Over the next few weeks, parents across the United States will be taking their sons and daughters to college, lugging desk lamps, extra socks and freshly-laundered duvets to the still-strange rooms they will soon call home. For some, it is a nostalgic moment, reeking of those days when they, too, studied Plato, got homesick and (probably) drank too much. For others, it is a first-time, once-in-a-lifetime moment of taking their child to a level of aspiration that was impossible for them either to afford or imagine.
For all parents, though, drop-off day at college is a momentous event -- an achievement for both parent and child, and a turning point that, once ventured upon, can never be reversed.
As a college president, moving-in day is one of my favorite times of the year. I walk the sidewalks around Barnard, visiting briefly with families as they stand on the brink of their daughters' new lives. There is joy on every face I see, and nerves and excitement. Often there are tears, particularly among the fathers who seem both awestruck and terrified to realize that their daughters -- after a blur of babydom and teenage angst -- are actually leaving home.
Typically, the parents bundle their daughters into their new spaces, chatting tentatively as they try, simultaneously, to hold on and to let go. And then, after an awkward bagel or quick cup of coffee, they go. My job is to offer parting words to all the parents, which I am sharing here below.
Today is a big deal and a big day.
It is big for your daughters because it represents the start of so many things in their lives; big for you, in a way that is both exciting and bittersweet, because it represents an ending of sorts, as well as a beginning
Sending a child to college is a traumatic event. At least it was for me several years ago, when my husband and I bundled up our eldest and lugged all of his worldly possessions up five flights of very hot steps. Even though he was going "away" to Harvard, a place where I'd spent 23 years of my life and a place that was literally across the street from my husband's office, even though he had been completely unbearable for the three months leading up to the blessed event and even though we had two other children left at home, it was traumatic. I cried the moment we walked out of the Yard, and hovered by the phone for the next three days.
He survived, of course, and ultimately so did I. But I still stand by the depth of my trauma. Indeed, I revisited it a few years ago with son number two -- when I was again a certifiable wreck; and am looking forward to repeating my performance next year with my daughter, when I promise to fall apart completely.
And that's okay. Because sending a child to college is a serious milestone, for them and for you. As children, they will never again be as dependent on you as they have been for all their lives. As a parent, you no longer own them in quite the way you once did, the way that you probably thought -- as I did -- would last forever.
A colleague of mine once said that sending his first child to college was the defining moment of his adult life. Before that day, he could convince himself that he was still a young man; that despite starting a business and raising two kids and accumulating all the history and complexity and large plastic objects that life throws one's way, he was still, essentially, a guy in his twenties, starting out on his own journey.
When he deposited his daughter in her dorm room, though, he realized that he was already a long way along his own route, and that his daughter's time had now come.
And so, today, have all of yours. They will still be your daughters -- they will return to your homes, and demand your car keys, and call you when a grade is bad or a friend turns mean -- but when they walked through the gates of this college today they also began to walk a little farther from you than they had before, and a little closer towards their own journeys.
Your job as parents, I believe, is to support your children as they begin these new lives, even if they make choices and pursue options that may not be the ones that you had advised, or hoped for them. Your job is to let them walk along the many paths that they will find here, and to hold their hands when, inevitably, they stumble a bit, or turn back, or leap a little too blindly ahead. It's kind of like when they were first learning to walk -- only harder.
Our job as educators is to ensure that all of your childrens' journeys here are as rich and as powerful as possible. We will tempt them with subjects they never imagined studying -- the Anthropology of Consumption perhaps, or Invertebrate Zoology -- and we will wow them with instructors who are devoted to their research and yet passionately committed to the art of teaching. We will submerse them in the wonders of learning and surround them with the intellectual buffet that constitutes a liberal arts education. Mostly, though, we will nurture them -- not, of course, as you have nurtured them as parents, but in the way that educators can nurture an evolving mind and a developing spirit.
So thank you for lending us your children. You have trusted us with an extraordinary group: kids who thrive on challenge, who embrace the world around them and who strive always for excellence. We will give them back to you four, short years from now as what I promise will be an even more amazing, more inspiring, more resourceful group of young people: the class of 2017.
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