Home for the holidays: expect the unexpected

Today my younger daughter, a college freshman, returns from college for the Christmas break. It is her second return from college far away as she spent the Spring semester of her senior year at a Canadian university. I am therefore forewarned to prepare myself to ‘Expect the unexpected,’ ‘To go with the flow,’ ‘To take what we get. . .’

It’s strange how parents, who thought they knew it all, find themselves (albeit unwillingly) experiencing much personal growth when their children leave for college, and even more somehow when they return. I found a nugget of wisdom in an unlikely place last Sunday, in the local newspaper’s Weekend Magazine. In an interview, a Baby-boomer dad was asked, “What do parents really want when it comes to their children?”  His reply: “Independence. You want them to navigate the world without having their hands held.”

It’s true. This is what we do want! Reading this answer put things back into perspective for me as I began to anticipate seeing changes in my daughter and to prepare myself for continuing changes in my relationship with her. As an experienced parent having gone through this stage with two other children, I am cognizant that ‘no two children are alike’ and the challenges with each often come ‘out of left field.’ But that’s okay – I do feel I will be better able to adjust if I stay aware that the dynamic is changing. Parenting is, of course, a constant process of adjusting expectations and redefining roles. It’s just harder at this stage as the adult child is doing most of the redefining. . .

For those new to the “home from college for the holidays thing”, and those who have forgotten, here are some useful tips:

  • Stock up the refrigerator and pantry with treats and healthy foods suitable for late night snacking.
  • Don’t be surprised if your child arrives home drained and exhausted. Semesters are intense. The final weeks of completing major assignments and exams at college are grueling. Let them have the unstructured down time they need.
  • Accept that your student’s holiday time priorities are not the same as yours. They will want to go out and visit high school friends also back from college; your plans for the traditional family trimming of the Christmas tree may have to take a back seat. (I have compromised in the past by setting aside the special ornaments for my son to add to the decorated tree!)
  • Expect this to be a confusing and disorienting time, with frequent ups and downs.
  • Resist the temptation to “measure” the results of your financial investment in college by the quality of your interactions with your, apparently, “prodigal” child!
  • Be glad that the transformative process to independent adult is underway – it will take the full four years!
  • Silently give thanks for the behaviors and possible outcomes of the semester that you aren’t seeing.

For these four years, your student will be “in and out of your life”, in fits and starts. You will share in the triumphs and crises. During the holidays, you can remind yourself to enjoy the little moments – the seemingly insignificant treasure – the stuff of memories.

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

– Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Joe College Goes Home For The Holidays

It is Sunday, and I am back home after driving my middle son to SFO airport at the end of his freshman Thanksgiving visit. It was the first time I had seen him since dropping him off at college in August, and it was wonderful. We chatted about life and about school, and he seemed quite content to hang out with his parents. After years of getting “Nothing much” or “Whatever” in response to questions about friends or school, this was no doubt a testament to his growth and manna to our ears.

For many families, however, that much-anticipated first visit home for Thanksgiving or Christmas can easily sink into dashed hopes and high anxiety. In part this happens because parents and student approach the visit with remarkably different expectations. Parents usually want nothing more than having their child back at home again, just as if he or she was still in grade school and fully under their control. And indeed, this weekend when I looked at my son sleeping, it was as if he was a baby again and I stroked his head with the same unbearable rush of love. But in a corner of their minds, parents also hope that the young child will now come with adult opinions, meaningful conversations about life, and perhaps even thoughtful descriptions of friends and their extracurricular life.

Students, on the other hand, also just want to be back home again – freely raiding the pantry, having their laundry done, sleeping until noon – but together with the added freedom to which college life has accustomed them. Parents of international students have even more to process when they see their child on her visit home from the US. The student talks about rituals of which they know little, expresses herself in a mode which seems distinctly foreign to them, and describes a world they have never experienced.

With an effort to understand the other’s perspective and a bit of tolerance on both sides, families can, however, cope and have a joyful homecoming. As all of us who have ever gone home as adults know, back in your parents’ home you find yourself locked into childhood behaviors that no amount of aging can seemingly overcome. We argue with siblings just as we did when were ten, and our parents annoy us with the same irksome interference they showed when we were teens. Similarly, when our students come home as young adults, we all revert to old ways of behaving that no longer fit with their new status as independent adults.

But for the sake of that warm and homey holiday we all long for, we have to stand back and appreciate that our sons and our daughters are, as Bob Dylan reminded us, beyond our command, even when we still pay the bills and they are sleeping under our roofs. We raised them to be independent and self-sufficient adults, and so when they act as if they are, we have to, as we told them when they were younger, “deal with it.” On the other hand, children should know that as rightly proud as they are of their new independence, as hard as they are working at becoming the newer and better adults they aim to be, there are ways in which they will forever remain fixed in our minds as little boys and girls. And that is not so bad. After all, why else would we be feeding them, doing their laundry, and paying the bills?

Dreams Deferred Part 1

Why do colleges defer students?

