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Dear College Senior: You Don't Have to Have Everything Figured OutElizabeth Spencer
When you're young, summer seems to last forever. As parents, we know how fast this season goes, and never faster than when you'll be sending a child off to college for the first time in the fall.
The remaining weeks of this summer are valuable time to help your student feel better prepared for the independence and responsibilities ahead — and for you to enjoy your time together. Here are ideas for making the most of summer — great for families of older students, too!
Once college starts, breaks will be brief and your student will likely have many friends to visit. Your days to travel together may be numbered for a few years.
So pick a place your family never got to visit. It doesn’t have to be a European cruise or a Belize beach. National parks (the Grand Canyon for my family), regional landmarks, or cousins two states over offer ways to visit with each other while sharing something new (not to mention the familiar dashes into gas station snack marts).
Trips can help suspend the short time you have together and fuel good memories you can both draw on in lonely times.
Sit down with your student to review the financials of the college education. Everyone should be clear about the sources of funding, which are often a combination of gifts, savings, scholarships and grants, private loans, federal loans provided by the college as part of a financial aid package, and work-study opportunities.
Young adults don’t have loan experience or know the lingo of interest rates or the downsides of deferments. Make sure you all agree who is responsible for the loans and understand what the payments will look like as they come due. There will be other expenses at school as well, such as school supplies, material fees, and computer emergencies. Discuss how those will be covered; see our related story on “College Spending Money.”
As for the work-study grants, establish your family’s expectation for fulfilling that duty. Are you willing to let that “free money” go if your student gets too busy, or do you expect your student to make it work? Help your student identify the right jobs for them on campus. My daughter discovered that she could get studying done while on the job as a monitor at the mail room, school library and art galleries.
After the fact, many students mourn the money they blew through on trendy clothes, 3-D movies and restaurant meals their first semesters in college. Teach your student about living by a budget, using an online program like Mint or YNAB (You Need a Budget) that captures electronic expenses and compares it to your student’s realistic budget. What’s left of summer could be a good trial period for using the budget — by the time fall arrives, your student can see the rewards of prudence and planning.
On a similar theme, if your student hasn’t earned as much as they'd hoped, it’s not too late. Friends and neighbors might need house and pet sitters over their vacations — a quick way for your student to make a few hundred dollars in a week. My son was hired at high wages at a friend’s factory for one month. It was hard labor moving bricks through a waxing machine, but the hours were regular and the income couldn’t be beat. Students who go to universities on the quarter system where fall term starts in late September may be able to pick up shifts at shops and restaurants that have lost employees as other college students return to campus.
You might notice more than a little restlessness in your child during this “middle world” between high school and college, especially as friends make their exits for orientations and earlier college starts. Help fill that void with something as simple as starting a puzzle on a table or challenging your student to an app game like Words with Friends.
Perhaps your student is interested in personalizing their dorm room. My artistic daughter shunned all the Twin XL comforters at the stores so we set about making her own bed cover with a textile she chose, hand-quilting around the printed poppy flowers and chatting for hours.
It can look like slacking, but the summer before college, soon-to-be freshmen need downtime to reflect on the next phase of their life; this reflection is actually good and important work.
Fitness can look radically different for a college freshman. Many high school students have built-in exercise programs as part of their sports teams, but if they don’t continue with collegiate sports, they will need to acquire discipline and new routines. Exercise is one of the best ways to handle stress, and typically students who exercise eat and sleep better both at home and on campus. If the drop from exercise is extreme, it could even lead to depression.
Dig out your gym membership card or enroll for the summer. Try out different classes together or pay a trainer to teach your student how to use the machines. Or keep it more casual and run, bike or hike together. It won’t be long before your student’s body is craving the crunches and the way is paved for health and wellness.
Graduation parties serve their purpose, marking a milestone and fueling the revelry of the dozens of seniors who pass through your house during those heady days of May and June. But they don’t always permit your student quality time with grandparents, cousins and your closest family friends.
Consider having a more casual, late summer affair at the pool or your patio for the people who will remain the most special in your child’s life for years to come. Your student will appreciate soaking in the warmth and well wishes just days before departure. My sister hosted a party for our niece who had lost her mom to cancer at the age of twelve. We aunts presented a giant pillow to Rose, each panel a letter of encouragement or inspiring quote from us. We also completed her dorm wish list and shared our own funny college life stories at the gathering. Everyone cherished the time together.
Parents want to see their students working hard and keeping busy the summer before college starts. Any other behavior can seem like maddening slacking. But do you know what is going on in your student’s mind? After the flurry of decision-making and graduation, students need downtime to reflect on the next phase of their life; this reflection is actually good and important work.
My son Russell put it this way: “Take some time for solitude. Check in on yourself, who you are, what you believe in, how you want to grow, and what kind of person you want to become. You’re about to change and grow in huge ways, and it's rare to be able to check in and see how you feel about yourself. You'll be surprised about what changes, and what stays the same.” (And you thought they were just being slugs!)
One summer is not a lot of time to help your child learn how to say goodbye to a familiar world and hello to a foreign one. By taking thoughtful measures, there can be many quality experiences, productive times and space to ponder. And remember to keep the fun in summer, especially one of your last long ones together.
It’s time to celebrate with the perfect gift for your new grad!