Sara came home from a softball game last spring and was surprised to see her father's car in the driveway. May was a busy month in his line of work, so he usually went back to the office after watching Sara pitch, finished a little paperwork, and came home in time for a late dinner.
That day, he greeted his daughter in the kitchen. "Nice game, Ace!"
"Thanks, Daddy. Why are you home?"
He beamed at his 11th-grade daughter and said, "I have a surprise. There's an overseas community service project heading to a small village in Japan. They've opened a large orphanage there for children who lost parents in the earthquake, and they need volunteers to help with the babies, so the residents can rebuild their homes."
Sara peeled an orange while her father continued.
"You'd be there four days, and you'd be making a difference in the world. Your grades are strong and your pitching is great, but I think something like this could put you over the top at the colleges we're talking about. The Web site for the project is up on the computer. What do you say?"
Sara continued to peel the orange. "Can we talk about it at dinner?"
Her father was a little deflated, but he smiled back. "Sure, honey. I'm going to run back to the office for a little bit, but I'll see you at seven."
Dad came through the kitchen door at 7:15 and quickly took his place at the table with the rest of the family. After more congratulations for Sara's great game and a little razzing about her hair from her tech-savvy brother John, her dad said "So, how about Japan?"
Sara put her fork down slowly and looked up. "It's a great idea, Dad, but I looked on the Web site. Does this trip really cost $6000?"
Her father choked on his ice water, while Sara's mom gave him a long, cold stare.
"We can afford this, Sara," he said, smiling faintly. "It's about your future."
Sara looked down at her placemat again, and swallowed hard. "Well, I looked up the name of the town I'd be going to. It turns out Habitat for Humanity is working there, too, and they need $4000 for a new pump so the town can get fresh water again. I also called the Boys and Girls Club down on Wilson Street, and they said they could really use some help this summer.
"I sure appreciate the offer, Daddy, but don't you think it would be better if I stayed here, and we sent the $4000 to Habitat for Humanity? That way, the town would have fresh water forever, John could get that new computer he'll need for high school next year, we'd have a little money left over for my college fund, and I could still make a difference in the world. It would just be a difference in my own neighborhood."
Sara's mother did a very bad job of trying to chew nonchalantly, while John tried hard to wipe the tears out of his eyes in a 14-year-old macho fashion. Her father's shoulders relaxed, as he smiled almost to himself, and said "Yeah, honey. That's a great idea."
Sara is now a senior, waiting to hear this week from her colleges -- but the question you should be asking yourself is not "Where will she get in?"
The question to consider is, "Does it really matter?"
Follow Patrick O'Connor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@collegeisyours