Dream School Meets the Real World

Dear Harlan: I’m a senior in high school, graduating this fall. I finally decided that I want to go into animation rather than architecture. However, as the end of senior year draws near, I keep having doubts about whether I should attend community college or the university that I have chosen. I earned a scholarship that will allow me to go to this community college for free! All I would have to do is buy some books and go five minutes away to complete the required credits before transferring to my dream school two years later. It sounds obvious that I should take this opportunity, but the reason I am having doubts is because I am having family issues that cause me to feel stressed out and unproductive. I’m afraid I won’t be able to stand living at home for as long as I have to. It’s a great community college, but animation is most likely not a big part of their programs. I can still learn the essentials, but it probably won’t compare to going to an actual art school. Basically, I’m stuck. If I go to community college, I can get a job while finishing my credits and save my family (and myself) a ton of money. I also can go to an actual art school afterward by saving the money from what we should have been paying if it weren’t for the scholarship. On the other hand, if I go to the university, I can have a good college experience and have some space. This way I can make new friends and gain some independence, but it would take a lot of money. So, what advice do you have for me?

— Stuck

Dear Stuck:  Graduate with $120,000 in debt, and you’ll really be stuck at home. Here are my suggestions: (1) Celebrate that you have a scholarship and a plan to attend your dream school in two years or sooner. (2) Call the university that accepted you and speak to a financial-aid counselor. Let this adviser know you have a scholarship at your local community college, and share any award letters you’ve received. See if they have more money for you (it can happen). (3) Talk to career services at the community college and at your dream school. Explain your interest in animation and identify part-time jobs. Work as an undergrad doing work you love. You can work on campus and in the community. Start working NOW. (3) Plan on going to the community college, and have an alternative living plan if your home life gets bad again. You can stay with a friend, other family members or rent a room. (5) While in community college, identify other colleges where you can pursue animation. Once you identify more schools, use financial-aid services to explore scholarships, grants and work-study programs. To sum it up: Plan to work in animation NOW. Plan on going to community college (if you can’t get more money). Plan to move out if things get rough. Plan to identify at least three other dream schools. Plan to talk to people at the schools you want to attend and find out how they paid for it. Find your people. Find your places. Create a plan. This is how you get wherever you want to go.

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How to Investigate Your College Choices

Dear Harlan: I currently live in Texas and I’m having difficulty choosing a university for my bachelor’s degree in criminology. Would you please tell me what factors should I be looking for when choosing between three universities? Here are my options: University of California-Irvine, University of Florida and Florida State University. How can I find answers?

— Searching

Dear Searching:  You need to find the schools where you can be your best socially, emotionally, physically, financially and academically. Pick the two areas that matter most to you. Find at least three students on each of the campuses you’re looking to attend. Ask them the following five questions:

(1) Why did you choose this school, and what other schools did you consider? This will tell you about the person’s decision-making process and help you explore more options.

(2) Where are three places at your current university that make campus feel like home? This will help you identify places that can make campus feel like home for you, too. It also can help identify more people to contact.

(3) Who are your five closest friends on campus, and how did you meet them? This will help you get a sense of how activities and organizations can help you find your people on campus.

(4) What has been the hardest part of your college experience, and how did you get through it? This will help you define realistic expectations and help identify resources on campus (should you need them).

(5) What advice do you have for someone who is going through this process? This will help you gain some instant wisdom and give you someone in your corner.

BONUS: Ask specific social, emotional, physical, financial or academic questions.

If you’re uncomfortable asking questions, imagine that someone is asking you these same questions in the future. The people you’re asking LOVE helping. It’s why they volunteer and work on campus.

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First Year A Rough Start; Stick It Out or Move On?

sad depressed lonely adolescent teen boy

Dear Harlan: My son is a freshman in college. He has had a rough semester. His roommate was a nightmare. The roommate drank at all hours and brought home overnight guests. He had no regard for my son or his early-A.M. classes. My son’s grades have suffered; he used to be in the top of his class. He has made some friends, but not close friends. He wants to transfer to an out-of-state school that is far less competitive but closer to his friends and girlfriend. We want him to stick it out at his current school for at least a year. How hard should we push for him to stick it out? He is so unsure of himself. We want him to be strong, but we don’t want him to give up. He worked so hard to get into his current school. What should we do to support him?

