Saturday, May 06, 2006


When the lovely daughter headed off to college last fall, it was with the same anticipation and eagerness that most freshmen feel. A new part of the country. A dorm, a roommate, classmates from everywhere. Classes in subjects always just out of reach in high school -- psychology, philosophy, Italian. A new beginning.

I couldn't go. As a teacher, I had to begin my work year at the same time that she did. So I stayed home and commiserated with a friend in the same boat, while our husbands accompanied our daughters thousands of miles from home. For my husband and sons, who would not go back to college for a few more weeks, it was supposed to be a nice little family vacation. There was a lot of laughing just before they left over the fact that the boys would turn 21 just after they left the French Quarter and Bourbon Street -- but at least they would get to see what they would be missing.

Well, we all know
what happened.

After leaving most of her clothing and belongings in her dorm room and spending three days in Baton Rouge and two more back on the road, the lovely daughter turned to me and said,

"Mom, I did everything I was supposed to do. I worked hard and got good grades. I did the SATs and ACTS and APs. I visited colleges and did interviews and wrote essays. I filled out an endless series of forms. I got my letters and I made my choice and I went shopping and we drove 1000 miles, and my college...DISAPPEARED. What do you do when your college just disappears?"

Now there's a question to which I had always wanted to know the answer.

At first she thought she'd just stay home and take classes at a nearby university for the semester. "That was pretty traumatic," she admitted -- an attitude she retained for about an afternoon. By the end of the day she had remembered: "I never wanted to go to college in-state. I don't want to go to college in-state now. Do you think I should call all the colleges to which I was admitted?" And by the next afternoon she was settled: Willamette in Oregon would be her next stop, with a full tuition waiver as Willamette's contribution to the hurricane relief effort.

(I used to think it was a little strange that kids sent applications to such disparate kinds of colleges. That was until I accompanied one of my sons to an Admitted Students Week-end, where it seemed that everyone we met, including my own indecisive offspring, was wranging over the choice between Big Bad City University of Chicago and tiny, bucolic Northfield, Minnesota's Carleton College. Just like the rest of us, teenagers are struggling with the who-am-I-and-where-do-I-want-to-be-in-life question. So when my daughter's final two choices emerged as boistrous and wild Tulane and New Orleans and tiny and somewhat more placid Willamette and Salem, Oregon, I was prepared to go with the flow.)

I can't say enough good things about Willamette University. The lovely daughter arrived after freshmen orientation was over and classes had begun to a delightful roommate, a complete set of bedding, a welcome basket from food services, and a welcome letter from the president of the college. Her advisor got her into courses the next morning, the bookstore could not have been m0re helpful, and she was on her way. Over the course of the next three months she made a great group of friends, did a terrific job academically, played intramural soccer, volunteered at the Salem animal shelter, watched Gray's Anatomy on Sunday nights, and just generally had the best first semester of college that any of my three children have experienced.

In January: Back to Tulane. This time it was a little more difficult -- she had already built a college life elsewhere. The roommate with whom she had corresponded back in August had never shown up then, and decided not to return for the second semester. Katrina permeated the atmosphere, the news, the consciousness of everyone at every level. In its wake was a beginning of a semester was full of the triumphant sense of survival and the energy of renewal.

The girl dove in -- studying conscientiously, making friends, singing in the college choir, volunteering in the 9th Ward, dating a little, and finding a new Gray's Anatomy group. But it wasn't the same -- she had left her heart behind at Willamette. And there wasn't anyone to talk with about that. Most of her classmates, who had spent their first semesters in college situations they disliked, were thrilled to find themselves finally beginning their long awaited first semester at Tulane. And the size of the school was a bit daunting in and of itself -- she found that she often met people whom she liked, and then never laid eyes on them again. At Willamette, her natural reticence had been thwarted by the tiny campus, where she couldn't help but run into everyone she knew every day.

I watch each of my children struggle with the choices of young adulthood, and I try to stay out of it. (Really, guys, I do! You have no idea how MUCH I leave unsaid!) I worked hard to keep myself out of this one. Not that I knew what the answer was. Of course, I had some views, which I restrained myself from announcing. The Willamette admission counselor was a candid and forthright woman who easily acknowledged the difficulty of the circumstances: the allegiance to an original dream, the sense that there might be more opportunites at a larger school, the feeling of responsibility toward the renewal of New Orleans, the brevity of the experience there, all balanced against the equally brief but undeniably satisfying experience at Willamette. The Tulane advisor, in contrast, did not respond to an email that should have alerted her to the fact that a major decision was in the works.

My comment, when asked point blank what I thought: You succeed in life when you are surrounded and supported by people who care about you and whom you care about. It doesn't matter how large or small, how prestigious or unknown, how near or far, the institution or locale. What matters is whether you can make a place for yourself and find "your people" there. We will love you and support you no matter where you decide that is.

A visit back to Oregon over Easter week-end clinched the deal. Within a matter of days my daughter had a roommate, a room, and a schedule of classes for next fall at Willamette. She sounded happier and more settled than she had in weeks.

