The College Experience

Over the weekend, I was walking through the streets of New York City with a woman who had been a stranger up until the walk had begun. We had been thrown together by our daughters, who had gathered for a meeting with a group of their soon to be college classmates.

As this woman and I walked, we talked about the typical things that mothers of teenagers talk about. We started with college and choosing the right school; we talked of letting go and stepping up. We discussed work and children and the challenges and rewards of each different child. Our conversation even wandered to the care of aging parents.

Somewhere in the middle of our conversation, when I mentioned that I, too, had attended the college our daughters would attend, she asked me, point blank, if my college experience had been a good one.

I paused and took a deep breath as I gathered my thoughts. College was an experience. I had been young, as most students are, and struggling to find my way. It was not the best of times for me. “Well,” I started. “It was college. And as we gather life experience, we learn that in any situation, there will be good times and bad times.”

I went on to explain that for the most part, college was a good experience, but there were some tough times and some moments of incredible growth. I was a perfectionist. I took a tough load of courses and I demanded the best work from myself. College—like life, I suppose—is tough, but when you are eighteen, you don’t yet have the life experience to know that this is the case. You have high expectations, and you don’t think it’s possible to be on a campus with so many age-peers and yet, experience loneliness. There are things that all college students should know before they leave home. Here are just a few:

College is not the best four years of your life. I know you’ve probably heard this, but if it were the best four years, why would people keep working and striving? The best part of your life comes much later, when you’ve figured out who you are and what you are about. It takes awhile to get there. Be patient and enjoy the ride.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just because you have gotten into your first choice college (or your second or third choice…), and most of the time you might be happy about that, there will be times that are incredibly sad or difficult or challenging. That’s the way life is, and these years prepare you to face the sad/difficult/challenging times later on. The campus environment can’t protect you from the challenges, but it does provide a good support network to find help if you need it.

Give yourself time. You are living away from home for the first time. You will need time to transition to your new life, adjust to your new surroundings, and familiarize yourself with your new schedule—just as you would in any new situation. Don’t make a snap judgment and go home after your first—or fifth—night on campus. If you find you are homesick, make a commitment to try one new thing each day—even if it is just to take a different route to class.

Power through. It’s not always easy to keep going when things happen or when life rears its ugly head and wants to take you down. But as with any situation, you have to keep moving in a forward direction. Eventually, generally sooner than you think, you will find yourself back on course, and you will be happy you kept moving.

Take advantage of all that you have available. College campuses have a wealth of resources available to students. There are professors with a vast array of knowledge. There are classes in many varied disciplines. If you think you want to try out a course in a new subject area, do it. You will also have activities and lectures and events available to you. Choose wisely, but take advantage of what is offered. If something looks good, check it out. Who knows when you may have another chance like this?

Surround yourself with people who energize you. It is a fact that spending time with people you are fond of will help you adjust to the newness of your surroundings. It will make you feel connected, and it will give you a network to fall back on, and you will have a chance to raise others up, as well.

Most importantly, enjoy! While you are studying hard and involving yourself in all that your college campus has to offer, don’t forget to enjoy the moment. Take a minute to toss a Frisbee with a friend, grab a coffee on the way to class, or take a P. E. class so you can fit in some exercise. You will be glad you did!

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Things I learn…

There are so many reasons I love working with college students. They have an energy and enthusiasm for life that is contagious. They have a wonderful perspective on the world that is both insightful and refreshing. They are at an age where they are poised on the edge of independence, but they still look to adults for guidance. And they are not afraid to settle in and get comfortable.

Yesterday, as I walked through one of the main student areas in our building, I noticed the shoes of one of my student workers tossed haphazardly on the floor under the chair on which she was perched. No doubt as she settled in for her tutoring shift, she kicked them off in an effort to make herself at home. And in truth, this—the college—is her home. And the fact that she had kicked off her shoes peeked my curiosity about this student, and I wanted to sit down with her, have a conversation, and learn about her life.

As I passed by these shoes on the floor, it didn’t even occur to me to suggest that she put them on to maintain a more “professional” appearance. In fact, I wanted to applaud her for her level of comfort, for being herself, and for taking this step to ground herself in the present and connect more closely with place. I found myself wanting to remove my own shoes and join her at the table. But I didn’t… because I had work to do.

I love working with college students because they have so many lessons to teach me. Pull up a chair, take off your shoes, and stay awhile. I’d love to tell you about all I’ve learned from the students I work with.

Blink

Over the years, we have hit milestones with the regularity of the thump of a flat tire. Thump… thump… thump…. At first, it’s kind of reassuring to know that your child is hitting all the important milestones. But recently, it seems the car is speeding up and the milestones thump by faster and faster—at an alarming rate of speed, really. And this week, my daughter completed—and submitted—her first college application. Breathe.

These monumental occasions always give me pause and compel me to take a quick (or leisurely) inventory of the years that have come and gone. This most recent milestone hints at the small amount of time I have before she is off and testing her wings.

