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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Comfortable with the Uncomfortable ≠ Suffering

Dear Harlan: My daughter loves overnight camp, but it’s exclusive and there are a lot of mean girls. However, some are very nice. She can’t give it a year to adjust because overnight camp is only two months. She has a choice next year: She can go back to overnight camp and face the uncomfortable, or stay home and hang out with her school friends. She is struggling with the decision. She doesn’t seem to want to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. What should she do?

— Too Uncomfortable

Dear Too Uncomfortable:  She doesn’t need to spend eight more weeks and thousands of dollars to be tormented by mean girls. She should find girls she wants to be around. Have her identify three other camps that look interesting. Suggest she talk to people at these camps who can answer her questions (the director, counselors, CITs or campers). If she absolutely loves the camp from last year, but not the mean girls, suggest she talk to the professionals who run the camp and see if there are other cabins or options. The reality is that mean girls go to lots of camps. She needs a plan and people in her corner. Changing camps isn’t quitting; it’s using her past experiences to help her find the right people and places next summer. Facing the truth and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable takes strength. She should feel nothing but pride. Tell her I said so.

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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.

Racist Parents Destroy Daughter’s Dating Life

Diverse young couple in dispute and unhappiness with focus on man

Dear Harlan: I have racist parents and need help. I first found out about my parents’ racism during my freshman year of high school, when I dated a Muslim. Over the summer, they threatened to remove me from my high school unless I broke up with him. I said I did, but for the most part I didn’t. After my lie was found out, I continued until I moved on to a more “legitimate” relationship I started before college. In college, there was much of the same. There was always the threat of tuition and removal unless I broke up with my black boyfriend and also achieved a 3.5 grade point average. I mostly compartmentalized my feelings and maintained the relationship for the better part of two years without acknowledging it to my parents. Eventually the disapproval, lack of acknowledgement and disrespect overwhelmed my boyfriend, and he chose to break up with me. As I get older, I’m faced with a crossroads. How can I date people of my choosing and maintain a relationship with my parents? – Child of Racist Parents

 Dear Child of Racist Parents: Sounds incredibly painful. And they’ve probably been racist a very long time, long before you were born. The racism probably goes back generations. The good news is you get to stop the cycle. Here’s the immediate challenge: You can’t control your parents’ thoughts, ideas or racist views. Yes, they might change them, but that’s their job, not yours. So, accept it or fight it. Fighting it will make you hate your parents. And you can’t hate your parents. You can hate that they are racist, but you can’t hate them. Work to control only what’s in your power: You have the power to love the people you choose. You have the power to live your own life. You have the power to control how you communicate with your parents. You have the power to share whatever you choose to share with people you love. As you get older and become more independent, you’ll have more control. While you won’t need your parents’ financial support in the future, you will always want their emotional support. Because you can’t depend on their emotional support right now, you must find more support. This means finding people and places other than your parents to find connection and community. Make sure one of these people is a therapist. We all need a therapist. Find a spiritual leader who has dealt with similar issues. Turn to experts in the LBTQ community. Find experts who have helped children work through relationships where family members have withheld love or set conditions on it. When you graduate, find a community with multiracial couples and open minds. As you find more support, come up with strategies on how to talk to your parents. Ask them what they want to know about your love life. Decide how much you want to share and what you want to communicate to them. In the meantime, give your parents permission to be flawed. Date who you want to date and choose what information you want to share. But you must work to find more people who will support, lead and love you without conditions.

ATTENTION READERS:  Have racist parents? Dated someone with racist parents. Send me your advice so I can post it and pass it along to Child of Racist Parents.

