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5 Dec

In two weeks, our daughter will arrive home for Christmas with one college semester under her belt. What started with great anticipation and trepidation in late August has settled into a routine of classes, schoolwork, and social activities. She is making new friends, learning how to live on her own, and adjusting to her new environment.

As a parent I watch all this from afar, which has required adjustments on my part too. That’s why I chuckled with a sense of recognition when I read Susan Engel’s personal essay in the New York Times recently. Ms. Engel writes about how she assumed that when her three boys went away to college, her work would be done. Instead she found herself feeling helpless and frustrated when they encountered problems that are beyond her ability to fix, like finding love, choosing careers, financial difficulties, illnesses.

In a small way I experienced what Ms. Engel described when my daughter attempted to come home for fall break last month after super storm Sandy. Our area was without power and regular train service was suspended due to storm damage. Even though her college is only 30 miles away, we could not pick her up because New York City Mayor Bloomberg was only allowing high-occupancy vehicles to enter the city. So she had to take a bus, something she had never done before. The Port Authority bus terminal is a confusing and chaotic place where an unending stream of travelers and buses converge upon each other and then depart for different destinations. I worried about how she was going to find her way around and because I was not familiar with Port Authority, I couldn’t even advise her where to go. As a child of the sheltered suburbs, she rarely encountered anything more frenzied than the controlled chaos of school lunch periods, recess, and end-of-the-day dismissal.

After enduring long lines at the ticket counter and gate, she texted that she had waited on the wrong bus line. I felt momentary panic squeezing my insides as I envisioned her going to a wrong town. Impotently, I waited for an update.

In the end she arrived safely, having found and boarded the right bus, all without my assistance. It occurs to me that as her college career continues, this is how it will unfold – she will have to figure out her destination and how to reach it. As her parents, our instinct is to help her as much as we did when she was younger. But sometimes we won’t be able to do anything and as Ms. Engel observes, our children’s adult years require different parenting skills.

Something to get used to.

Saying Hello

21 Aug

In a few days, my husband and I will remove the third row seating from our aging 1998 Toyota Sienna minivan – the one with a dented back bumper that never got fixed – and fill it with our daughter’s worldly possessions. All summer long, my daughter and I have been consulting shopping lists for college, and buying online and in the stores. I feel that I have been doing my patriotic duty by patronizing retailers and propping up the anemic US economy. No wonder back-to-school season is second to Christmas season in sales; sometimes it does feel like Christmas around here as packages arrive almost daily from UPS and the postal service.

After packing up the minivan and hoping that everything will fit, we will then drive her to her new life as a freshman at Barnard College in New York City. It will be an arduous trip, fighting through 30 miles of congested highways and crumbling city streets, to arrive at the hallowed halls of higher learning in upper Manhattan, a journey of an hour that was four years in the making. Upon arriving, we will help her move in, get settled, meet her roommates and their parents, and attend some college-sponsored events. When the clock strikes 4, it will be time for us to say goodbye.

It will also be time to say hello – hello to letting go as a parent, hello to trusting that 18 years of parenting, of instilling values and shaping her character will now stand her in good stead. Hello to believing that she will find her way around her new environment just fine, that when problems and issues arise (which they inevitably will), she will figure out how to resolve them, to know where and when to reach out for assistance, and to learn to manage her expectations. It will be saying hello to letting her make decisions so that she gains confidence from good ones and learns from not-so-good ones.

I don’t know how I will react then. I want to be dignified and clear-eyed and not dissolve into a wet mush of salty tears and snot. When my parents dropped me off 33 years ago, my mother sobbed all the way home from Philadelphia to New York, so distressing my father that he made many wrong turns and got hopelessly lost.

I am excited for her, for the new experiences and opportunities that lie ahead. I am hoping that if I concentrate and focus hard enough on what is good for her, then any sadness at her leaving will not threaten to overwhelm me.

That’s my plan for now.

 

Please Choose Us

24 Apr

April is the time of year in the admissions calendar when colleges woo admitted students in the hopes of persuading them to accept the college. All month long, colleges around the country are holding open houses, inviting admitted students and their families to visit, to meet with current students, to stay overnight, and to sit in on classes. Some colleges arrange alumni regional receptions for students who cannot make it to the campus. All of these efforts are designed to give undecided students a chance to compare, contrast, and ask all the questions that are on their minds. It is now the colleges who are competing for a student’s affection.

Colleges and universities care about their enrollment yield but it is hardly an exact science and some years they get it wrong. One year the University of Pennsylvania had higher enrollment acceptances than expected and because it guarantees housing for all freshmen, the University scrambled to find housing and ended up renting rooms in a nearby hotel to accommodate everyone.