— Another Mom

Dear Another Mom:  Listen. Parents forget to listen. Some students need a break. It can be mentally, physically and emotionally grueling to go from being a straight-A high school student to being average at a highly competitive college. It’s even harder without a support system in place. Sure, I like experiencing a full year to work through the uncomfortable, but sometimes that’s too much. Have him talk to a counselor at school, and a therapist. Encourage him to speak to upperclassmen, too. Suggest that he put together a plan of what will be different at the next school. The transfer plan should include places where he’ll find connections, people he will connect with, and a timeline. His girlfriend can be one of his people, but he needs to have at least four other people. Once he has a transition plan in place, he can start to practice some of the steps at his current school. Maybe he can finish out the year. There’s nothing to gain from being miserable and alone at an ultra-competitive school versus thriving at a school where he has passion and a plan. Let him know that whatever he decides, you will always support him.

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Parent Doesn’t Want Child’s Grades Tied to Self-worth

Dear Harlan: How can you help students realize that their success isn’t completely wrapped up in their GPA? College counselors say that high-school students can’t get into a top state school without a 4.3 GPA? There is so much pressure to be accepted that students are having emotional breakdowns. There is widespread peer pressure. I try to avoid letting it affect my parenting, but it’s hard to avoid when it’s woven into the culture. What can we do to change this?

— Parent of a Senior

Dear Parent:  It starts with you – the parent. Make it about your kid, not about the college. I was a 3.0 student in high school (barely), struggled on my SATs, went to a state college and didn’t choose a major until my junior year. I figured it out. My parents didn’t care about the college. They didn’t tell me what I should want. They didn’t let other people dictate what I should want. They let me choose what I wanted. “What do YOU want?” is the only question they asked. They trusted that I would be successful. There’s an epidemic of students who don’t know the answer. It’s easier, safer and more comfortable for students and parents to focus on being wanted. They take classes to be wanted. They choose clubs and organizations to feel wanted. As a result, more college students than ever are feeling overwhelmed, stressed and depressed. Make college less about a school and more about your child. Make it a mantra. The best school is NOT always the best place for your child. Check out Frank Bruni’s book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.” The book shares data and anecdotes from students who have gone to a wide range of schools and won big. Getting accepted to a top-tier school doesn’t guarantee happiness, fulfillment or a top-tier life.

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College freshman coming home for Thanksgiving break? Here’s what parents can expect…

Open Arms

Thanksgiving break is a very exciting time for parents. Having your child home again is just about the most wonderful thing that could happen (that and actually cooking a moist turkey). There are so many things to do and so much catching up. There are meals to share, rooms to clean, light bulbs to change, computer issues to resolve, things to buy, stuff to rearrange, relatives to see, family outings to go on—there are so many things to do as a family and so little time to do it.

College students get excited about Thanksgiving too. For them, it’s a time to sleep, eat, hang out with friends, and see a boyfriend or girlfriend. Oh, and if there’s time to visit and shop with parents, that’s a bonus too.

Notice the difference? What I’m trying to say is that first-year college students home for break might have different expectations than their parents. This is especially true of students whose break is their first visit home.

Things to Expect during a Visit Home

– Expect them to want to sleep a lot (college is exhausting)

– Expect them to want to reconnect with friends

– Expect them to want to spend time with significant others

– Expect them to want a new curfew

– Expect them to want to eat a lot of home cooking

– Expect them to want to hang out at night with people other than you

– Expect them to want to have some space to do nothing

– Expect them to be surprised with what has changed

– Expect them to want you to do laundry (expect the only thing you’ll get in return is lint)

– Expect them to want you to keep their things just as they left them

Being back home is like being transported to another world. The last time your child was home he or she was a kid. So much has changed. The boy is a man and the girl is a woman. The life your daughter left behind is now part of her past. Coming back home can be like being a deer in the headlights. So try not to run her over by having too many expectations. She might actually need a break.

Mom doesn’t want to share son over Thanksgiving Break

Christmas table setting with turkey. Christmas dinner. Holiday decorated table, Christmas tree, champagne and roasted turkey, Christmas served table

Dear Harlan: My son is coming home for Thanksgiving break from his first semester in college. He just informed us that he plans on spending most nights with his girlfriend. She’s a lovely girl, but we see her on a regular basis (she visits him frequently). We understand that he wants to be with her, but we have family obligations. We also miss him and would like dedicated time together. How should we approach this without pushing him away?

