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At U-Md., Quizzical Prospective Students Search for 'That Feeling'

Saenz, about to graduate from a public school in Pennsylvania, a 17-year-old with long curly dark hair pulled back, was deciding among schools including Northeastern University in Massachusetts, Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and Maryland. She wants to major in dance or biology. She knows any college will be hard for her dad, a diesel mechanic originally from Colombia, and her mom, an accountant, to pay for. But they told her to find the place she loved and they would see what they could do.

"At this point, I know the academics are perfect on paper," Spoleti said.

Flower Saenz and daughter Catherine Saenz of Easton, Pa., look over aid papers during a visit to the University of Maryland at College Park. "It's a big, big deal," Catherine Saenz said of her visit, which included a stay in a dorm. (Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

"That part's done," Saenz said.

So they were looking for intangibles. "When I walk through campus, will I see people I want to be friends with?" Spoleti said.

"Do I fit in?" Saenz echoed.

They both worried that U-Md. might be too big. "How many students are here?" Saenz asked, then gasped at the rough estimate Fish and Curran gave her. "Thirty thousand! That's like a Britney Spears concert!"

In Curran's room, they curled up on the bottom bunk to watch "The OC," sneaking looks at clues to college life: posters of Gandhi, Bart Simpson, the Cure. Photos of friends taped to the wooden dressers and the cinder-block walls, a lei draped over a bedpost, a pair of green flip-flops on the blue carpet ("Kiss me," one said, and the other: "I'm Irish.") Four polo shirts hung from hangers along the ceiling; Curran's roommate had run out of quarters for the dryer.

Friends kept stopping by, asking, "What are you guys doing tonight?"

The four of them laughed at the TV show and talked about class sizes, playing club sports, sharing bathrooms (sometimes it gets ugly at the end of the weekend), homework, why lacrosse players are so hot, parties, volunteering.

"You voted for Kerry?" Spoleti asked. "Right on." And then: "Do you get a lot of speakers on campus?"

On TV, a girl walked in on a threesome in bed. "Does that kind of thing happen?" Saenz asked. "Walking in on people?" And: "Do you guys have a sink and stuff to wash your silverware?" "Does it snow a lot here?" "Is it weird living next to guys next door? Are they loud or dirty or rowdy?"

Curran laughed. "It's not just the boys."

After the show, they walked to get dinner at the dining hall, more like a mall food court, with its neon, music, charcoal grill, New York deli and Krispy Kremes. Curran and Fish showed them the huge new recreation center, the library with students studying in cubicles, the blue security lights, the dorms.

The next morning, Saenz met her father, Flower Saenz, for breakfast and information sessions on scholarships and academic programs.

"Last night was so fun," she said, beaming. They hung out in the dorm, joking around, meeting new people, until 4 a.m.

She and her dad were going to talk with financial aid staff to see whether they could afford U-Md. "I'm so excited. It just felt so natural," she said. "It's the first place I fell in love with."

In the next room, Spoleti and her father were listening to speakers under silver balloons spelling out "MARYLAND."

"I had a really good time," she said. "But I think Syracuse is a better fit. I just think Maryland is too big for me."

That was her official reason. And she would go home and talk with her parents about the difference in tuition. But deep down she knew she had decided even before she left Syracuse, which she toured a week earlier. It hit right away, when her dad drove her onto campus and she saw people walking to their classes.

"As crazy as it sounds, you get that feeling," she said. "That shortness of breath. And you think, 'This is where I want to go!' "

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