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What is to be learned when going to college?

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Likely, parents have never invested so much in their children's education and then taken reflected success as their own.

Kevin and Marilyn
Ryan

College, like history, is a most humbling and humanizing of events. Those who attend to both will never be the same. At best, we can leave ourselves behind and study someone or someplace else. As grand as this objective is, it can never be achieved without wearing a new cloak. How brilliant the idea of having students in the past adopt a gown or uniform for lectures, exams and other special occasions. Oxford may be one of the few universities left to require a uniform. It's called "subfusc," and consists of a black suit for men or a black skirt and cardigan for women, and a huge billowing black robe with funny ties.

The uniform has its merits, but more significantly, the adoption of a scholarly mindset is desirable. Freeing herself of implicit biases, the student sets out to be changed. During the transition to college, the student needs and, hopefully, seeks advice. There is plenty out there before entering the dorm. Then heaps more from the other students. We expect our home and religious teachings to carryover with our youth into college. These thoughts are a bit different from current psychiatrists' and counselors' considerations. Drs. Anthony Rostain and B. Janet Hibbs try more modern ideas for the new student. They see the transition from home to college dorm as emotionally terrifying for many. They turn to the new themes of "mindfulness" (a.k.a. prayer) and "parents as partners" (or higher power).

Why should going to college be so upsetting? One reason the leap is challenging is the changing role of parents. Once, parents emphasized childhood independence, but increasingly they seek to exert ever more control over their children's lives. The limits of this approach become clear when academic achievement occupies the center of a child's self-esteem. Over-protection keeps our offspring from making their own mistakes and learning from them. Life is the hardest teacher -- we have observed. Our Scripture readings offer insight. From Hebrews: "For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines," Or "Endure your trials as discipline.

Often it seems psychiatrists and counselors speak to weakness, rather than building resilience. Of course, they are in the business of treating those with troubles. No one questions the increase in emotional problems spearheaded when a child goes to college. Some say when the college social life fails, college often fails. Fear of not belonging surfaces in the rush to make new friends far from the comforts of home. Further, the digital social support one is accustomed to maybe not be the solid ground for moving on.

New data on college life is telling. Emotional immaturity appears to be rising. Something is gone awry if more than 85 percent of college students feel overwhelmed and 51 percent feel things were hopeless in the last year. Many of us as college students were devastated by early courses and grades. Rather than slump back, we had to work harder. Likely, parents have never invested so much in their children's education and then taken reflected success as their own. Unrealistic expectations by parents can lead students to be profoundly disappointed in the difficulty in the mastery of new material. But isn't this the normal process for learning new things? One attends college to bounce out of secure k-12 goals. However, high expectations can lead students to respond to ordinary stumbles with profound dismay and self-blame.

Failure is instructive. Maybe students so overwhelmed are in colleges poorly matched for their skills. They may be better off in other kinds of programs with more practical applications in an ever-widening gig economy. But parents who have been hovering have difficulty releasing their achievement dreams for their students.

Where can Catholic parents and their children find sound advice other than the current educational jargon such as "mindfulness" and empty slogans like "parents as partners?" Our love for our children and their sense of self-worth should never rest on academic achievement alone. They are valued for themselves, not their grade point averages, national merit scholarship ranking or their SAT levels. Having a spiritual advisor who can impart wisdom is worthwhile. They can adjust the notion that college is all of life.

Emphasis on the social scene at college opens a new learning curve. Many campuses allow living arrangements contrary to home teaching. We may hope for the college admission of our choice, but did we fully examine the lifestyle followed by campus social leaders? What is the sexual climate (the elephant in the room) in the residences? There are enough stories of the sobbing girl who lost her virginity, unintentionally, under hazy circumstances. Many a new freshman is shocked by the casual sex expectations, even license, on campus -- or off. Lifestyle is a whole other emotional dimension, and often more than students want to take on while absorbing so many other ideas.

Sadly, few students today sing "America, The Beautiful" where Katherine Lee Bates reminded: "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law." We can be mindful of these admonitions even as our children have yet to master them. Imperfect we are.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.

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