The early years of single parenthood are still vividly etched in my memory. I spent the days looking in the rearview mirror, counting heads in the backseat of the car. As the one parent of three very small children—all under five—I was always afraid that in my sleep-deprived state, I would leave one behind. Maybe one slipped by me somehow, and was still hiding in a store in the mall. Perhaps someone went to use the potty and was in the bathroom finishing up, or worse, didn’t get in the car and was standing in the driveway in a puddle of tears wondering why I left without him/her. In those early years, that fear never fully dissipated.

I blinked and we were in a new house in a new neighborhood with new friends and a new school. Little hands reached for mine with regularity. A hand to hold; a hand to help; a hand to lead the way. Those were days of constant attention and discovery and learning. There were toys and games and books and building and dancing and crafts. LOTS of crafts.

And then I blinked.

And the day came when they were all in school, mornings first and then full days. The school bus rumbled up the hill in the morning and swallowed them up. I would watch as the bus drove off up the road and out of sight before I ran home to switch to “adult” mode and be on my way to work. In the early days, I was home from work for 3:15, always needing to beat the bus to meet the kids so they were supervised and transported to the activity of the day. Always rushing so I wouldn’t be late.

Until I blinked.

The kids were able to ride the bus to their activities. My work hours increased, and an after school sitter took on some of my role. Extra keys were made and cell phones purchased and the kids further shaped their identities as they took their first tentative steps toward independence.

I blinked again, and now they are nearly through high school. They will be out on their own soon, with jobs and lives that take them all in different directions. That doesn’t mean my job is done. A mother’s work is never done, is it?

Just don’t blink.

Positivity Post: Helping out…

It was nearing lunchtime on a recent rainy day when one of my students appeared at my office door with a mystery that needed solving. She was breathless and dripping from her trek across campus. “Did I leave my jacket here last night?” she asked.

My memory completed a quick inventory of what I’d seen in the classroom that morning when I was cleaning up from last night’s late meeting. “I don’t think so, but we can check.” I stood and walked to the classroom door and flicked on the lights. A visual sweep revealed no jacket. “What does it look like?”

“It looks like this one,” she flipped up her hands, which were in her jacket pockets. “But it’s navy blue. I had it when I was tutoring, and I thought I brought it down here with me.” She sighed. “My ID is in the pocket.”

If you’ve been on a college campus lately—or had any contact with college students—you know that students need their IDs for pretty much everything—to get food in the dining hall, to unlock their dorms, to do their laundry…. This was serious.

“Do you remember when you last had it?” I questioned, taking on the diligent mom role, a role that seems to blend and bend into many aspects of my life.

“I wore it over when I was tutoring last night. That’s why I thought I might have left it in the meeting.”

Together, we went upstairs toward the tutoring room, but as I walked past the reception desk, I had a thought. “Hold on,” I said, stopping to check the drawer in the desk. The previous receptionist would sometimes put found items there for safe-keeping. The drawer was locked. “Not there, but let’s try the closet.” I opened the closed where we keep the mail, copy paper, and the receptacle for documents that need shredding. Two jackets hung from the rack, one of which was a navy blue windbreaker. “Is this it?” I asked, and her face brightened.

“That’s it!” she smiled.

I felt the pockets. “And your ID is in the pocket!” I handed her the jacket, and she left for lunch.

Now, I’m not saying it was my job to help this student find her jacket. In fact, it would have been very easy to send her off to find it herself. But it took less than five minutes out of my day, and because I know the building better than she does (and the places her “found” jacket was likely to end up), it made sense for me to help her. And the mom in me wanted to make sure she’d be able to get lunch….

A little kindness goes a long way, it seems. Not only did I help her find her jacket and ID, I scored some wins of my own. I gathered a few extra steps on my Fitbit, I had the satisfaction of making my student smile, and I was the recipient of her gratitude.

The next time I’m gong to send someone off to find something on their own, I might think twice. A little extra kindness goes a long way.

Encouragement

On a recent college visit, I was escorting my daughter across campus to the dining hall where she would meet up with the student who would be her “day host” for a class visit. As we walked, we passed by a post on which was taped a hand-written sign that said, “It gets better. I promise.”

I was struck by this sign because the truth is that life is a series of peaks and valleys and everything in between. When things are bad, they generally get better. We fight; we work; we pray; we cry; time goes by; and things get better. But a college student with less life experience may not realize this to be the case, especially when students are often told, “College is the best four years of your life.”

Newsflash: College is NOT the best four years of your life.

In fact, on that same college visit, I met with a professor, who was my professor when I was in college—about a gazillion or so years ago. Now, I haven’t seen this woman in a very long time. She looked at me and she said, “You look just like you did when you were twenty. But might I say, you look happier.” Her words prompted me to conduct an instant internal inventory that revealed that yes, I am happier than I was in college.

I tried to express my thoughts, “College… well, high school and college, really… they were tough times. Lots of social pressure and trying to figure out my identity and what I wanted from life.” And then we got to talking about kids today, the pressures they face, and the complications of social media in all its superficial glory. Truly, it was tough enough to grow up back in the seventies and eighties without the pressures brought on by social media. Is it any wonder so many young people nowadays suffer from anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other mental illnesses?