I can hardly wait to see her tonight. She sounds so adult, so at peace with herself, on the telephone. I think that she has had a profound experience of finding out who she is, what matters to her, and how she can live most happily and productively. Not a bad beginning for 18.


Vicky said...

Robin, you are raising a daughter of whom you can be proud. She is learning to explore her options and not to be afraid of changing her life dramatically if things are not as they should be, a lesson many so much older than she have yet to learn.

Congratulations on such a wonderful young woman, and on keeping your mouth closed when you so wanted to offer an opinion (oh, I know, how I know!)

This was a delightful entry, full of a mother's warmth and pride. I could feel it so many miles away.


Waterfall said...

Interesting. I started my college career at Tulane in 1988 and found the administration and students rather cold and unfriendly. I ended up transferring to a school where the admissions folks and advisors were warm and understanding, and where I felt more welcome among the student body. Of course, there was no Katrina messing up the continuity of that first year, but still ...

Congrats to your daughter on going back to the school where she's happiest. All the best to her!

Lisa :-] said...

I've always known my adoptive state is that captivating. Hard to get it out of your blood, once you've lived here.

Seriously, I'm glad she'll be out here. It will make me feel that much closer to you.

Globetrotter said...


I went back and read all your aol journal entries recounting your family's Katrina/college orientation experience. I was just getting back into journaling at the time that Katrina struck and so somehow I didn't know your journal yet and hadn't read the scope of your family's experience.

I wasn't privleged with a college education myself, although I desperately wanted to attend an art college while I was in high school. When my 3 sons went through the college application/visitation process I lived the excitement of the experience vicariously through them. I remember looking longingly at the brochures from artsy/diverse Tulane, and even suggested it to the middle son as a place where he would experience a great deal more types of people than he had ever been able to glean from small/town Pa. He settled for preppy Colgate and I never had the chance to visit Tulane's campus unfortunately.

I think that your daughter went through a long, traumatic and incredibly rewarding experience that in the end certainly opened her eyes to what she really had wanted all along in a college. I also think that had Katrina never struck, she may never have had the chance to experience what she had been intended for all along. Now I'm probably going to tick you off with my next words but here goes anyway.

You wrote in one of your August entries about not believing that things happen for a reason. I am just wondering if somehow the divine plan for your daughter had to involve her going through the Katrina exerience in order for her to finally end up on the path where she belonged in the first place.

Okay, that it. I'm done. Hope you're not too ticked;0)

Marian said...

It sounds like it was a tough decision but she really weighed all the pros and cons and made a good choice. Hope you had a great reunion with your DD and enjoy your time with her this summer.

Cynthia said...

That's such a wise decision from someone so young. You have a lot to be proud of with her (as I'm sure you do with your sons as well). Sometimes, I think that the most critical and difficult part of being a mother is knowing when to just shut up. It sounds like you've got that down pat.

LightYears2Venus said...

That last line sounds exactly like what her MOM is ruminating over!
Bravo (brava?) to your daughter for heading off on what does seem to be the right path for her. I echo everyone's plaudits to you (and your husband, of course) for the fine young woman you've raised; we feel we know her through your many entries.
It does seem a stroke of luck (or divine order, re: Globetrotter) that she got to experience both colleges. We usually never get to see how the other path might have turned out.
Best wishes to both of you as you head off in thoroughly exciting new directions.

Kathryn said...

I hope that your dd's sophomore year is as wonderful and un-catastrophic-eventful as possible. I hope that I can do as well at well-timed reticence as you have done. Enjoy your reunion!

Paul said...

I approve.

peripateticpolarbear said...

I recently sat next to a young woman on the plane. She was returning from visiting the first of 3 colleges that had accepted her. She'd had an amazing visit and was quite starry eyed. She was anxious about visiting the second and third colleges the following week and was grilling me on my opinions about the 3. They were all ivy league--all East Coast. I told her she'd know when she'd found the right place. She said, yeah but what about dance programs do any of them have a better ballet teacher? Perhaps dance would make her decision. I told her it wouldn't matter. She would know the right place when she found it. I really believe in that. Your daughter's experience just confirms my theory. You know when you're in the right place. I'm glad your daughter has found her right place.

tess said...

I said goodby to two of my closest friends this past week! They were native New Orleanians and they are moving.
I hope the very best for your daughter and I thank her for the energy and endurance she displayed by returning to a semester at Tulane. Her time in the disaster zone has given her a different perspective. I hope that she can carry her experiences to a new life and some normalcy.
Wish her the best from me!

Wenda said...

I love this piece. I admire you and your daughter for your parts in this story and wish you both continued growth and happiness.

Carol said...

Your love and pride in your dd came through loud and clear in this beautifully written entry. And the guidance, love, and support that you've given her came through equally loudly and clearly in her choice, the decision process, and the reasons behind them. There is much to be proud of in the 2 of you, in the relationship that you've built, and in the people that you both are.

sunflowerkat said...

Your daughter is amazing. The first year of college is difficult under the best of circumstances. I know you are very, very proud of her.