My two kids both went away to college – one across the country and one an hour plane ride away. They didn’t have much choice – my husband and I had, from their earliest days in school, told them that we not only expected them to go to college but, in my husband’s words, expected them to be “a day’s travel away.” We believed that part of the growth during the college years came from being one one’s own and managing difficult situations without immediate parental assistance. For my daughter, this was no problem at all – she chose the school that was farthest from (6 hours by plane) home because it was the best one for her. My son, on the other hand, was not nearly as comfortable being far from home (one hour by plane) – at first. He came home as often as he could, and, in fact, spent a semester at home going to community college his junior year, before deciding to return to his school to finish his degree.
Both of my kids had a real college experience, but in very different ways.
One of my best friends has 3 daughters. The two girls who went to college stayed local, choosing the excellent university that is just a few minutes from the town where they grew up. They didn’t leave home right away, but managed to have a real college experience right in their own backyard, including study groups, midterms and finals, boyfriends, sororities, spring break trips and all the rest that being in college involves. They both graduated and received their diplomas. For that family, staying in close proximity to each other was, and is, a priority.
The college experience is thought of and discussed in the media as, first and foremost, the separation of the college freshman from his or her parents. Living in the dorms, buying XL sheets at Bed Bath and Beyond, making new friends – these are just a few of the ways that college freshmen are expected to transition from home to university. It’s true that living on campus, away from home, in a new city or town with all new faces can be exciting and important for college freshmen in their adaptation to college life – but is it really necessary for a student to follow this path to get to the college experience that suits him or her?
Practically speaking, for many families the financial commitment needed to send a child away to college is beyond their reach. Living at home and commuting to college doesn’t need to be a detriment to developing independence and enjoying the social activities college has to offer. Joining clubs, fraternities, sororities and other on campus groups is important for both commuting students and those who live on campus, and offers both groups the exact same opportunities to meet people and get involved.
One of the benefits of living at home instead of going away while attending college is having a support system in place for difficult times. Loneliness is a very big problem for young people in college, as Frank Bruni discussed in his New York Times op-ed, “The Real Campus Scourge“:
In a survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association last year, more than 60 percent said that they had “felt very lonely” in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.
Loneliness is not something that should be dismissed by parents of students away at college, and students should not feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they are feeling isolated. In fact, getting through those lonely moments for students away from home is part of the maturation process.
Even for those who are living at home, college can feel like a lonely place. New faces, a different atmosphere, disconnected instructors and classes at odd hours can make it difficult to connect to people.
There is no one way to have a college experience. Not everyone can – or wants – to go far from home to get a college education, and that’s ok. It’s important that parents recognize this and refrain from passing judgement on other parents for whatever choice they and their children make for a college education. The ultimate goal is a college degree, and where you live or how you spend the time it takes to get that degree has nothing to do with the thrill and sense of achievement felt on graduation day.