— Breaking

Dear Breaking:  Don’t make him choose. You’ll have hurt feelings and a miserable kid who can’t wait to leave. Don’t take this personally. He misses his girlfriend, friends and family. He needs to reconnect with the familiar people. Figure out how much time you need. Explain your dilemma to him. Let him know that you want him to spend time with friends and his girlfriend, but also want to make sure there is family time. Ask him what works for him. If he can’t give you enough, suggest changing times and shifting when you spend time with him. Be flexible. Invite his girlfriend. Make lunchtime family time. The fact that you’re asking him what works instead of telling him what you want should change the conversation.

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15 Things Parents of First-Year College Students Should Never Do


1. Get Carried Away in Hysterics: No one wants to be the freshman of the mom who literally couldn’t let go, fell, hit her head, and got carried away in an ambulance. On the other hand, hiding your feelings makes you come off as cold and uncaring. Find a middle ground (a few tears, no sobbing on the ground) and get out…fast. Run!

2. Wake-Up Calls: It’s not about you getting them up; it’s about you knowing where they are in the morning. I know it alarms you to be so far away, but this is not how your child becomes a self-sufficient responsible adult. Besides, sleeping through a quiz is all part of learning.

3. Call a Teacher: Parent-teacher conferences are ovahhh (unfair, right?). In fact, FERPA makes it illegal for schools to share your 18-year-old’s grades or divulge that your child is on academic probation. If your child has a problem, your child must fix the problem. This is why there are academic advisors, office hours, department chairs, and deans of students. Unless your child is unable to speak due to an illness or prolonged absence, let him or her do the talking.

4. Cut Them Off: Threats only work for so long. Then your child will become an adult, keep secrets, avoid you, and spend time with the nicer in-laws. If your child is underachieving, misbehaving, or struggling, there is always another issue behind it. Get mental health or academic support to help fix the problem instead of reacting to the symptom.

5. Fix Fix Fix: It’s your passion. It’s your purpose. You’re a pro. But it’s no longer your problem. Their struggles belong to them. Their victories belong to you (yes, a mom told me that at an event—brilliant). Let them fix it. Repeat after me, “What do you think you should do?” Give problems time to marinate. At least 24 hours. It’s how they become seasoned.

6. Public Humiliation: Being your child’s Facebook friend, Instagram follower, and Twitter subscriber is a privilege. Not a parental right. Come across something offensive, alarming, or dangerous? Have a private conversation. Never publicly shame, censor, or parent. WARNING: YOU WILL BE CUT OFF.

7. Text Abuse: “Where’s the remote?” “Eating at ur fav restaurant.” “Waiter just asked where r u.” “Missing u.” “Hot 2day.” “Sunscreen?” “LOL.” “Boo.” “Hi!” “☺.” You are a new generation of parent. You have to be the one to set boundaries and limit communication. Cut your talking, texting, and communicating in half. When your child is texting, talking, or video chatting with you, he or she is not building new relationships with new people on campus.

8. Always Blame the Roommate: NEWS FLASH: Your kid might be the roommate from hell. When your child screams, “I HATE MY ROOMMATE!,” ask your angel three questions: Do you want to get along? Can you just be roommates (friendship is a bonus)? Have you shared what is making you uncomfortable or asked your roommate to share what’s making him or her uncomfortable? If your child answers NO to any of these questions, I’ve got news for you.

9. Surprise Visits: No one likes surprises. Give them a day or two, or at least a few hours, before springing an impromptu visit. They need to clean up, ask the overnight guest leave, and fumigate (kidding about the guest, maybe…).

10. Expect Perfection: Your kid has had to be perfect for 18 years. Set them free. Give your child permission to be imperfect. It’s a gift. When they struggle, instead of panicking, suggest they find their people and places.

11. Cure Homesickness at Home: FACT: 66.6 percent of first-year students admitted feeling homesick or lonely (according to HERI stats, UCLA). The cure for homesickness is not at home. It’s finding your people and places on campus. It’s being patient and appreciating that change takes time. Remind them. I’ll remind them too.

12. Redecorate Too Soon: It’s awful to sleep in a sewing room that used to be your bedroom while home over Thanksgiving. That’s what one first-year student told me. His mom took over his room the day he left. Give it a good year before throwing out the mattress and moving in the sewing table.

