150 universities court Howard students

Teens, parents explore future at college fair


The parking lot was so crowded that some drivers resorted to following people walking out in hopes of snagging a parking spot. Inside, the temperature in the cafeteria and gymnasium climbed as crowds milled around the rooms.

And Eric Mekelburg? The Atholton High School senior was more interested in snow.

"He likes the cold weather," said his mother, Meg.

That's why Mekelburg spent part of a beautiful autumn afternoon at a table with representatives of the University of Vermont, which he hopes to attend next fall, among the many who turned out for the annual Howard County college fair.

Mekelburg spoke with a representative, who was also an alum, so he could "talk to a real person and ask my own questions," he said.

Selecting a college can be challenging, but the fair, which on Sunday featured representatives from about 150 colleges, provided information to students and parents.

"This is great," Meg Mekelburg said. "I had no idea there would be so many schools here - and a nice variety."

Hundreds of students and their families attended the event. Ingrid Morton, a counselor at Atholton who has run the fair for 15 years, said the crowd was about twice the size it normally is.

She suspects the increase is due to the county's e-newsletter system, which puts school news in parents' e-mail inboxes. In the past, teens might not have waved a flier about a college fair in front of their parents, but this year, the parents already knew about it.

In fact, Meg Mekelburg has only one regret about the fair.

"We should have come here last year," she said.

Each college or university had a table set up, draped with school colors and featuring display boards showing happy students and discussing school highlights. Some featured the school mascot or casually draped a cheerleading pom-pom over a corner of the table.

Dawn Widener said she was a little overwhelmed as she walked around the cafeteria with daughters Casey, a senior, and Blayre, a junior, both at Atholton. "There should have been a how-to on how to approach this whole thing," she said.

In particular, she would have liked more information about the colleges alongside the names printed in the pamphlet she had been handed when she walked in. Just a few words, such as where a school is, or how many students go there, would have helped her wade through so much information, she said.

Casey already knows she wants to go to Howard Community College, but Blayre hasn't made her decision.

Goucher College and St. Mary's College of Maryland are at the top of her list, but she also stopped at the Villa Julie College table. "I'll probably stay in state," she said.

Blayre said the fair was a good way to get a lot of information quickly. She had been receiving packets and e-mails from schools, "but it's better to talk to people," she noted.

The number of colleges represented at Howard County's annual college fair hasn't changed, Morton said. This year, about 150 schools had set up tables, including renowned names such as Colgate, Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Vassar; in-state institutions such as Frostburg State University and Salisbury University; and far-flung choices such as the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado.

The line-up is different each year, Morton said, but the fair always attracts a large number of colleges, in part because it schedules in coordination with a similar college fair in Northern Virginia, she said.

The main reason for the fair, she said, is "to get information out there to the students. It does save parents and students time and money as far as travel goes," she said.

For the colleges, the fair provides an opportunity to make their case directly to students. Rachel Bleacher, a recent graduate of Wingate University near Charlotte, N.C., travels throughout Maryland and Delaware promoting the school in her job as a Wingate admissions counselor.

She had her talking points ready as she stood behind the Wingate table, which was covered, like the others, with neat stacks of brochures. The school's location is attractive to many people, she said, as is a travel program called W'International. "I went to Italy for 10 days my junior year for $350," she said. "It's a good selling point."

She noted that most of the people stopping by her table were juniors. "We have had some sophomores, which is really, really good," she said.

Though the Naval Academy did not have a presence at this year's fair, the military was represented by the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy was represented, as well.

Rosalie Brown, the representative for West Point, said she has been coming to college fairs since 1993, and that interest in the prestigious military academy remains high. One student told her he had wanted to attend West Point since he was 5 years old, she said.

Brendan Rhoad, a junior at Reservoir High School, said the Naval Academy was his top choice, but he picked up materials from other military schools. His mother, Debbie Rhoad, acknowledged that she was a little nervous thinking about her son in the military, but added, "I think if anybody's cut out to be a naval officer, it's Brendan," she said.

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