Reflections on a graduation party

Yesterday I attended the first of several graduation parties for my high school senior. This party was for all graduating high school students in our neighborhood – a joint effort that has turned into a wonderful neighborhood tradition. With 21 grads representing three different high schools, each with a different graduation ceremony date, trying to find a date for the party that worked for all 21 families was no easy feat. But we found one, even if that meant celebrating graduation a good three weeks before the official ceremony at my daughter’s high school.

I kind of anticipated that this occasion would move me in some way. First kid, first graduation, first one to leave the nest. Our family dynamic will never be the same once she leaves for school in late August. After the party ended and clean-up was complete, I let myself reflect a bit. Here’s what made the biggest impression on me.

What amazing kids.

I know, we all feel that way about our kids. No matter how big a rollercoaster you ride in the 18 years leading up to the big day, it’s hard not to look at your child in wonder and think, ‘when did this baby grow up and become a real person?’ As I listened to snatches of conversation between the grads and their parents and neighbors I kept thinking how mature they all seemed. Kids who were once too shy to look an adult in the eye, now they were carrying on conversations about their future plans that were articulate, confident and impressive. Because this was a neighborhood gathering many at the party have known most of these kids since they were babies. All have some memories of these kids in diapers, in their pj’s at sleepover parties, learning to swim or play soccer or T-ball. It was impossible not to marvel at how much they’d changed in what seemed like such a short amount of time.

Taking credit.

Soon after the party kicked off I was mingling with neighbors who repeatedly wished my husband and I “congratulations.” Initially it felt strange – why congratulate us? We weren’t the ones graduating high school. I even teased a friend who offered her congrats, and she looked at me like I was crazy. “Why wouldn’t you take the credit? Do you think your daughter could have done this without you?” I’ve been mulling this over, and I guess I agree. In most cases parents do play the most significant role of all in getting their children to this point, so I suppose it’s fine for me to accept the praise.

One of my friends, the mother of one of the other graduates, put it beautifully in an email she sent us all after the party. Her daughter is the youngest of six, and after surviving six high school careers – sending every one to college where they’ve all enjoyed great success – she’s probably entitled to sharing her thoughts. She thanked everyone for all the years of support, friendship and encouraged us to stay close despite our kids moving on. Her parting words:

“It’s not the high school which has the biggest impact on our teenagers. It’s the family first, and the community second.”

May 24, 2010 at 5:08 pm 2 comments

Reality Sinks In

A text message arrived the other night from my daughter, a senior in high school, with this question: ‘can we please talk about post-prom plans tonight?’ I applauded her good judgment in granting me a heads up that this was on her mind and needed to be addressed when she returned home later that evening. On the other hand I grumbled internally anticipating that our exchange about post-prom plans – specifically her curfew – could be less than pleasant. While I feel fortunate that we have survived these past few years without too many heated confrontations, the curfew issue was one of those that tended to incite high emotion.

 The curfew issue was also a source of great amusement recently – one of those moments that I can only think of as precious as I prepare for my oldest child to head off to college.

 I was sitting beside my daughter at the University of Michigan Campus Day program a few months ago listening to an admissions officer discuss the University’s summer orientation program. He made a few references to their expectations of students living in the dorms for a few nights during orientation and reminded parents that for most, this would be their first overnight experience in dorm rooms. What followed were a few jokey comments about behavior, self control and the like. I heard my daughter gasp under her breath and I turned to her.

 “Mom, I just realized — when I go to college, I won’t have a curfew!” she whispered.

 Um, duh.., I thought to myself. Instead I smiled at her and said, “how cool is that?”

I think she was surprised by my response. But whatever she was thinking it was finally starting to hit her. What a monumental step it is to leave home and be on your own. How different life will be!

For many families this is huge, and so they turn to others who have been through it for guidance and advice. In talking to many parents around the country for my book research, I’ve learned that a popular resource is the book Letting Go – A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years. I got myself a copy and have been reading about this transition period when the hype of applications, followed by responses from colleges, followed by making the big decision finally comes to an end. Authors Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger have this to say in Chapter 4 of their book:

 “Thoughts turn to high school graduation and to fun and relaxation. Many parents stand by and watch their 17- and 18-year-old offspring regress to childlike behavior…

At last the pressure if off. Students brag about the crazy things they are doing and flaunt their irresponsibility…”

So far I haven’t witnessed this in my daughter, but then again, she’s still a few weeks from graduating. If she is going to go through this stage, I just pray it doesn’t begin the night of prom.

