By Shelley Murphy
As the summer sun sets, the excitement of high school graduations fade and the reality of college sendoffs commence. For many freshmen, the countdown to college dorm move-in day is no longer marked in months but in minutes.
I thought I’d bid a final farewell to the words “student housing.” But in two weeks, my youngest son starts his senior year of college and begins applying to law schools. This time next year, I’ll be one of the countless parents dropping off their college kids to live with their peers.
Until recently, I believed I’d permanently disembarked the collegiate rollercoaster. I survived sending kids to college—twice. The first time was heart-wrenching, but my naiveté helped ease the pain. The second go-around was worse because I understood the painful ramifications.
As the calendar crept closer to my older son’s move-in date, I scoured the internet for advice to brave the day. I read recommendations ranging from holding back tears to sharing weepy sentiments; keeping goodbyes quick to lingering over lunches; embracing the college experience to denying the school’s existence.
I chose denial and called college “camp.” Clearly, I am not qualified to offer practical advice. But, to fretting parents facing a child’s first college housing move-in day, I can provide a reality check.
Dormitory move-in lists are extensive, and students don’t need half of the “must-haves.” What freshmen do need are fans and water—lots of it.
Move-in day will be hot, hotter than you think. Dashing up crowded flights of stairs and darting between parents to avoid waiting for the elevator in lines stretching to the parking lot requires hydration.
Dreams of bonding with your young adult and decorating the room together will be shared with a roommate and another family. Most dorm rooms are the size of a jail cell, and plans to lovingly make a flawless, fluffy bed becomes an exercise in dexterity and futility.
I wrestled with XL twin sheets but escaped entangling myself in strands of twinkle lights. My boys didn’t FaceTime their roommates to determine the dorm décor. Their necessities were few: two televisions, video games and surge protectors. They slapped up a couple sports posters and team pennants and voila—home sweet home.
Dorm move-in day is chaotic and exhausting. Most freshmen are overwhelmed—whether they show it or not. I remember my younger son unpacking and discussing the first aid kit I assembled. Ten months later, on move-out day, my son pulled the kit from a storage container and said, “I didn’t know I had this.”
Plenty of parents plan heartwarming goodbye speeches packed with parting advice and words of wisdom. Odds are, this speech won’t be delivered as intended or sitting side-by-side on a dorm bed. Instead, the words will tumble out while standing together wedged between cars in an overcrowded parking lot filled with sweaty, weary and teary parents.
Instead of rehearsing meaningful monologues, take time to write a heartfelt note. Brevity is key: steer clear of a chronological account of the days since their first steps toward you; focus on the insights they’ll need as they take their first steps away from you. Secretly, tuck the letter under their pristine pillowcase. The words they read, alone, their first night away from home will resonate.
Colleges know parents cling and institute plans to prevent long goodbyes. Most colleges slyly separate parents from students by holding simultaneous mandatory meetings. Parents attend an information session—again—and administrators dangle the Parents’ Day carrot to ease exiting the campus.
Meanwhile the dormitory doors lock, and students inside attend fun floor meetings. As parents head home, college kids wobble to their feet and take their first independent strides.
The trip home hurts. No advice adequately prepares parents for freshman college farewells. In one day, 18 years become a memory.
The reality is move-in day won’t be perfect or go according to plan, but it is survivable—and so is camp.
Shelley Murphy has lived in San Clemente with her husband for the past 18 years, where she raised her two sons. She’s a freelance writer and has been a contributor to the San Clemente Times since 2006.