It may not surprise anyone that Harvard and Stanford boast the highest enrollment yields (over 70%). Other higher education institutions with similarly impressive enrollment yields include Brigham Young University, Yeshiva University, the three military service academies of West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy, Savannah State University, Berea College, and the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.

For seniors who are weighing their choices, they have one week left before they need to decide where they want to go and send in their tuition deposits by May 1. So this can be a stressful time for parents and students alike as discussions are held around the dinner table or in the car about the merits and drawbacks of each school, its cost, and other considerations. For those who would like to share their experiences as a parent or student, please feel free to post below.

D-Day 1

1 Apr

April 1st is D-Day 1 in college admissions, the date by which all colleges will have notified their applicants as to whether they have been admitted, wait-listed, or rejected (I’ll get to D-Day 2 later). Last Thursday the 29th the Ivy League universities released their regular decision results. That evening, my daughter trolled Facebook to see who got admitted where. To her surprise, there were few postings on her news feed.

The next day she found out why. Someone in her class called it a Bloodless Massacre. Many of the students in the top 5% of the class were shut out of their top choices. The presumed valedictorian was rejected from Harvard (but no need to feel sorry for her because she got into Yale, MIT, and Princeton). According to my daughter, only one person was admitted into Columbia, one was admitted into Harvard, two got into Brown and two into Dartmouth. Between regular and early decisions, Penn and Cornell have each admitted at least half a dozen students. We will know more in June when the guidance office releases a list of where everyone will be attending college.

The initial impression is that it is more difficult than ever to get into the Ivies, even for those who rank in the top 5% of the class. According to Harvard’s website, there were 3,800 applicants who ranked number one in their class and there are only a little over 1,650 freshmen places. This is a reminder that at the most selective institutions, the colleges can fill their incoming classes at least twice over with qualified candidates.

Other than the low numbers of students from our high school getting into the Ivies, there were other shockers too, of students who got in somewhere that their classmates did not expect them to. In this sense, this year is no different than other years. In the end, we do not know the complete picture of what is in a student’s application and what goes on in the admissions committee. That’s why it makes for a confounding experience each year for everyone on this side of the admissions process.

To be sure, the disappointments will be deeply felt, but the reality is that here in America, we have more choices in quality higher education than in a lot of other countries. In my experience of talking to college students at different universities, most seem happy with where they eventually ended up. And that is no small consolation and hope that we can offer as parents.

Next D-Day is May 1st, when the colleges hear back from their accepted students as to whether they will enroll.

The PTO Years

19 Mar

I stared at the email announcing the next Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) meeting. A slight twinge of – indigestion perhaps – gripped me as I moved my mouse pointer back and forth over the “Delete” button. After a brief pause and thinking, “I really should go to this meeting,” I clicked the mouse and sent the email hurtling into cyber-oblivion.

Once upon a time I attended every PTO meeting I could. I signed up to volunteer whenever possible, whether it was snack duty, reading to the class, or helping out a teacher with an in-class project. The reward was in seeing my daughter’s look of delight when I showed up in her classroom. “That’s my mommy,” I heard her say to her classmates, with a note of excitement, pride and happiness in her voice. A feeling of tender warmth would course through my body.

The elementary school years were rich with opportunities to volunteer. At Back-to-School nights, not wanting to appear overly aggressive, parents nevertheless jostle each other in their rush to sign up to help in the classroom. If you arrive to the evening late, the best slots were taken. Attendance at PTO meetings was robust as we listened with rapt attention to the principal’s reports, raised our hands to ask probing questions about academics and socialization, and prided ourselves on our involvement with our children’s education.

During middle school, parents were discouraged from volunteering in the classrooms in the belief that it was no longer “developmentally appropriate” for us to be there. Instead, parents were asked to help with fundraising events that took place elsewhere on school grounds. At the PTO meetings, there would be about a dozen attendees. I was given a reprieve from PTO meetings when we moved to Ireland where the schools do not have PTO meetings.

Returning from Ireland, I went back to attending PTO meetings for the first three years of high school. Attendance was robust at the beginning of the year, especially when the head guidance counselor was asked to speak at the first meetings. The room would fill up with parents eager to find out about what to expect in the high school years. Already in freshman year I could sense rising parental anxieties about college in the form of questions about class placement, AP courses, and standardized testing.