May 14, 2010 at 9:16 pm 1 comment

It All Turns Out for the Best

May 1st has passed, and for many high school seniors a decision that dragged out to the final day is now official. Over the past few weeks I suspect I annoyed my daughter with my questions about which colleges her friends would be attending this fall. So many still seemed to be on the fence. Given my book project, and the rather exaggerated interest I have in the topic of college applications, I was very curious to know how many of her friends would be going to the schools they most dreamed of attending.

Most, it seemed, were not.

I was pretty surprised by some of the “results” and the final decisions. Based on the limited information my daughter shared and professed to really know, I think financial aid packages were a huge factor. No surprise there. One of her friends, a top student and all around impressive applicant, aspired to attend McGill University. Already fluent in several languages, she wanted a University that could offer a more international experience. Although she was accepted by McGill, she’ll be going to the University of Wisconsin where tuition is a fraction of the cost for in-state residents.    

Other friends of my daughter had hopes of going to school in New York, Pennsylvania, California. Despite letters of acceptance, they’ll be heading to a variety of schools just one state away in Minnesota. My sense is that some kids have a change in heart about going quite so far away from home once the reality of college sinks in.

Whatever the reasons for their final decision, I’m willing to bet that almost every one of these kids will be happy at the school they chose. Odds are, even if the campus they settle into is not the one they thought they’d be at this fall, they will each grow to love that place and the people they meet. 

My prediction is based on what I’ve learned after talking to many parents and students themselves. University of Delaware student Liza Melms is an encouraging example of how a tough choice often works out for the best:

“Of the final two schools I was deciding between, the college I ended up turning down had a much better reputation. Whenever I would tell people I got in there, they would reply, “Ooooh, that’s such a great school, and really good sports!!” and naturally no one really knew about the University of Delaware. However, after a lot of personal struggle, I ended up going to UD for various reasons, but mostly, because I felt very comfortable there. Looking back, I am beyond happy with my decision and I don’t think my life would have been as close to as wonderful as it is now if I had made the other choice.”

A child/adolescent psychiatrist from University of Massachusetts Medical School, himself the father of a daughter in college, learned a lot from the experience of helping his daughter choose the right school. He shares an interesting exercise that he believes illustrates how kids gain perspective about the process years after making the big decision:

“I told my daughter and her friends – make a list of your school rankings, put it in an envelope, stick it in a drawer and open it five years later. Then see if you can even begin to explain how that list ever made sense. With some perspective, you’ll see how the differences that you perceived as being so significant were really so small, and you won’t be able to explain why that list was ordered the way it was.”

While there’s no magic formula or guaranteed solution for helping high school seniors make the right decision, the evidence I’m gathering is reassuring. Through anecdotes and the sharing of personal experiences the consensus is that, for the most part, the college that kids choose to attend becomes a place they love.

With the May 1st deadline behind us it’s time for families to focus on the excitement of the process that lies ahead. Graduation ceremonies and parties. The trips to Target, Walmart and IKEA for dorm room supplies. Spending time together this final summer before the start of college. I know that is my goal, and nostalgic feelings aside, I’m embracing this special time.

May 3, 2010 at 6:26 pm 2 comments

Blah, blah, blog…

I just spent a day attending the 21st annual Writers’ Institute Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As my book proposal about the college application process continues to take shape, I knew the conference was especially timely.  When I first attended it two years ago with a different, and very unfocused book idea, I came away feeling justifiably humbled. My experience back in 2008 essentially put the kibosh on my project as my motivation dried up. I did discover though how much I had to learn about the art and the science of the book proposal; the big take-home message was that REJECTION is the most significant reality of it all.

 So two years later I’m at it again, but with a fresh idea and one that I really believe in. I chose to attend the same types of sessions and workshops – all geared towards writers of non-fiction. Again, I was affected by the insistency that in today’s era of book publishing, it’s all about the art of pitching to agents, the creation of a platform, and selling yourself to potential consumers and readers.

Two of my favorite presenters, Janet Burroway and Patricia Crisafulli, discussed the big R word – rejection – and conveyed how inherent it is in the business. More valuable though, they dwelled on the necessity of successful writers to accept it and move on. (Note to self: be on lookout for new products guaranteed to help develop thicker skin).