Most American colleges and universities these days offer students the opportunity to apply early.  Some schools may demand an early commitment, others may merely wish to gauge interest, but all early programs give students the opportunity to tell a school how much they burn to attend that institution.  But come December and April (when most colleges announce their acceptances), many students will find that their dream school may accept their love, turn them down unceremoniously, or offer an ambivalently mixed message – deferment.

So why do schools defer students, and what can an applicant do about it?  As with so many good intentions gone awry, early programs began as a way for students to express their strong desire to attend one particular school even as dwindling acceptance rates forced them to apply to a growing number of institutions.  For admission officers, it showed which students really, really wanted to attend that school and were therefore likely to commit if they were accepted. (When I worked at Brown, we would sometimes use the shorthand B4B to describe such a student: Burning for Brown).

But over time, this is of course not how things developed.  Now applying early is, for many students, unfortunately part of the gamesmanship with which they feel forced to approach college admission.  For colleges, faced with applicants who now routinely apply to ten or more schools, it has become a way of exerting some control over their matriculation rates.  After all, admission officers spend hours of work to identify the kids they want on their campuses, only to have those kids say no thanks as a more prestigious institution comes calling.  Some schools have responded by taking a large number of students from their early application pool, or by forcing students to make an early commitment.  Schools with merit-based financial aid may even use scholarship dollars to sweeten the early pot for the students they really want.  Other schools (highly desirable schools who may nevertheless, in the strange world of college admission, fall in a tier below the single digit acceptors) may offer students a two-step early program: they can apply early with all the same trimmings, but at a slightly later date – a period often squeezed in between the early notification date and the regular application deadline typical of very selective schools.

Regardless of how schools manage their early application process, they all want to do two things:

  • They want to accept enough reasonably committed students to ensure a high matriculation rate.
  • And they still want to leave space in their freshman class for wonderful students who may not have applied early anywhere (always a sizable number even in these crazy times), or who did not get into that fabulously selective school they dreamed about but are still perfect candidates for their school.

As a result, at the end of the early application period, some very happy students will receive a letter offering them admission to their dream school.  On the other side of the happiness spectrum, a relatively small percentage of students will be flatly denied – those students the school deem to have no chance of admission whatsoever during regular decision.  As an aside, many school counselors and admission officers believe that the percentage of students who are denied early should realistically be far higher than it often is at more selective schools.  (As a colleague of mine used to put it, “You got to rip the band-aid off!”)  It is difficult for schools to do that though, when they also want to acknowledge a student’s hard work, or another student’s very visible leadership role in school, regardless of the final outcome.  Sometimes admission officers may just want to avoid dealing with the unrealistic expectations and demanding ignorance of disappointed parents. I tended to favor letting early applicants down lightly by deferring them rather than denying them.  I believed, and I still do, that after the stress and sheer hassle of applying to their dream school, there is often little to gain by hitting the kid hard with a deny letter in December.  We encourage students to dream, and we should be careful about penalizing them for it.  Of course, I say that knowing some students do need help in redirecting their energy in a more productive direction, and being denied may sometimes do just that.

The vast majority of students to more selective institutions, however, will find themselves in a strange gray zone: neither denied nor admitted, hope kept alive but with a hard dose of reality thrown in.  In a next blog I will discuss what these students are to make of their fate, and whether they can improve their chances of escaping from no-man’s land, through the doors of their chosen paradise.

Liberal Arts: What Will They Do For Me?

Your education in the liberal arts

When students apply to American universities, one of the phrases that get tossed around most often is “liberal arts.”  So it is worth pondering exactly what we mean with this – is it a political idea, and what is artsy about it?  What does it say about the kind of courses I will be doing at college?  Will I get a job with it, or have to return home with a fine degree and no job prospects?

No one these days can easily specify exactly what “liberal arts” are, even as it has come to define much about American education.  But the idea itself is a pretty old one and grew out of a classical notion that being educated meant more than being narrowly trained for one career.  Instead, a liberal arts education lies in the difference between learning how to cut out one jigsaw piece, and learning how all those many pieces actually fit together – studying economics rather than how to manage a business, sociology and anthropology about how societies work rather than training to be a social worker, mathematics rather than how to be an accountant.   But the value of liberal arts is not even primarily in teaching you to see the big picture.  Instead, your sense of your world is transformed because once you understand how your set of questions fits into that big picture, you also begin to understand the other ways that those same questions can be asked and answered – historically or mathematically or philosophically, for example.  So liberal arts also expose you to different ways of asking those questions.  Understanding that there are different ways to approach a set of questions also mean developing different tools with which to solve those questions.

But then college ends and you have to go off into the big world where you are expected to get a job and pay the mortgage.  Studying liberal arts is not “time out” from the real world in which you get to play around with some interesting ideas which you then pack away to get on with the job of real life, however.  By teaching you how to ask questions and approach solutions from different angles, the liberal arts actually give you a great foundation for any career.  After all, we live in a world where a global economy calls for workers that can innovate, that can communicate well, that are flexible and adaptive enough to survive technical fields where fixed skills become rapidly obsolete, and who have the broad knowledge to apply synergy towards solutions.   In short, employers increasingly call on workers with the learning skills, creativity and broad mindset that the liberal arts teach students.