The Junior College Trip | A High School Student’s Experience Visiting California’s Universities

This week me and the other hundred-odd juniors that attend my high school journeyed on a three day expedition that would take us away from our small San Jose charter and all the way to the distant reach of southern California.

The purpose? To bring us to the campuses of five different colleges and give us a taste of what it would be like to attend each of them. After all, as much as we can do research about what schools may be good matches for us, it isn’t until we’ve actually seen and been to a college that we can personally decide if it fits what we want.

Here’s how that went.

(Most of this is story. Jump to why you should go on the junior trip)

A young man looks out onto a field and a blue sky. The photo is askew and looks over his shoulder.

The story (it’s a bit long)

On Monday, I made the most of hanging out with my partner, a senior, just because we’d probably miss each other a bit during the week. I also had my first track and field practice, which brought an additional level of physical work that added to what I wouldn’t exactly call stress. After that, I got some Chinese, went home, packed, and went to admittedly late sleep.

I woke up two minutes before my alarm on Tuesday morning, a quiet moment in the dark at 4:28 a.m. By 6:15, I was at school playing catch with my friends (I may have accidentally hit one of my teachers with a faulty throw; luckily, it was a stuffed plushie, but my grade was still momentarily in jeopardy). I stood in a long line as the chaperones, both teachers and other staff members, checked our bags for drugs and other illegal items, then helped carry snacks and heavy waters to our buses. I said bye to my partner, who was able to stop by, then boarded the bus with my fellow juniors.

Our first stop was California State University Stanislaus. I’d only ever been to Turlock once, and that was a few months ago for a wedding ceremony. But it was enough for me to build some endurance for the ensuing ride, and for two hours my energetic friends and I simply chilled.

A young man sitting in a bus seat smiles and gives a thumbs up. Another young man awkwardly leans in from out of frame.
My friend and I on the bus.

The novelty of finally getting to our first stop was likely what kept my spirits high. It was insatiably cold, enough so for my friends and I to joke about taking cold damage as if we were operating in some video game (a running gag that, given the lack of a clear objective besides exploration, would be dead by the time we got to the next college).

After going to the restroom and playing catch with a water bottle, we joined our groups to be given a tour of Stanislaus’s housing. That wasn’t particularly exciting, but one student did have the remarkably valid, surprised-I-didn’t-think-of-this question of whether or not the dorms provided Wi-Fi. If you’re wondering, the answer was yes.

Once the tour ended, we were given a little over an hour of free time to explore and buy ourselves lunch. CSU Stanislaus is a wide, very open campus, so after a lunch of Chinese food, my friends and I wandered around to things like ponds, an amphitheater, and various random buildings that we entered out of boredom.

Then it was on to the next school: University of California Merced. Our energy was significantly lesser on the hour or so it took us to get there.

The sun was brightly dispersed across the clouds, creating a numbing whitish-yellow light above the entire sky that made me squint for a good fifteen minutes after our arrival. A few alumni from our high school gave a brief talk about their lives at college, and after that, we were given tours. My group was led by an energetic and sweet guide whose affinity for always having the high ground served as a happy source of entertainment on an already interesting tour.

I myself was more energetic once again, and so were my friends. Our chaperones directed the class to a dining hall for a three o’clock dinner, and after acquiring some good grub in an interesting buffet style, I eagerly departed and used our remaining thirty minutes of free time to take pictures such as this:

In a vast, sunlit green field is a statue resembling two parentheses. A distant young man mimics the statue with his arms.
Me posing in front of the “Beginnings” sculpture at UC Merced.

That’s the “Beginnings” sculpture, and it’s meant to be two sprouting seeds that symbolically represent the growth and potential of students. My fascination with it, of course, came initially from the fact that I had been specifically requested by my partner to take pictures with “the vagina”, but despite that happy immaturity I appreciate the genuine symbolism. It felt apt for the purpose of the trip.

Following those exciting times was a long and tiring bus ride to our hotel in Anaheim, about six hours south of Merced. My friends and I were adamant to not pass out from our tiredness and tried to continually occupy ourselves with trivial discussions and games. We spent a good thirty minutes occupied with our chill chaperones by a game called Bobby’s World; although I did eventually figure out the meaning of the riddle, which was words that have two of the same consecutive letter, coming to that conclusion with clues like “In Bobby’s world there are mirrors but no reflections” or “In Bobby’s world there is sadness, but people can’t be sad” nearly gave me an aneurysm.

We arrived at the hotel, after some additional boredom and resistance to sleep, at about 10:30. Despite our exhaustion, my friends and I remained awake until about 1:00. watching random videos and playing Mario Kart.

When I did go to sleep, I was out. I woke up at around 5:15 thinking that it was barely 2:15; there were no dreams, just blinking in and out of existence. A few minutes of four guys awkwardly getting ready for the day filled the morning until about 6:30, at which point we got breakfast. The hotel’s omelets were exceptionally good (I am particularly fond of cheesy omelets), so the morning was off to a fairly good start. At least, it was if you didn’t consider that our neighbor’s room had flooded and that our carpet was soaking wet. But, hey. Optimism.