On my way back to the parking lot, I stopped and took a picture of the sign I had seen earlier. This sign is a message to all of us that whatever we’re going through… this too, shall pass.

And perhaps there will be one person who walks by this sign, and these words of encouragement might just make a world of difference. Whatever it is, it will get better. I promise.

Positivity Post: Silliness

It was Saturday, and we were visiting my son at college, looking for ways to bide some time before a theater performance later that evening. “Here’s a thought,” I ventured. We were seated at one end of the long dining hall table. “We can go pet the llamas!”

The college is situated at the top of a hill. On the way up the hill, we pass an alpaca farm, and the alpacas are frequently outside grazing. I chose, for this moment, to call them llamas because… face it, “llamas” is a word that is both more fun to say and more fun to write.

My son stared at me as if I had made one of the craziest statements he had ever heard. “Mom,” he admonished. “I’m pretty sure those are private llamas.”

“Well, we can just go pet them for a minute. Then we’ll go to the farm stand and look at the succulents.”

“Mom! Those are not public llamas!” He spoke just a little louder this time, to make sure I heard and understood. Which I did. But really… who would keep llamas out where everyone could see them and not share? But I gave in and instead, we decided to check out all of the little shops in town.

Later that afternoon, as we attempted to find an acceptable place for dinner, we happened to drive by the farm with the alpacas. “Oh,” I feigned my deep disappointment as we ascended the hill. “The llamas aren’t out….”

“No, Mom,” my son said sternly. “That’s probably because they belong to someone and that someone put them away.”

So… I suppose that’s the definition of “private llamas,” huh? I believe if I had llamas, I would definitely make them public llamas!

{Image credit: Unsplash.com/Colby Thomas}

The College Search – Tips

I spent last weekend looking at colleges with my daughter. Of course, it had been my plan to complete this process a bit earlier this time around, yet here we are, the fall of senior year, we’re ready to launch, and we are just finishing up our college visits. However, I do think we are in pretty good shape. Of the final three remaining school visits, one is a third visit—to sit in on classes—at the current first choice school; one is an “official” visit to my son’s college; and one is a school that was added to our list just this week. Once those visits are complete, we’ll stop visiting. But for those of you just beginning this process—no matter the age of your child—I have compiled a list of helpful tips.

Start Early. Let’s face it. High school guidance is not what it once was. I remember in my public school days, we sat down with a guidance counselor and developed a list of the colleges we should investigate. That list contained safety schools, reach schools, and several schools in between. Perhaps that is why I have helped my children to create lists of schools that run the gamut. And then we have taken the time to investigate each school and visit the most promising schools on the list, a time-consuming process that should be started in late sophomore or early junior year. Even in the fall of senior year, our list is changing, evolving, and constantly re-ordering.

Invest your time. If you pay attention on the tours, you will know where you will be investing your resources—both your money and your child. If I am going to invest a good deal of money in a school, I want to know about it. Recently, I was on a tour with another mother who was so busy texting that she was not at all focused on anything the tour guide was saying. I felt bad for her daughter, who will receive little meaningful advice from her mother, and I also felt bad for the tour guide, who was more than aware of this mother’s inability to put her phone away and offer her full attention.

Be an advisor in the process. High school seniors are still kids in so many ways. The decision of which college to attend is a big one. My kids have always attended the local schools and been with the same people. How do they know where they will be happy for the next four years? I can gently guide and suggest, and I can push them complete each step of the college process. I can pay attention to things we see and hear on the college visits, but most importantly, I can listen to what my child is saying and how he/she is reacting on our various campus visits.

Don’t be afraid to say the things your child needs to hear. I have been known to comment on the minimal endowment of a school and how that shows fiscal instability. I have commented on the glaring lack of students on a campus as well as inattentive faculty and staff. I have also been known to say, “That wasn’t the cleanest campus I’ve seen,” because maintenance is often the first area where cuts are made. As parents, we can spot problem areas that our children might miss.

Trust your gut (and teach your son or daughter to do the same). Every college campus has its own atmosphere and feel. When you walk onto the campus, you will get a feel for whether the school is a place you will be comfortable or not. The students, the buildings, the attitudes are all apparent, and they all reveal secrets. Pay attention. Feel the feels. If you don’t feel enlivened and comfortable with what you see, it’s probably not the school for you. Then again, if you look around and think, “I could definitely be happy here,” maybe it is your school.

Watch your step. And finally, a tip for the wanderer. If you decide to wander around a school on your own, be careful. Some doors will lock behind you. Those with a school ID can use it to unlock the doors, but those without may find themselves trapped in a hallway or stairwell they didn’t intend to be trapped in. I have no reason (at least not one that I will admit) to know this information. I will just say, trust me on this one. Check all doors before you let them close.

As I finish up my second time through this process, I am constantly learning. Next time, I’m going to complete the college search earlier, especially because my youngest has very busy summers. But also, I have a feeling the third time around—the last time—I might be able to get it right.