When senior year began, I found myself feeling lackadaisical about attending the meetings, even the first one where the head guidance counselor spoke, so I decided to skip them. It was as if I had been struck by senioritis, the condition of disengagement and lack of motivation usually experienced by high school seniors during their second semester. I didn’t know it could affect parents too.

So as the email disappeared from my inbox, I realized that the twinge I felt was for the end of an epoch, for 13 years of PTO meetings that passed by in a blink of God’s eye. With that, only one thought emerged: time to move on.

Watching Basketball Together

21 Feb

“Hey it’s the Knicks game!” I yelled out in surprise as I peered at the men on-screen darting around the court. Not being a regular basketball fan, I didn’t know we could get broadcasts of Knicks games on FIOS.

There was an excitement in the air as my husband and daughter converged in the family room to stare at the screen. Sure enough, in crisp high definition clarity, we could see the lanky figure of Number 17 sprinting up and down, dribbling the ball from one hand to the other as if it were a mere extension of his body. Without taking our eyes off the fast-moving game, we backed up around the coffee table to plant ourselves on the sofa.

It was Friday night and the start of the weeklong February winter school break. For a change, my daughter did not need to go do her homework right away. So this was one of the few occasions when we could gather as a family after dinner to watch TV. We don’t usually watch sports except for the major tennis tournaments. But since the Jeremy Lin story exploded in the media, the Linsanity tsunami has swept us up along. There are so many compelling elements to this story: of struggle and perseverance, of luck or as we Christians believe – providence, of a young man’s growing faith in God, of ethnic and spiritual pride. In Jeremy Lin’s example, I have found many opportunities to talk to my daughter about life lessons.

I feel an urgency to talk to her about life lessons because I’ve become aware that times like these, watching TV or eating dinner as a family, will become scarcer in six months. In six months, she will be entering college and taking her first steps towards independent living; she will face a panoply of choices that the college experience promises to offer. As a parent my hope and fervent prayer is that we will have equipped her well to make wise decisions.

And judging from the continuing media spotlight on Lin and the Knicks’ up-and-down roller coaster performance, I won’t soon run out of life lessons to discuss.

“What Are You Going to Study?”

4 Feb

Hands down that’s the most commonly asked question of my daughter after learning where she is attending college this fall.  It’s a logical follow-up question and it also signals a shift of attention to the next stage in her young life.  That question is just as important as where one goes to college; some would argue it is more important.

Right now when asked, she just shrugs; she doesn’t know.  Recently, the value of a liberal arts education has come under scrutiny (see articles like this), especially in a struggling economy.  But for someone who doesn’t know what she wants to study, a liberal arts education makes sense.  It will give her a well-rounded foundation of knowledge from which she can discover and pursue her interests while developing critical thinking, analytical, and communication skills (if that sounds like it came from a college brochure, I think I have internalized all that marketing spiel; I didn’t plagiarize, honest.)  Seriously though, the choice of major is frequently intertwined with later career choices and these days, what parents of college students, even the most relaxed ones, do not fret just an iota, about whether their children will be able to find meaningful employment?

When it comes to our children, there’s always something over which to wring our hands.  One mother recently related how her college-aged son talked about perhaps becoming a musician: “We’re going to need a talk with him about that.”  From the roll of her eyes and the skeptical tone in her voice, I can tell that there will be many “talks” in that family.  I suspect there may be such “talks” with my daughter in future about career choices and I suppose I could worry about that now.  But I will fight that urge.  I believe a liberal arts education will help her uncover her strengths and passions almost as much as I believe in a God that has created her for purposes the discovery of which will be her life journey.  So I will trust and not worry.

What’s Next

9 Jan

Last Saturday night we ate dinner at a local restaurant, the kind where the tables are crowded against each another and guests cannot move their chairs without bumping into someone else’s chair.  In such tight quarters, it is hard not to overhear conversations so I heard one woman say, “Oh yes, she got into Villanova University.  Early action.”

My ears perked up right away, like a hound dog that has detected the scent of its quarry.  Her friend gushed her congratulations.

“Thank you.  Unfortunately she didn’t get into Columbia,” the first woman continued, to which her friend mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

I acted nonchalant, slicing my panko-crusted tilapia in a deliberate fashion as if I were loath to rush through the meal.  Hoping that I was being discreet, I turned my head a few degrees to look at their table.  They were a foursome, two middle-aged couples out on a double date.  One woman was a thin blonde with medium length hair that appeared freshly coiffed and styled.  Her friend was a brunette; both were dressed for a casual evening of dining in the suburbs.  They looked at me and I turned my head away.

