For the four very busy people raising teenagers in Piedmont who didn’t see Frank Bruni’s Op Ed The Real Campus Scourge this Sunday, stop reading this immediately and correct your oversight. For the rest of us, there’s nothing to say beyond that quintessential teenage commentary: I know, right?
The only adage Piedmont parents of kids a certain age hear as often as “we’re all here for the schools” is “Piedmont kids have a tough time going off to college.” Back when I was still a Havens/preschool mom, a friend with a beautiful, athletic, popular daughter in her first semester at a giant out-of-state football powerhouse shared her cautionary tale. Her daughter was feeling unhappy enough to go see a counselor. Before she could even get through her tears to the second sentence of her speech – that maybe she was in the wrong place, maybe college wasn’t even for her, maybe – the counselor put up a hand to stop her. “Let me guess,” he interrupted, “you grew up in a really small town, you had a serious boyfriend, and you were in the ‘in’ crowd for all of high school, right?” After listening sympathetically for the rest of the appointment, he sent her on her way with an admonishment to get involved in activities, put herself out there, and leave her phone in a drawer for the bulk of the day.
Once my oldest started at PHS, she encountered successive years of freshman returning to Piedmont over Thanksgiving break who ‘all’ reported they were ‘completely miserable,’ a confession that seemed in odd conflict with their glowing social media posts featuring jubilant crowds of solo-cup wielding youths. Which, as Bruni points out, is a big part of the problem. Just when most new freshmen are feeling profoundly lonely and uncomfortable, they “use Facebook and Instagram to perform pantomimes of uninterrupted fun and unalloyed fabulousness.” FOMO becomes more than just a fear of missing out. Sitting in their residence halls alone, freshmen are pummeled with hourly evidence that everyone else is having spectacular time.
When my daughter’s class took their spin at the college wheel of fortune, things played out pretty much as they had been for years. My network of moms buzzed with worry about homesick kids. By second semester a significant portion of her friends had transferred or taken a break, a phenomenon I don’t remember happening very often in my late 80’s university days.
Some of us wonder what’s going on. We blame the school system or ourselves for failing to prepare our kids to launch. But we’re up against some powerful forces. As Bruni points out, “Students are arriving on college campuses with all of their high school friends on their phones . . . They too easily substitute virtual interactions for physical ones, withdrawing from their immediate circumstances and winding up lonely as a result.”
So what can we do? Experts warn that our instinct to helicopter our homesick kids does more harm than good, so hourly messages or weekly visits aren’t a helpful idea. Bruni’s article was full of hopeful examples of colleges altering their physical and organizational structures to increase students’ real-life interactions, a welcome recognition that today’s kids need to be lured away from the fully contained entertainment center their laptops and phones represent.
Here on the home front, there’s not much we can (or want to) do about the cozy size of our school system or the fact that many seniors graduate with roughly the same group of friends they had in kindergarten. On the back end, I’m pushing harder to get my two younger Piedmonters out of the zip code more often. As much as I treasure Camp Augusta, every opportunity I can give them to practice surviving and making new friends in places where no one has heard of the Bird Calling Contest or Mulberry’s is a precious one.
And truly, sometimes what’s most helpful is identifying the issue and having faith that things will get better. Since the Sunday Times isn’t on many of my young college friends’ reading lists, I sent the article to a whole host of them. And I’ve made a point to talk to my younger kids about how lost and uncomfortable I felt my own freshman year. The sooner we stop selling our kids the myth that college is always The Most Amazing Four Years Ever, the sooner they’ll realize that when it’s not, they’re really, truly, not alone.