Rejection aside, a more persistent theme emerged as I sat through six hours of presentations: the importance of THE BLOG. Okay, so I’m doing it! While I had five posts to my credit at the time of the conference (today makes six), at least I could raise my hand for every speaker polling the audience with the question, “who has a blog?”

I suppose then I’m taking a step in the right direction. As hesitant as I was to start blogging, as much as I question its value and worth, and despite feelings of insecurity and unease each time I hit “publish” on my WordPress dashboard, I’m doing it. Because if ever there was a time to stop worrying what people will think about my writing – if anyone ever does read my blog – that time is now. I want to pursue my book project (remember, the one about the college application process – see earlier posts for more information!), and I dream of eventually getting it published.

I first encountered the concept of blogging and the blogosphere four years ago for a freelance story assignment. The editor of the University of Wisconsin Law School publication The Gargoyle asked me to write about Professor Ann Althouse, one of the country’s first big bloggers. At the time I didn’t even know what a blog was or what it meant, and I remember Googling the word before I even dared call her up to ask for an interview.

What’s kind of ironic is that the story of Althouse and her blog (now generating 500,000 visitors a month) was revisited this very week in the local newsweekly publication, Isthmus, here in Madison. I’ve decided to view this coincidence as a sign that it’s time to pursue my own blog more seriously. The experts I met at the Writers’ Institute say its essential. And Althouse herself is proof that you just never know the level of traffic and interest it can generate.

April 26, 2010 at 4:30 pm 2 comments

What Really Matters on a College Application?

Last night was the annual National Honor Society induction ceremony at my daughter’s high school. One year ago, when my daughter was a junior, I was racked with disappointment that our family was not there. She was passed up for admission into the prestigious society after applying in the winter of her junior year. That process was a good warm-up, a realistic taste, of the world of college applications she entered into not long after that.

 I remember how upset and incredulous I felt when my daughter didn’t receive a letter of acceptance into the National Honor Society. So upset in fact, I stealthily contacted her high school counselor to ask why. Had my daughter known about this she would have killed me. Yet I needed to know, perhaps recognizing that such information could be valuable in the subsequent college admissions journey.

 Her counselor was courteous enough to respond, and she explained that while my daughter certainly had the grade point average, the challenging course load, and an impressive array of extracurricular activities that included among other things, varsity sports and student congress, her lack of community service was ultimately her downfall.

This knowledge did make a difference when she filled out college applications in the fall. You see, my daughter had in fact put in a significant number of volunteer hours throughout her high school career – she just wasn’t very experienced in the art of packaging that information. Rather than devote a chunk of time to a particular volunteer organization, she had amassed many hours across a range of organizations. This was not at all clear in her Honor Society application. On her college applications – she was sure to make the point.

 While I was disappointed that my daughter wasn’t invited to join the National Honor Society, in the end I suppose it didn’t matter. She still was accepted by the majority of schools she applied to, and she’ll be attending an excellent university this fall. I wouldn’t have believed it if I had had a crystal ball in front of me one year ago when that much anticipated letter of acceptance to the National Honor Society never arrived.

To me this is a good example of why college admissions can seem like a crapshoot. You really just don’t know what matters. All a high school senior can do is give it their best shot, hope for the desired outcome, and above all, not take admissions decisions too personally. As a parent, I’m still working on that last part.

April 22, 2010 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

Geographical Influences and College Decisions

In last week’s post I suggested that the big college decision facing many high school seniors right now might be blown out of proportion. May 1st is the usual deadline for most colleges and universities awaiting replies (and deposits) from admitted students, so this can be a critical and somewhat agonizing time for students and their families. While I offered some insight from parents, students, as well as a private college counselor about how important it is not where you go to college, but what you make of your college education, it’s a challenge to keep that in mind if the decision is particularly stressful.

Perhaps most curious to me is the difference in the level of frenzy and hype when you talk with high school seniors in different parts of the country. I know from reading the many blog posts and articles both online and in print that all is crazy for those who applied to the most selective schools in the U.S. They are the focus of most stories flitting around, and such stories tend to sensationalize the tears, the despair, the disbelief over rejection. Almost every student profiled lives on the East or West coast.

Here in the Midwest at my daughter’s high school, only a handful of kids apply to the Ivies each year. In this part of our nation, many families with high school students have never even heard of the small, exclusive, private liberal arts colleges in the  Northeast that accept less than fifteen percent of its applicants. For the most part, my daughter’s classmates are satisfied with their decisions to attend in-state schools or neighboring Big Ten universities. The tone is more relaxed, the stakes don’t feel so high, and kids just seem happy about going off to school and taking the next step.