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Parents Control Her Every Move As She Gets Ready to Move Away

Girl shouting with fingers in earsHi Harlan, I’m having trouble with my parents letting go as I transition into college. I have about two weeks left at home, and it’s becoming torture. They use their financial support as incentive to know everything about my soon-to-be life at school. They believe that because they are covering a huge chunk of my tuition, they have the automatic right to call my school to ask for all my grades, health records, class schedules and extracurricular information to be forwarded to them. Specifically, my mother wants an intense background check on every student I get to know over Facebook. I’ve tried explaining that some of this oversteps even legal boundaries because I am 18, but I never seem to get them to understand. Is there a practical way to approach this? Please help! – Controlled


Dear Controlled, It’s a parent power grab. They’re scared. They love you. They are losing control. If you’re an 18-year-old, you have FERPA on your side. This is the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html). Basically, your parents have no legal access to your grades. If they don’t like it, have them talk to your school’s dean of students office. They’ll probably ask you to sign a waiver, but you can always sign and change your mind later. I know. It sucks. Tolerate it. Don’t let their fears distract you. The last thing you need is more pressure, anxiety and freaking out about your parents, but this is what you have. Once their fears are calmed, you will be able to communicate with them. Once you create a productive life at your campus, their irrational fears will fade. For now, find people on campus who can support, guide and help you. The more you push back, the more they will try to control you.

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Last minute college switcheroo is dizzying for daughter

Group Of College GirlsDear Harlan: Our daughter was wait-listed by an in-state college. We were going to send her to an out-of-state college, until last week. We received word that she was accepted to the in-state college. Needless to say, her dad and I are very relieved to pay in-state tuition. It took four very unpleasant days to convince her that this was a good thing, but she has reluctantly agreed to attend. Any words of wisdom? – Relieved

Dear Relieved: Your daughter’s head must be spinning.  She was all set to go out-of-state. Now she’s going somewhere else.  It’s enough to make her want to throw up. It’s only the most unstable and dramatic transition of her life.  Here’s the wisdom – acknowledge that she should be upset. Don’t jump to, “It’s going to be great…” Instead, empathize, sympathize, and give her permission to feel whatever she’s feeling – even if her emotions make you feel awful (that’s the hardest part).  In a week or two, encourage her to find her three places and five people on her new campus. Places (activities, organization, life outside the classroom) will give her somewhere to go and things to do. People will give her support and direction. With the right people and best places, she will have an amazing college experience wherever she lands in the fall.


Girlfriend hates being hidden from boyfriend’s family

Vintage photo of parents and children (early eighties)Dear Harlan: The guy I’m in a relationship with won’t tell his parents that we’re dating. He says he’s afraid of getting reamed for having his first girlfriend (me) and thinks he’s gonna get teased by his family. I’ve told him he won’t and that it’s a little silly (while still being sympathetic to his concerns) but he still won’t budge! Should I keep trying to get him to fess up or just give up? – Can’t Tell

Dear Can’t Tell:  Either he’s too embarrassed of his family or too embarrassed of you. Ask him. That’s it. I know you want to feel secure in this relationship by meeting his family, but it might be an awful idea. His parents might be total monsters you want to avoid.  As long as he spends time with you in public and calls you his girlfriend to everyone other than his family, I don’t see a problem.  Stop pushing or risk being worse than the mom and dad he doesn’t want you to meet.

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Forcing reluctant daughter to go back to ‘perfect’ college not a perfect solution

Sad lonely student sitting on stairs in collegeDear Harlan: My daughter is finishing her freshman year at what we thought was the perfect school for her. She has had a great year academically, but has not enjoyed her experience and wants to transfer. She has made efforts socially in various groups, but has not “clicked” with anyone and is very lonely. She really feels like she doesn’t belong (she is at a state university as an out-of-state student). We told her she must return for her sophomore year, because we think much of what she is experiencing is typical freshman adjustment issues (albeit perhaps tougher than normal). She is willing to do this, mainly because she doesn’t know where she would want to transfer and cannot nail down what it specifically is that she wants from a different school. Any advice on how to help her pinpoint what a transfer would do to help her? – First-Year Father

Dear First-Year Father: A year is a valiant effort. She might need a fresh start. Transferring isn’t failing.  Approximately 1 in 4 students do it.  I transferred from one “perfect” school to another.  Why not give her the freedom to figure it out?  Let her take ownership. Even if she goes to the same school it will be her decision.  Then she will have to be the one to make it work for her — not you. Wherever she chooses, encourage to find people and places on campus.  Encourage her to get a job (perfect to meet people and find a place), participate in a group experience outside the classroom (sweat, play, and pray), and to do some volunteer work (more people and places). Also, encourage her to talk to a therapist or counselor at school.  As soon as she finds her people and places on campus, she will find the perfect campus wherever she lands.

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