Even though the college admissions rat race is over for us, I’m still fascinated by this topic because of all that it embodies about what is prized in our culture – competition, achievement, upward mobility, social status, opportunity, economic security, dreams for our children to do better (or, in this faltering economy, for them not to do worse.)  So I will continue to mine this subject for any nuggets of insight, wisdom, or humor.  Since the next several months will see my daughter finish high school and prepare to enter college, I will also write about being the mother bird that is getting ready to ease the baby bird out of the home nest.  So dear faithful readers, I hope you will stick around for the journey.

Asian: To Check or Not To Check

7 Dec

When I read Jesse Washington’s revealing article “New Asian Strategy: Don’t Check ‘Asian,'” I found myself nodding with a sense of recognition.  He writes that many Asian American college applicants, especially those from mixed heritages, are declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications for fear of being discriminated against.  In the story he interviews some applicants who chose not to check off the Asian box because of a pervasive belief among Asian Americans that they are not being evaluated individually but against each other.  Studies have shown that Asian Americans need higher test scores than applicants of other ethnicities to gain admission to the top colleges.

For those reasons, I advised my daughter not to check off her race on the Common Application, especially since it was optional.  Her last name is not obviously Asian-sounding either; she wrote about getting in touch with her Chinese heritage in her personal essay so it’s moot.  And when she goes on interviews, her ethnicity becomes immediately obvious.  But my motivation is the same as that of some of the candidates interviewed for the article.

My husband, who is also of Chinese descent, said that he did not check off “Asian” either when he was applying to colleges because he did not want to be evaluated against other Asian Americans.  He declined to check any boxes.

I suspect that when colleges select their class, it is a nuanced exercise.  I once heard a talk given by the dean of college admissions of an elite midwestern university, who spoke to parents at our high school about how top colleges put together a class.  Because there are many more eligible candidates than there are spaces, a college has to do the hard job of paring down the final list of acceptances.  He gave an example: if there were too many football captains in the pool, they would cut a percentage of football captains and put them on the wait list.  The same holds true if there were too many pianists, violinists, tennis players, or those from one region of the country and so on.  He didn’t say it but it’s not hard to imagine a college needing to cut back on the number of qualified Asian applicants to maintain the college’s vision of racial balance and diversity on campus.  As one interviewee in the article puts it: “…a lot of Asians, they have perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, … so it’s hard to let them all in.”

I’m interested in hearing from readers: what would you advise your child to do?

The Talk

2 Dec

In less than two weeks, D-Day looms for seniors who have applied early decision.  On or about December 15, colleges will send out their acceptance letters to these early applicants who have been waiting anxiously to hear about their fate since November.  Will the email or letter read, “Congratulations and welcome to the Class of 2016,” or will it read, “We regret to inform you…” My hands have turned cold with dread and nervousness just thinking about it.

By this time, some seniors have already heard from colleges, especially if they applied to schools with rolling admissions.  A few weeks ago, my daughter told me that on her way to class, she saw a girl jumping up and down and shrieking in the hallway, “I’m going to college!”   Some talented athletes have also closed the deal on their recruitment: a top cross-country runner is going to Duke University, and a gifted tennis player is heading to Williams College.  As word spreads about who has gotten in and to where, my daughter admitted that she couldn’t help but feel pinpricks of envy, all of which only seems to add to the heightened frenzy and stress of the season.

So she waits with impatience and trepidation for December 15 to arrive, wanting it to come quickly and not wanting it to come quickly.  I talked to her about what may happen that day.

“If it doesn’t work out, you know, if you don’t get in…”

I broke off, searching for the right balance of optimism and realism.  Her eyes locked on mine as she waited for me to continue.  I tried again.

“We all think the college that you applied to is a good fit and we’re hopeful that you can get in.  But you never know these days.  You don’t know who else is applying and what they’re like.  If they receive too many applications from Chinese-American girls who have lived in Ireland, play the flute and want to study Chinese…” I paused.  This was not going the way I envisioned.  I didn’t want to make her sound like everyone else.

The word “rejection” sticks in my throat and I have a hard time spitting it out.  “If it doesn’t work out,” I said, my words rushing out, “then it was not the right college for you for reasons that we’re not going to know now.  We have to trust and have faith that in God’s providence, you will end up at the right college.”

She nodded.  “Yeah, I know.  I’ve thought about that too, about what it will feel like if I don’t get in.  I’ll probably be really disappointed and sad.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “we’ll all feel disappointed.  But you’ll have to find a way to push through it and send out your other applications.”

She nodded again and huffed out a breath filled with longing, “I really hope I get in.”

Me too.

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