Along the road to college admission…

Watch where you’re going!

The college application process can have many unfortunate effects, and one happens when students run around madly padding their resumes with yet one more activity, one more shot at leadership, one more service moment.  The problem is not only that this kind of scattershot business does little to enhance their applications, but also that they seldom stop to ask the important questions: why am I doing this, what does it all mean, where is it taking me?

Watching this mad runaround brings to mind one of my most favorite college presentations, done by an esteemed colleague and good friend at Brown University.  She reminded prospective students that the journey matters, not just the arrival; that as a high school student moves towards college and the next phase in his or her life, thinking and engaging and playing around with ideas along the way is as important as ultimately getting accepted.  Being a classicist, she pointed out that even as we cheer for Odysseus to find his way home to Ithaca (not only those dreaming of Cornell!), we should remember the wondrous things he saw along the way. So she handed prospective students a copy of the beautiful poem Ithaca, by the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1911).  It is worth repeating here:


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,

pray that the road is long,

full of adventure, full of knowledge.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:

You will never find such as these on your path,

if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine

emotion touches your spirit and your body.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,

if you do not carry them within your soul,

if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.

That the summer mornings are many, when,

with such pleasure, with such joy

you will enter ports seen for the first time;

stop at Phoenician markets,

and purchase fine merchandise,

mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

and sensual perfumes of all kinds,

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

visit many Egyptian cities,

to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.

To arrive there is your ultimate goal.

But do not hurry the voyage at all.

It is better to let it last for many years;

and to anchor at the island when you are old,

rich with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

Without her you would have never set out on the road.

She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.

Wise as you have become, with so much experience,

you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.

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?