Tag Archives: college

Far & Away

Since the only consistent thing in life is change, it should be no surprise that once we adjusted to sending our child off to college, she glanced at the horizon and discovered she hadn’t ventured quite far enough from home yet.  One in ten undergraduates study abroad on trips that last anywhere from a couple of weeks to an entire academic year, and they don’t have to be foreign language or art  history majors to garner benefits.

I’ve seen the statistics.  Students who’ve studied abroad are twice as likely to land a job within a year of graduation.  They have 25% higher starting salaries and a sophisticated (and marketable) global approach to the world.  If they can hone or pick up a foreign language while they’re away, this increases job prospects further and makes them international citizens, able to transition more easily between cultures in our shrinking world.

A semester in Italy sounded glamorous and exotic.  She packed and repacked, trying to meet the luggage requirements (how can you fit three months’ worth of clothes, snacks and toiletries in one 50 pound bag?), and finally we waved goodbye at the airport.  If you haven’t yet had a child travel far and away, here’s a glimpse into what it’s like.

  1.  At least once before they leave, you will suggest an evening in for a movie night. This is a good time to watch Taken, and to rewind and give in-depth and animated analysis of the part where the naive American girls give out personal information to a perfect stranger at the airport.  Point out that while you don’t personally know Liam Neeson, you do have his speech memorized and are completely willing to make good on his threat.   While it probably won’t, things can happen (Paris, Brussels, Nice), so make sure everyone has emergency numbers, passport copies in multiple locations, and international medical coverage.

2.  Staying in one place while abroad is not enough for millennials with tiny attention spans.  Hopping a train or cheap flight to a neighboring country is common, usually fairly cost-effective, and an easy way to make the most of an extended study abroad trip.  Traveling in small groups works well and offers more security.  With any more than six opinions and preferences, more time is spent trying to herd cats than actually see a new city.  Whoever came up with the name “hostel” for cheap student lodging is just spiteful.  Why pick something that to English ears sounds patently unfriendly and scary?  Might I suggest changing it to cubby?

3.  You will be amazed at the child who consistently couldn’t manage to make curfew.  Suddenly he transforms into a person able to juggle international train schedules, Google maps, and changing time zones to be certain he makes it to Bono’s concert in Berlin or a street carnivale in Spain.

4.  Aren’t they supposed to be taking classes?   Yes, there is classroom time, but much of the education is outside a textbook.  The field trips, cross cultural experiences, and interactions with each other and local people are where real learning occurs.  Immersed in a different language, the brain actually creates neural pathways to adjust.  Having to live in another culture’s rhythms and pace teaches them to let down their social boundaries and stretches them to see others differently.  Often, they come home with friends across the map.

5.  Study abroad is a life-long lesson in managing expectations.  The trip that seems so glamorous on this side of the ocean won’t always live up to the visions in their head.  They won’t love every teacher, meal, museum, or travel companion.  It won’t be sunny and 80 degrees every day. Public transportation frequently goes on strike.  Outside American culture, the rest of the world operates on a more flexible time table. The word of the day is flexibility.  A tall order for some, this is a chance to embrace the unexpected, learn a different flow and become more tolerant, agreeable, and open to change.

6.  It will cost approximately the GNP of a small country to Fed Ex forgotten or emergency items to your student abroad, with no guarantee they will arrive.  Double check the packing list.  Pre-fill medications and have back-up credit cards.  If they’re traveling across borders while abroad, be mindful of different regulations for what’s allowed in carry-on’s or backpacks.

7.  Technology can be friend or foe.  Shop around for international data plans, and be sure to get something so your student is reachable without WiFi in case of emergency.  FaceTime or Skype is wonderful when you just need to put eyes on them.  It might take the whole semester, but eventually they will remember that the time difference means that while they may be riding elephants in the Thailand afternoon, you are in a deep, sound sleep in the wee hours.  Or at least you were.

8.  You aren’t going to want to know everything before it happens.  You should’ve already adjusted to this truth of college life, but sometimes it’s better not to know until  afterwards.  My friend’s daughter bungee jumped off a 440 foot platform in New Zealand while studying abroad, and to this day her mother cannot watch the video.   It’s the age of Vimeo and GoPro, and your millennial is going to want some choice post-able footage of their time away.  Squeeze your eyes shut, stick your fingers in your ears and loudly chant:  LALALALALA.

9.  They’ll learn a measure of independence.  While you may be footing at least some of the bill, they’re having to manage logistics, relationships, and emotions from far away.  They have likely done this already just in their regular university situation, but being thousands of miles overseas forces the issue somewhat. They learn to work it out, tough it out, or cry it out on their own.  They realize they are capable.