Everyone was tired on the ride to University of California Riverside. An hour and a half of mostly quiet. I refused to fall asleep, but many people did.

What happened at UC Riverside was not the tour that I was expecting. It was a ceremony for us juniors. Our chaperones each told their stories of college and what they wished they’d known when they were juniors. Emotions started to bubble. Then they handed out letters to each of the students, written from our teachers specifically for us. I read mine alone by the door of that huge room we were in, sitting criss cross applesauce as I pulled two tingy yellow binder papers out of a sleek, high school-issued envelope. I’ve always been more prone to self-reflection than crying, and it was those personal, handwritten words that reminded me just a bit more of my worth.

They divided us into groups to share with other students why we wanted to go to college, an activity that proceeded slowly and awkwardly. After that, it was free time during which I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling not so lively. Riverside is a beautiful campus, maintaining both the feeling of a city and a natural world in a great area bustling with people. But my friends and I were all at a fairly dull note in all of our moods, so our exploration wasn’t too thrilling. Except maybe when we ran through some sprinklers.

Three young men excitedly run through some sprinklers in the yard of a building.
My friends and I running through sprinklers at UC Riverside. If needed, I’m the one in blue.

An actually pretty good lunch (over which an acquittal of the president happened to timely loom) concluded, and we continued to our next school: California State Polytechnic University Pomona.

My friends and I were regaining our energy through the course of that bus ride, which took under an hour, and by the time we arrived at the deceptively desolate campus, we were once again cracking jokes and having a good time.

Our tour guide for Cal Poly Pomona was a very chill and down-to-earth guy who gave an incredible description of the school while maintaining my group’s attention. My friends and I didn’t feel much need for devout exploration in the free time we got afterward, so we spent it in the student center’s gaming room playing ping pong, Jenga, and pool.

Then came a surprise that was really only a surprise because I hadn’t properly asked about what we were going to do after Cal Poly Pomona and was thus pretty clueless.

Many hooded passengers are turned away from the camera, riding on a bus. The camera is close to the wall with windows near.
The shuttle to Downtown Disney. Luckily not our normal buses.

A little after 6:00 we arrived at the Downtown Disney District. It was a bit hectic herding the entire junior class into the shuttles, through the gates, and finally inside, but then the chaperones gave us a few hours to go as absolutely wild as we wished.

We wished to be wild. But it was kind of hard to. My friends and I explored the entirety of the apparent tourist attraction fairly quickly, surprised that it was actually so small, ate dinner for a good half of our free time, and then dawdled around stores for whatever time was left. Don’t get me wrong, our moods were still good, but we didn’t really feel that there was much to do.

A two hour ride got us back to our now dry hotel room, and we watched videos for a little while before I passed out. Same story waking up, just in and out of consciousness.

The ride to University of Irvine was probably the most exhausted yet. Emphasis on the yet. It took only an hour, and a lot of people were asleep. I almost passed out again.

Instead of a tour, we had a brief student panel from an organization for first-generation students, a title to which I hail. It was nice and mildly informative, surely, but I honestly was expecting a tour and was too tired to thoroughly appreciate anything less.

My friends and I played frisbee in the free time we had after that, which was probably the peak of my vigor for the day. Then came the seven hour ride home, which I would say was split into about thirds of talking, sleeping, and texting, relatively in that order. But, lo and behold, after all that time (plus a brief notice about the possibility of bed bugs that I currently have my clothes in the wash to be safe from), we were free.

The interior of a vehicle is a complete silhouette that frames a pink sunset beyond.
The sun setting ahead of us on our journey home.

How I feel about it

The junior trip is a pretty big event around my school. It’s something that every class, including my own, looks forward to and gets extremely excited about. Bearing in mind that for our sophomore trip last year we were let down in not being able to stay overnight, this full three day trip was something that everybody got very, very pumped for.

Yet, at the same time, it felt incredibly sudden. Even at the time of my writing this, we haven’t been in second semester for more than a month. The trip was teased at earlier last semester, but full information and signing up didn’t start until about three weeks ago. I can’t vouch for everyone in my class, but with the numerous other things that have been occupying my life as of recent, the passage of time has felt shockingly fast.

But, all things considered, I’m really happy with my junior trip. I had an incredible time hanging out with my friends and journeying through all of this with them, and I’ve gained some valuable exposure to colleges that I know will occupy my mind in the next year or so of my life. Admittedly, I might have set the unrealistic expectation for how constantly fun the trip would be, but what I actually got was something fulfilling and memorable. Part of its worth isn’t just the fun; it’s just the fact of being able to go to these colleges and start thinking about your future.

Oh, right. The future.

Face dimly lit, a young man gazes to his right. The camera is below him and leaves many features in shadow.

What I’m thinking (College, life, and other stuff)

Life is hard. I know for a fact that I am not the only person in my school experiencing a lot of emotional turmoil about the entire growing up shindig. Having a lot of senior friends and being fairly studious and concerned about my future, for me, thinking about college and the end of my high school career is hard.

