One in Three

The college counselor at our high school shared what seemed like an astonishing statistic: one in three students don’t graduate from the college they first attend.

We thought: That won’t be him.

We were wrong.

He only ever wanted to attend one school, and he only ever wanted one major with one career outcome. We asked all the questions, of him, of everyone; we visited the school and attended orientation; we took out the loan, proving we would do everything possible to back his dreams.

He called, sobbing, after his first class: “Mom, I’ve made a terrible mistake!”

It should have been the perfect school for him. Instead, he weathered the perfect storm of all the things that could go wrong–the roommate from hell with the toxic girlfriend who essentially moved in; the injury that kept him from playing his sport, his physical and emotional outlet; the advisor who suddenly seemed less supportive; the “friends” who proved to be anything but… We weathered the storm with him as he called several times a week, sometimes crying, other times, just to talk.

We listened. We prayed. We sent more mail than ever before in our lives. But we couldn’t change his circumstances. He needed to learn to advocate for himself, to set his own boundaries, to work harder, to develop persistence.

It was difficult for all of us, but he stuck it out. At one point he said, “I should have listened to you. I should have gone to community college.”

I responded, “No, this was your path. If we had insisted that you stay local, you would have been angry at us. You needed to discover some things for yourself.”

Today was Day 1 of Year 2, now at our local community college. Leaving his first choice also meant leaving his major, not readily available elsewhere. Instead he will experiment with classes in different majors as he explores what he might like to do with his life. The low cost of community college plus living at home equals low risk.

Over breakfast, he had only the to-be-expected first day jitters: traffic, meeting new people, and hoping for enjoyable course content. After school, he seemed relaxed, even happy. He had quickly established a relationship with both professors and engaged in helpful ways with the material, something that doesn’t easily happen when you have 500+ classmates. He immediately got online to order books, then ran out to purchase a few supplies. He jumped on homework like he never did in high school.

Did he make a terrible mistake? Absolutely not! We are grateful for his out-of-state freshman year. Do we wish things had worked out differently, that he had stayed at his first choice? Of course! When he went back for second semester, I challenged him to do everything necessary to redeem the situation so that, at the end of the year, he could say: “That was hard, but I did it. Here’s what I learned, and here’s how I’m a better person for it.”

He did it. He learned a lot–about himself, what he likes and wants and doesn’t; about others with different interests, personalities, and backgrounds. He learned he could stick through overwhelming circumstances, and that his family will always have his back.

Are we glad to have him back? For sure! He is stronger, more mature, differently centered. Our relationship has changed as we function less from the driver’s seat and more as passengers. We have become advisors offering encouragement rather than supervisors offering direction. And we will continue to cheer him on as we watch to see where he goes from here.

Orientation

Orientation [awr-ee-uh n-tey-shuh n]
noun 1. the act or process of orienting; 2. The state of being oriented; 3. An introduction, as to guide one in adjusting to new surroundings, employment, activity, or the like: New students receive two days of orientation; 4. Psychology, Psychiatry. The ability to locate oneself in one’s environment with reference to time, place, and people. Synonyms: direction, location, adaptation, assimilation, bearings, coordination, familiarization, position, lay of the land, sense of direction, settling in.

I awoke with vague dream recollections: three of my former professors (college? grad school?) had pulled me aside to say that I needed to go back to school. Apparently my Ph.D. awaits me, in some area of study at some school.

Do I have college-envy? I’ve heard other parents of college-bound kids say that college visits evoked similar responses in them, that they wish they could go back to school at this stage of life.

Last week Guy and I accompanied Teen to his college orientation. As we walked across campus I thought: “This is the exact right place for my kiddo, but I would have gotten lost here.” Something like 30 of my private, liberal arts college would fit on his university campus.

I do feel a tinge of envy at this exciting stage in his life: for all the things he will learn, experiences he will have, friends and mentors he will meet. But that’s far from my only feeling…

He is our first-born. I am grateful he’s found his place, and anxious for him to transition well. After helping him maneuver life for eighteen years, it is so hard to let go, to cheer him on from a distance, to know that he will succeed and he will fail and somehow it will all work out.

His departure will change the day-to-day reality of our family’s operational structure. I will carpool Tween to places Teen has shuttled his brother. We will redistribute his chores. Our grocery bill will decrease. I will miss him like crazy, and sometimes I will (quietly) exult in the new quiet his absence will create. We will hope that he will fit in time to communicate on occasion beyond “Dad, I need money!” (To which we could respond, “So do we!”).

None of us understood why the college required orientation prior to the days just before classes begin this fall. In fact, Guy almost didn’t sign us up for the parent-family track. We’re both college graduates—how much can have changed? Teen just wanted to register for classes online and spend every minute of summer with his friends at home. Turns out, we didn’t know how much we didn’t know!

We dropped Tween at sleep-away camp on Sunday and left for college Monday. Teen was quiet (tired?), then visibly angry (“I’m not carrying that bag!”), sullen and snapchat-focused, dismissive (“Stop trying to be funny!”), and finally, candid: “I don’t want to go to college!”

He does want to go to college. He knows this is his school, his program, his time. He knows that, even though his friends will mostly attend schools on quarter-system and it seems now that they have longer summers, they will leave eventually, too. He doesn’t want to be the one left behind. He just doesn’t know how to manage the biggest transition in his life thus far.

Thankfully, Session 1 of parent-family orientation addressed the emotional transition in which we currently find ourselves. The Associate Dean of Students referenced William Bridges’ book, Managing Transitions. Here’s the model:

And here’s the synopsis: It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, the reorganization of the roles on the team. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.

At any given moment, any of us can be at any stage of transition: not necessarily the same stage, and it can all turn on a dime. I had been feeling so excited for Teen’s new beginning (less so for ours, but it has its highlights as well); his fear and anger evoked in me both sadness that he was having such a difficult go of it and a panic that he might ditch the opportunities before him.

With a travel day on either side of the two-day orientation, over four days we watched Teen ride an emotional roller coaster, moving at break-neck speed through All the Big Feels related to this transition: loss, grief, loneliness, anger, denial, resistance, despair, excitement, hope, doubt, fear… We saw him wipe away embarrassed tears, endured his angry barks, listened when he overflowed, all in snippets of time that our orientation tracks intersected.

We asked if he wanted our opinion (sometimes yes, others no). We asked questions he sometimes answered. During one conversation I admitted that I, too, had been on the verge of tears throughout the day. He responded, “But Mom, the difference is you will never lose me. I will always come home to you. But things will never be the same with my friends…”

We encountered so many moments confirming his choice of school, from conversations with staff, to the presentation by his major advisor, to watching him make friends. And our conversations with other parents confirmed that our experience was far more common that we could suspect. One dad said, “I am so grateful for that transition presentation, because I’m watching my son live it out before my eyes.” Yup, us too. Another dad said, “To look at people, they seem like they have it all together. But when you talk to other parents, you realize that we’re all dealing with the same things, the joys and fears, anxieties, situations…” So true.

Teen had a great roommate for the dorm overnight. At a different stage in his own transition, they talked from 9:30 pm to 1 am, helping Teen process in ways his parents could not. That next day Teen was like a different person, calm, tip-toeing into the excitement of all to come. But later that day he talked with friends from home, one who was freaking out and another who was currently at his own college orientation. They’re all on this crazy ride and they’re jostling each other this way and that.

Back home we are orienting to the present moment, enjoying summer and friendships and down-time. The college shadow looms, but for now he wants to stand firmly in the sun. And that’s fine. Orientation introduced us to new surroundings both physical and emotional. We’ve done a lot of healthy processing of emotions and details. Settling in will take time.

 

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