10.  The student you dropped off at the airport likely will not be the same one who greets you several months later.  He will seem wholly different somehow in a way you cannot at first pinpoint.  She will be morphed by confidence and distance, transformed by her experiences, more worldly and seasoned person.  You will burst with pride at his accomplishments and feel his joy as he describes moments with breathless excitement.  Except the part about paragliding over the Alps.  Then you will clutch your chest and demand to know what she was thinking.

A final note:  once they arrive safely at home, don’t forget to Tweet Liam Neeson and tell him you will no longer have him on speed dial.


College Move-In Day

We are two years in to having a kid at college.  This weekend marks our 4th move into or out of a dorm.  Sometimes we get lucky and have an elevator.  Occasionally we’ve had to lug carpet, mini fridge, and endless bags of clothes up and down stairs.  In August.  In the  sweltering humidity of the south.

I’ve watched the social media postings of friends over the past week as many of them experienced this transition for the first time.  It’s emotional.  It’s a big step for you, for them.  It  changes things for the siblings left behind, even if they score the vacated bedroom.

If you’re one of these first-time parents of a college kid, you’ve probably simultaneously relished the last weeks of summer with your darling at home still under your roof and occasionally gritted your teeth and checked the calendar as if to hurry along the exodus.  A pre-adult stretching his or her wings and chaffing at the bit to be free can be both wondrous and maddening.

When you moved in, you met the roommate and other parents.  You negotiated room arrangements and shifted furniture this way, that way until it was livable.  Then, you realized you had to lift everything AGAIN to put the carpet down.  Advil was your drug of choice at this point.  If you were really industrious, maybe you assembled a shelf unit or helped hang curtains, stocked the mini fridge with healthy snacks, delaying the inevitable goodbyes and hurried advice to “make good choices!”

Fast forward 9 months to the end of freshman year.  It’s hard to fathom now, here in the heat of August, but it will come sooner than you think.   Weren’t we just moving him in here?   The sheets, no longer fresh and creased, might never have been washed at all.  They, along with the comforter, pillows, and other bedding, will be stuffed unceremoniously into a garbage bag along with a sock or two that you’ll discover jammed between the bed and wall.   Don’t even open the mini fridge.  You don’t want to know.

The things that were so carefully packed in Rubbermaid containers back in August will be wadded up and crammed so the drawers hardly close.  And the carpet?  God help you if the dorm housed girls.  I don’t remember this being a shag carpet.  It’s not.  That’s the new three-inch layer of hair coating each fiber.  Try not to touch it as you roll it up and slide it into the elevator.  All of this is coming back home with you for the summer to be stored somehow in their room (over their sibling’s dead body!) or garage, or if you’re lucky enough to be out of state, maybe in a rented storage unit where you don’t have to see it.

Now, two years in, the towels and sheets have been replaced.   Sheets don’t stand up well to a bed that’s used as a place to sleep, study, hang-out, eat, and cry over finals.  We will not speak of the original first-year carpet.  The one we’ll be moving in this weekend is a hand-me-down.

As a pseudo-veteran of this process, I offer a few suggestions for key items you might put into your student’s boxes–if you can fit anything else into the back of the van.

  1.  Medication.  Odds are, with the new environment (which we’ve already established is not always as “sterile” as it could be), the stress (good stress) of being in a new place, and close quarters with lots of other germy people, at some point your student will come down with something.  If you are not there with chicken soup, it’s helpful to have a small pharmacy of cold medicine, etc. to choose from.  Give them their own insurance card in case they need to visit the campus clinic or other doctor.
  2. Chlorox wipes.  (see #1)
  3. Quarters, for laundry, not drinking games.  In theory, this prevents them schlepping it all home en mass, where 47 loads must be done in the space of one weekend.  In theory.  They still will schlep.
  4. Pizza cutter.  Plus a few other basic kitchen tools like a couple of bowls and silverware for quick cereal before that first class when there’s no time for the cafeteria.
  5. Tool kit.  A small starter tool kit with some extras inside like Command hooks, various tape, glue, tape measure, small hammer and screwdrivers.  They’ll be the most popular kid on the hall.
  6. Essential replacements.  Light bulbs, batteries.  Extra printer ink and paper.  These are lifesavers during late-night studying or paper writing when they’re up against a deadline.
  7. Starbucks card.  (see #6)  Just because you’re nice, and you will miss them, a little.
  8. Electric blanket.  My father gave my daughter a spare one of these and she has said repeatedly it’s her favorite item she took to college.  Dorm room temperatures aren’t always controllable, and it’s nice for a cozy afternoon nap.
  9. Useful decor.  If you have a daughter, consider assembling a place to hang/keep jewelry where it won’t get tangled.  We made one (see pic below) out of an old frame and painted pegboard with bookshelf rests.  Super cute!
  10. Car Stuff.  If they have a car, make sure they have all the insurance and registration info, and consider signing up for AAA.  Peace of mind for minor breakdowns or if they get locked out.

necklace board

About a third of the stuff they can’t live without the first time they move in will trickle its way back home over the next three or four or seven moves back and forth.  My cousin’s parents actually moved her thirteen times.  Thirteen.  Just let that sink in.