 Not long ago I had an enlightening conversation with Lloyd Thacker, editor of the book College Unranked. Thacker is also founder and executive director of the Education Conservancy, a non-profit organization committed to affirming educational values in college admission and calming the commercial frenzy often associated with admissions. We discussed how geography, or where you grow up and go to high school, can have a big impact on the college admission craze. Attitudes are different in the Midwest from those in the Northeast and the West Coast, or so it seems…

Thacker acknowledges that the marketing firms hired by wealthy colleges tend to direct their messages to East and West coast kids, and in comparison, it makes the Midwestern students seem almost “organic.” In his mind those Midwesterners represent a group of prospective students that haven’t been so polluted by the commercialization of college admissions.

 “These kids seem more organically connected to their education and their goals, and they seem to have a more wholesome process of learning because in essence they’ve been left alone to decide for themselves,” he said.

I’ve talked with parents and students around the country, and from what I’m hearing, this concept is supported. Of course it’s a generalization – but one that offers some food for thought. The book that I’m writing will delve deeper and hopefully shed some light on regional differences, for what they’re worth. The bottom line is that high school students should decide which school to attend for the right reasons, not because of marketing strategies or concerns about prestige.

April 13, 2010 at 3:02 pm Leave a comment

Decision Time

For many households around the country, the past week was monumental as college decision letters (or really, emails) arrived. If you follow The Choice blog on the New York Times website you’ll see endless articles and threads on this topic, and the headlines grabbing the most attention are about the shocking rejections. So many intelligent, gifted and high achieving high school seniors denied admission at their top choice schools. This phenomenon continues to raise the question: who is getting into these places?

The book I’m working on about the college application process will hopefully help readers feel better about rejection if they eventually experience it.  An entire chapter will be devoted to keeping some perspective in this wildly emotional process. Yes, it’s difficult to rationalize why your child may be better off attending a school closer to the bottom of their list rather than their first ranked school. Yet many parents who have been through this will tell you that when all is said and done, it will be okay. In other words, a bachelor’s degree from a public state university can be just as valuable as a degree from an Ivy League school. It is what your child makes of their undergraduate education that matters the most.

I talked with private college counselor Gisela Terner who works with families in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. This is what she had to say:

“Any student who wants to go to college today can go, but as parents, you need to know that they will be just fine wherever they do end up going. Whether their diploma is from Georgetown University or Bradley College – it is ultimately what your child makes of his/her education that matters.

I always remind parents that the greatest, most successful CEOs of our country have graduated from all kinds of schools – big, little, noteworthy or unknown. The key is that your child takes ownership of the decision about where they chose to go and then makes the most of their experience at that particular school.”

These thought-provoking sentiments come from a parent of two successful college graduates:

 “College is really about growing away from the family and becoming an individual.  Unless they aspire to be a teacher, nurse or graduate in engineering, kids will have to get another degree after college, and it is that degree that will determine their future career…

Long story short…it works out…when you look in the rear view mirror…it’ll all be ok.  If it isn’t, you work on that.  All the time and energy and money … and you never know. Quite honestly… we spend way too much time on the process and not on the transition. It is like child birth.  Way too much time on delivery… and not enough on being parents. Way to much time on planning the wedding and not on the marriage…       

This time passes and the next decisions are much bigger.  Choosing a mate.  Choosing a career.  Choosing, or being chosen by, a grad school.  I always tell parents to save a lot of energy for kids all thru their 20’s…”

Such insight and advice is not novel, but it’s worth keeping in mind at college admissions decision time if the results don’t work out the way you had hoped. And if you’re in serious need of some humor to get through the disappointment, consider the pearls of wisdom that author and newspaper columnist Hank Herman offers in his hilarious book, Accept My Kid, Please! A Dad’s Descent Into College Application Hell.

In the final paragraph of his book he offers this parting shot:

            “So if you’re in the throes of “the college process” now – or are about to go through it soon – take a deep breath. Have patience. Do whatever it is you need to do to get through the day. Try not to slaughter your children. And remember, no matter what they go through, and no matter what they put you through, and no matter where they wind up, chances are they’re going to love it. And they’ll do just fine.”

April 6, 2010 at 3:26 pm Leave a comment

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