Of all the schools, UC Merced stands out as the most fitting for me. I liked the campuses of just about all of them, not including CSU Stanislaus, but Merced’s campus specifically seems so right. It’s like an island out in the sea, a hub of beautiful, comfortable buildings that’s like its own little town. It has what I think I want my major to be, and walking around it just felt right. I have no doubt that I’m going to apply.

What about the other schools? Irvine and Riverside seemed nice. Both of their campuses were like huge, busy cities. Perhaps it’s because at both of them I didn’t get a thorough tour, but although they both have my (likely) major of environmental science, they didn’t seem to click as well as UC Merced did. Cal Poly Pomona was surprisingly nice, but I probably wouldn’t want to go there unless I changed my mind and wanted to be an architect, which is their better area of expertise in comparison to environmental science. As for CSU Stanislaus, just no. It barely has my major, and I can already imagine myself getting very, very bored at that campus.

Visiting colleges is one thing, and I can do that without truly digging deep and reflecting on my high school experience. But that ceremony at UC Riverside . . . it hit me.

I know that a lot of students didn’t get very moving letters. I don’t blame anyone on either side for that, since the endeavor of having each and every student get a deeply personal letter when not all students and teachers are closely connected is difficult. But that still makes it sad that so many students couldn’t get a meaningful message. I have no doubt that many of us need it right now, or needed it last year, or the year before that, or every single year of students and their potential and malleable minds.

Maybe that makes me appreciate my letter more. Handwritten, unlike many that were typed, and not from one of the junior teachers on the trip. From my old creative writing teacher, who I haven’t had a class with for two years, who’s had a big influence on my creative side and who’s such an amazing guy.

I won’t share most of what that letter said, but it hit my heart hard. He spoke to me, spoke to me directly. I’ve written him letters in the past thanking him for the impact that he’s had on me; imagine how I felt when he thanked me for the impact I’ve had on him.

It’s things like this that remind me of that little flame living inside me. The one that guides me always, even though I can forget about it at times. The one that gives me my passion, my fervor for life and my dreams and the things and person I want to be. I haven’t thought about it in a while. Maybe that’s ironic, considering things like last week’s post, but it’s been some time since I’ve actually thought about me, not just some abstract interpretation of an ambiguous character that’s helpful to imagine as a writer.

I suppose that was the point of this trip, to make me think about this. It definitely worked.

Distant mountains are silhouetted by an orange sunset. Glare in the screen indicates the photo is taken through a window..

Why you should go

If you’re a high schooler and your school offers something like this, go. If you know someone who is a high schooler and has this opportunity, whether they’re your kid, your friend, your partner, whatever, make them go.

If you have any concerns about how stressful leaving home for a few days is, about how you’ll have to be around so many people for such a long time, about how you’ll have to pay for it, about anything, so did I.

I get tired if I hang out with people for too long. My social battery runs out, and I need to recede into my mind and do something neutral for a while. If I’m not able to go home and relax, my fatigue will grow, which is exactly what happened on this trip. Yesterday, the last day of the trip, I was so drained. And for all of this, I had to pay $120, which although possible is still a number that makes me wince. All these things, the cost of it only to mentally suffer for three days just to see some schools. Pssh.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth it. If not for the experience of visiting a college, of being with your peers and friends for such a new and wild journey, then at least do it for this feeling.

You can go through high school, especially your later years, thinking without really thinking about college and your future. You just settle with the idea that it’s the goal and try your best to work towards it.

But people forget. We forget. We forget why we want what we want, why so many of us set our eyes on college ahead of us. This world can condition us into the mindset that higher education is the only way we can be successful. Yeah, that might largely be pretty true for many of us, and it’s perfectly fine if you feel that college is the path that’s best for you.

Just don’t forget why you’re doing it. Don’t forget what the meaning of success is to you, what you want to get out of life. You need that vision, that flame, inside of you.

What that vision does is make you appreciate who you are, who you will be, and what you’ve done. You need to consider the life you’re living now, not just think of it as the thing you’re working past to some future goal. You have to enjoy it. Sure, yeah, you may think that you’re enjoying your life by having fun and living it, and that’s great. But trust me, you aren’t appreciating it truly until you start to value your own journey.

I hang out with friends, have built great relationships with people, have really felt out my high school experience, and I appreciate it. But right now, sitting here, thinking, writing, I’m humbled by everything that I’ve been able to do, everyone I’ve been able to meet, everywhere and everywhen I’ve had such wonderful experiences. Friends, all these awesome people who’ve grown with me in such beautiful ways. These people, this community that I’m a part of, moving to the future and blossoming always into humans of increasing and increasing splendor. My peers, my friends, these kids I’ve known since the awkward beginnings of puberty, the stupid things we used to do, the different but still stupid things we do now. Our stories have been wonderful, and they’ll continue to be. I’ve always appreciated it, but it’s been a long time since I’ve appreciated it like this.

The junior trip, or whatever your equivalent of it is, isn’t just about going to colleges. It’s about reminding you of the trip you’re already on, have already been on for so long, the one that’s going to keep going for years and years and years beyond this moment.

That trip, life, is worth it. So if it takes a junior trip to help you remember the meaning of your bigger one, then so be it. You should go.

A young man facing away from the camera gazes up at the previously depicted statue.

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