Take heart, rookies:  they do come back.  They won’t be the same shiny new freshman you packed off that first semester.  They will meet people and have experiences you will know nothing about.  They will grow into themselves and become even more interesting, funny, and big-hearted than you can imagine.  I know this to be true, and we’re only halfway through.

I found a chrysalis in the backyard this summer and watched it carefully for signs of the butterfly emerging.  Of course I got busy with life and the cocoonnext time I checked, it was empty, its inhabitant finding its wings just fine without me.  I’m not gonna lie:  I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to witness it all first-hand.  But I’m guessing maybe it needed that independent struggle to emerge the way it was meant to, in a flutter of brilliant color, winging skyward.

College Bound

 I packed my firstborn off to college last week. Loaded up the car with a ridiculous over-estimation of how much stuff was actually vital to have and spent several hours in the August sun schlepping it all from the parking lot into the 12×12 new space she will now be calling “home.”  Mini fridge, check. Bedspread, check. Every item of clothing she’s ever owned, check.

We were so busy rearranging furniture, meeting the new roomies, and unloading the car that we never really had time to be maudlin about the whole affair.  By the time we left, having handed off insurance information, a check for that last bit of tuition, and a Starbucks gift card just for fun, we were exhausted.  Besides, I felt it in my bones:  after months of college tours, research, and scholarship applications, she was in the right place.

We’d spent the past 17 years in preparation for this moment, right?  From those first steps as a toddler, she was independence-bound, this one, determined to do it herself.  And she has.  She has eagerly tried new things, met new people, traveled new places with courage and a bravery I certainly lacked at her age.  Her dad and I held her hands for a little while (but not long!) until her 16th birthday arrived, the car keys were handed off, and we started to see less and less of our daughter.  Between school, friends, and two jobs, she was always on the go.  And as of last weekend, she has officially landed in a space of her own.  Which is how it’s supposed to be, what you strive for as a parent:  a confident, curious, independent, secure kid.

My husband is a veterinarian, and one day at the office he was discussing the training of a young border collie with his colleague.  The sweet natured black and white pup was set to try his skills that day as he herded cattle for the first time.  It’s what these dogs are bred to do, work that they crave, and you know you’ve trained him over and over with signals, rewards, punishments, and by letting him slowly get the hang of the job by circling flocks of geese and sheep first.  But that first day out with the cows, when he’s bristling with excitement, keyed up and waiting for the release, you still feel anxious and worried as your whistle sends him out to round up the hulking 600-pound beasts, with horns and hooves of steel.  Despite knowing what he’s doing, having prepared for it incessantly since birth, he can still get his head kicked in.  As my husband relayed this conversation to me, I nodded. Yep.  Kinda like dropping off your only daughter on a college campus to face that 600-pound world you’ve been practicing on.

She never was really mine to begin with.  Oh, I got the privilege of small arms around my neck, watching her see and experience things for the first time (dandelions, a pony’s nose, chocolate).  I took her temperature and applied band aids when needed.  But all this time she’s been on loan to me and I knew at some point the day would come when I’d have to give her back to her Father, trusting I’d crammed in all the knowledge and wisdom I could in 17 short years.  And trusting that He knows the plans He has for her, He knows the blessings He’ll provide if she just asks.

For high school graduation, we gave her a necklace with a compass charm on it, the longitude and latitude of our address engraved on it, so she’d always remember to find her way home.  I think she’ll remember where she came from, but more importantly I hope she keeps her eyes on where she’s headed as she’s making discoveries and having the time of her life in the next four years.

When we went out to dinner the other night, my son told the hostess there were three of us to be seated.  I started to correct him–“Four,” I started to say.  But he was right.  I got a little lump in my throat then, as I realized our little family unit really had changed for good.  I kind of lost my appetite for quesadillas.  But she texted me during dinner:  “I’m meeting so many cool people, and I love it here!”   She’s got this.   Pass the salsa.  Good luck, kiddo, and watch out for the cows.

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