13. Wait for Them to NEED Help: Students who have struggled socially, emotionally, physically, financially, and academically in high school may struggle in college. Change can be a trigger. Make sure they have help in place before they need it. Over 32 percent of college students admitted feeling so depressed “it was difficult to function” (according to ACHA-NCHA data). Identify specific people who can help and support them. Give them all the info they need to get help before they need it.

14. Be Impatient: Google the word patient and you get 514 million results in .05 seconds. No exaggeration. Change takes time. The first year in college is the equivalent of being trapped inside a snow globe filled with fecal matter (it can be a you-know-what storm). You must be the patient and clear-minded one because your college student doesn’t know patience yet.

15. Fight the Uncomfortable: Change is uncomfortable. Fighting the uncomfortable only creates more uncomfortable. Your job is to get comfortable with the uncomfortable first—then when the unexpected pops up, you can help your child get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

College kegger won’t happen at this mom’s house

Not Smoking, eating or drinking wood sign

Dear Harlan: My son, who is a freshman in college, wants to have his friends stay with us for summer break because we live near the beach. I want to tell him “no” because I am worried sick about the drinking that I know they all love to do. I have met only one of the kids that he wants to bring into our home; there are three others that he wants to bring. I feel so torn. I just don’t want to deal with the underage drinking, driving, worrying and heaven knows what else. He argues with every point I try to make. My husband is a business owner in town, and I fear that if something were to happen, we could lose everything. I hate being that mom who won’t let him bring friends around because I’m so happy he has made some. I just don’t know how to handle this! Any helpful advice would be appreciated. Arguing with an 18-year-old who thinks he’s invincible is exhausting!

— Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom:  There’s no arguing. Your place, your rules. Then there are local and state rules. These are rules enforced by the police. If the police discover that alcohol is being consumed on your property or that you’re supplying alcohol to underage teenagers, knowingly or not, you’re all in big-time trouble. And if someone gets hurt, injured or killed, you’re in even bigger trouble. If you lose everything as a result of the trouble, there won’t be a house, either near the beach or away from the beach. Then he and his friends will have nowhere to stay. It’s a simple conversation with your son. Anyone is welcome to come to your house, but there is no underage drinking allowed. It’s non-negotiable. If he doesn’t respect the rules, or his friends can’t respect them, he can find another place to stay. No need to argue. House rules rule.

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The Only Expectations Are The Ones You Create

Dear Harlan:  In high school, I never really talked to boys or dated them, and I know in college guys have a lot of expectations for girls. How can I keep away from those expectations without being a prude about it? — Uneasy Expectations

Dear Uneasy:  The only expectations are the ones you create. Guys will either meet you where you’re comfortable, or not.  But give them a chance. You’ll be surprised to learn that a lot of men respect women who set clear boundaries and share what they want.  You just need to tell them.  The biggest problem is that everyone is so busy assuming that very few people are actually communicating.   It’s just easier to assume. Making sweeping generalizations is an easy excuse to avoid dating. If you assume all men want something that you can’t give them, you can avoid all men. It’s easier to blame and assume than to share the truth.  Practice.  Then get back to me.

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Mom Fears Chronically Late Kid Might Be Late For College

Man sleeping under blanket on bed in the morning ** Note: Shallow depth of field

Dear Harlan: My son is always late for high school. I’m worried he will sleep through class in college. What can I do to help? Do you have any suggestions? — Helpful Mom

Dear Helpful Mom:  Let him be late. That’s what happens in college. Next year, don’t call him. You’re not a wake-up-call service. Please, promise me you won’t be that mom. Some parents actually do this. This is a true story. I’ve had college students tell me about the parent who calls the roommate EVERY single morning to wake up her child. They will call every single day. They disguise their actions as doing their child a favor by getting him or her up, but it’s never about the kid. It’s a way for the parents to check in and know their kid is in his or her bed. It’s comforting to know. But that’s not a parent’s job. Buy him an alarm clock. He can set it just in case his cellphone battery dies. Then your kid can get up or not get up. If he misses class, he can talk to his professor and explain that he overslept. The same thing will happen after he graduates (assuming he makes it to class). This will be good practice for when he has to get up for a job. Hopefully he’ll figure out how to get up without you. Let him learn. You’re off the clock.

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