Four years ago, a dear friend asked for my sage advice about first-year college drop off. My response? Don’t linger.
Don’t hang out; don’t make sure your student has everything they need; don’t make sure they know where they are going. It is time for them to figure this out. Tough love? Maybe. Tougher on you, the parents.
I have dropped my girls off at schools since they were 14. Both attended boarding school, one an ocean away from me, one across 11 states. Those were anxious weeks, days, and hours preparing for them to leave. I remember carrying all my eldest’s things into her un-airconditioned room in her Connecticut boarding school. Up three flights of 100-year-old stairs to a room full of light, unmade memories, and a roommate from Houston. I was sweaty, excited, sad, nervous, overwhelmed. I remember making her bed with her new sheets, hanging her towels in her closet, going to a parent orientation, and thinking, “what the hell am I doing?” For the next 8 years, I dropped her off in August to other dorms. Different views, different roommates, different schools, different sheets… but always the sense that when I left I would be missing part of her that I had not missed before; there were daily activities and moments that would become completely and utterly lost to me. Her independence and growth, education and experiences, were solely her own. I cried on my way home, and intermittently all the way across the ocean to our then-home in Heidelberg, Germany.
Fast forward to the last move-in. Our youngest was the student in charge of orientation for her liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. A year prior, the Army had seen fit to station us in the same town as the college. She was literally moving into housing 1.3 miles from our home. I climbed the 100-year-old stairs to her apartment’s bedroom and looked out over the campus which she had called home for the three prior years. I welled up with tears, as I unpacked her sheets and made her bed… probably the only time it would be so all year. I hung her towels in the bathroom, helped organize her closet, and then climbed into my car, leaving her alone to face 600 first-year students and 250 helpers with a bullhorn, whistle, and a smile. That 1.3 mile was exactly the same distance as the 11 states I had crossed 7 years earlier. The distance could not be measured in miles but in the vast differences in experiences.
My facebook feed today had pictures of a friend’s daughter headed
off to college. The minivan was full, the requisite college sticker applied, and my friend was trying to pass her sorrow and worry off as excitement. I get it. We all do. So, how do you get through drop off? With Kleenex and quick drop-offs.
- Don’t be afraid to leave something “undone” on their drop-off list. They sell command strips in the bookstore, light bulbs in the Target down the street, snacks in the student center. It gives your freshman something to do, and a reason to explore.
- Don’t be the last parent to leave. You are taking time from your freshman in those early dorm moments. If other parents have gone and you haven’t, the other students will be mingling and bonding, and yours will be torn between you and them, old and new, ending and beginning.
- Don’t be afraid to leave them alone. Students will struggle with loneliness and trepidation during their first year… it is infinitely easier to make friends during those first few hours when everyone is alone. ( when my youngest arrived for freshman year, we were leaving and a young gal looked lost, I gave my youngest a nudge and she went over and introduced herself. They spent the next two hours figuring out orientation. It was a relief for my daughter to have something to do, and a relief to this young woman to have someone to do it with… I don’t think they became friends. I don’t know. It was the first of many things that were hers alone.)
- Save the sobbing for the car. (I know, easier said than done.) I “ugly cried” every single year I dropped off my girls. Every. Single. Year. But I waited until I was in the car. I didn’t want them to be worried about me when they really were excited and overwhelmed and exhausted about starting this new life. I left them with a few wise words, a quick kiss and hug, and a HUGE smile! It had to be one of the hardest things I have done as a parent.
- Don’t be so quick to respond to small problems or “road bumps” those first few weeks. Learning to independently fix those small issues can help them conquer the big ones when they come.
- Let them fail at something. Let them run out of clean underwear. Let them struggle with money management. It’s a learning curve. Everyone does laundry on a Sunday at college. Learning to do it on Tuesday morning is a life skill. Be the parent that continues to grow independence while they are away.
I wish I could tell you that drop off was easy. I wish I could tell you that your world will immediately fill those gaps and spaces they leave in your life. I wish I could tell you that their year will be 100% positive and independent. I can’t. But I can tell you that you always need more extension cords and hangars than you think, the football team will be there to carry the heavy stuff, nothing sticks to dorm wall except the stuff they don’t want you to use, they will eat pizza for three days straight at the dining hall, and that Cool Touch Kleenex are on sale at Walmart.