said we would arrive about ten minutes after 10 A.M.—we had some time to make up.

I wasn’t sure shaving 15 minutes off the trip would be possible in Friday morning Los Angeles traffic but the 405 was surprisingly smooth. We were doing okay by the time we reached the 101 in Sherman Oaks. It’s possible my foot didn’t leave the gas pedal from that point on.

It would still be close. We reached the UCSB exit at 9:49. Thankfully, that off-ramp takes you directly to the campus. We drove in and through to the underground parking lot. My wife offered to take care of the parking pass so Kiddo and I jumped out of the car and rushed to the office. We signed in at 9:59 AM and went inside for the presentation—didn’t miss a thing.

After the presentation, we met up with my wife, mother-in-law, and the baby to walk around the campus. It’s easy to fall in love with UCSB. On one side, you have the beach in walking distance. Don’t like waves? Check out the lagoon that also borders the campus. On the other side, mountains and hiking trails. It’s an ideal place to forget about the world outside and focus on your own growth for a few years.

3D map of UC Santa Barbara

We wrapped up our walk right at the office where it began and decided it would be best to get lunch before continuing north. There’s an In-n-Out Burger about ten minutes away from campus, which gives this school another point on my book. After a double-double with fries, it was back on the 101 for several hours.

The trip up north is always a reminder of why so many move to California. You’re on a freeway and your views constantly change from ocean to mountains to cliff-sides, to sometimes being swallowed by the forest as tall redwoods form a canopy over the road. Eventually, you reach San Jose and then it’s stop-and-go traffic all the way to Berkeley. At least, it was on this Friday evening.

It was after 7 PM when we exited the freeway just past the Bay Bridge in Emeryville. After checking in at the hotel and dropping off the bags, my wife and I walked to a nearby Trader Joe’s to pick up tortillas, cheese, peppers, and beans. We made some quesadillas in the hotel room and called it a night knowing we had a long day ahead of us.


We drove out to UC Berkeley the next morning with what we thought was plenty of time. The phone directions pointed us flawlessly to the western side of the school. Since we were staying just south and to the west of campus, this made sense. Parking was limited and it was then that I decided to find the exact place we were supposed to meet that morning. It turns out, the tour would begin at California Memorial Stadium, at the east end of campus. We drove all the way around and much like at Santa Barbara, we had to leave my wife to park while we ran out of the car.

UC Berkeley, or Cal as many call it, is big. It is the focal point of the city and with good reason. It’s so big that it has streets for normal cars to drive through and navigate the campus. Like many large spaces in northern California cities, it also reserves large areas for green spaces, offering plenty of shade and rest areas.

UC Berkeley Campanile: The focal point of the city

We finished at Sather Gate, the true front of the campus. From there, you cross the street onto the heart of Berkeley: Telegraph Avenue. We met up as a family there and proceeded to walk through Telegraph in search of the perfect lunch. We found it at Blondie’s Pizza.

Blondie’s is a historic landmark in Berkeley. Former students remember it as the place for cheap, late night eats during school. These days, Blondie’s has a new owner and goes by a new official name. The mural outside the pizzeria still reads Blondie’s and inside, a prominent sign promises, “Same pizza! Same staff!”

Blondie’s mural

Blondie’s didn’t disappoint. The pizza slices were massive and deliciously greasy. We devoured a pepperoni pie as a family and I went back for a slice of BBQ chicken to cap the meal. The downside to this lunch was that none of us were in the mood to continue to Cal State East Bay at that point. Instead, we drove back to the hotel to rest. That evening, my wife and I went down to the hotel bar to decompress as we would be checking out early the next morning.


The drive to UC Santa Cruz was indicative of the university we were about to visit. From Emeryville, you drive south to San Jose but rather than joining the 101, you venture to California Highway 17. You are surrounded by trees almost the entire way to Santa Cruz from that point.

The UC Santa Cruz campus is a bit daunting if you show up during the summer, on a Sunday, and are not scheduled for a tour. That’s what we did. We were only there for a brief period of time as we quickly recognized this was not the type of school you could walk through aimlessly and understand.

The campus is scattered throughout the existing forest. The various sections of the school are set apart by redwoods with walkways, roads, and bridges connecting the network of structures. Knowing we had a limited amount of time because we had to be in Los Angeles before the end of the day, we really only saw what was visible from inside the car. We came to the conclusion that we would schedule an official tour to get the lay of the land if the school accepts Kiddo. This way she can make her decision with a real understanding of banana slug life.

As a parent who sometimes still doesn’t understand how I can possibly be the father of a teenager, this has been a fun year. Kiddo is now a senior in high school and I’ve seen how the past year shaped her as she prepares for the next stage in her life. The time will come soon and I trust she will make the best choice for her. As a bonus, these college visits have provided some additional family moments before college life begins.

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