Unlike most other student affairs professionals, I really like working with parents. There is something eternally pure about overprotective parents dropping their kid off at orientation or residence hall sign in and the pride and fear on their faces. And I know that feeling. This past year I was that parent. This post is going to be a bit of personal privilege. I am going to recount my experience as a parent dropping our only child off for college for the first time and my experiences as a dad who had a freshman during a pandemic. I assume my authorship will not be as refined as I want it to be, but I want to write with honesty about how I felt and how it will forever change how I approach parents in the future.
I was scared. There is no other way to describe it. There we were, Caroline and her mother and I and we were in the parking lot of Hurst Hall on the campus of Mississippi State University. It was August and we were still in the throws of the pandemic. We had spent the past hour or so taking boxes and luggage to the second floor, it was hot, and we honestly did not know what to do next. We just stood there in the parking lot, staring at each other. I guess this is goodbye. After 18 years, the child we brought into this world, the child we nurtured from birth, through ear infections, and acne, and late nights prepping for the SATs and dance classes, and sneaking out of the house, and countless moments was going to live and learn in another state. And this time it was without the benefit of an orientation. We were just there, in that moment alone. We cried, we were happy and sad at the same time. We were so proud of our little girl. We hugged, we got into our car, and we drove away. It was all we knew to do.
I am not sure what I thought these moments would be like. Afterall, I had spent the better part of my career trying to get parents to understand college was a part of the normal arch of life and they need to learn to let go sometime. But here I was, suddenly not ready to let go. And I, despite my efforts not to, became that parent I never said I would be. As Caroline settled in, I would commit to calling her in the morning to make sure I got her up on time to make it to practice (she is an athletic trainer for the Mississippi State football team). And here is where I embarrass myself. One morning Caroline did not answer her phone. She had put it on do not disturb and I freaked out. I knew she had to be to class. At the time she was a bit overwhelmed and had not been doing as well in classes as she was hoping and this one was a challenge. But she was not responding to my prompts. So, I called campus police. They went down to her room and found her safe and sound, sleeping. When she called me, Caroline and I had words, I was completely out of pocket and rude and, quite frankly, mean to her. I was scared.
Later that day, Caroline and I spoke. She was the adult in the moment. She said, “dad, you have to let me be, even if I fail. I may not do everything right but if you save me, I cannot ever grow up and I will never be an adult.” The student had become the teacher. I cannot say that I have been perfect sense. I often worry when I should not but what can I say, I am a dad. We worried for her when she contracted COVID. We worried about her when she joined her sorority. We worry all the time. But we have learned that life without Caroline is a chance for Nicole and me to reconnect. And each day, we see her growing up and becoming the woman we hoped she would be.
So a word about Mississippi State. Caroline found MSU during a tour of colleges she and I did during the summer between her junior and senior year. Their Vice President for Student Affairs is an old friend of mine, Dr. Regina Young Hyatt, and she knows MSU was not on Caroline’s short list that summer. But she took the tour and fell in love. Caroline worked hard and got the grades and the scholarships to make it affordable. All I can say is MSU has done an admirable job in navigating the pandemic and we are proud to say we are a Bulldog Family. This has helped a lot. When Caroline contracted COVID Regina, and our friends Jenny and Jeff Davis have been there to help when needed. We are blessed to have friends in low places. Mississippi State really provides a family atmosphere where they take care of their students but also let them be themselves and make mistakes.
And that is my new lens on families and parents. Here is an odd example. When I was working with Caroline to fill out her FAFSA I must admit I was completely lost. AND I TEACH THIS STUFF PROFESSIONALLY. I teach in the Higher Ed program and I cannot understand how unprepared I was for this journey. No amount of theory can prepare you for reality. Now, if a self-professed expert in this world can be thrown off, what chance do our other parents have? So, I am now a promoter for grace. It is time we understand that there are some truly unreasonable parents, but I am now willing to be that 95% of them are just scared to death and they are just looking for a friendly face to let them know it is going to be alright. I was lucky that the person who I could depend on was a friend I have known since 1995 but that does not mean every other parent does not deserve their person as well. So, let’s cut parents some slack. Their kids are leaving the nest, there is a lot of money involved, and we are scared. Do not promote the fear, do your best to dampen the fear. It will help.
I cannot tell you how proud we are of Caroline. I love that she is not perfect, and she needs our help, and she has questions. I love that she is smart and funny and kind and sometimes has a bit of an attitude. I love that she can be unreasonable but also wise at the same time. I love that when she came home, she told us stories that made us cringe and rejoice at the same time. I love that she got excited and started scream singing to the Alabama song Dixieland Delight with the modified Mississippi State lyrics. I love that she found her friends in the halls, her sisters at Phi Mu, and her purpose with athletic training. I love that she found her place in Starkville, Mississippi. Being a parent means taking the trip too.