For freshmen and parents, a new reality: Home for the holidays isn't what it was

The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt speaks to Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University, about the rising cost of college and how his institution is helping students lower their financial burden.
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 6:15 PM

This week, Georgetown University freshman Sue Marie Breden is traveling home to Arkansas for the first time since starting college - and she hopes everything is the same as she left it four months ago.

Well, except for her curfew.

"I, for one, have grown more independent in the last four months, living so many miles from home," said Breden, 19, who is considering majoring in economics and mathematics. "I understand that my parents are going to want to make sure I don't go too crazy, that I don't stay out too late. But I hope they realize I've grown up."

The first semester of college is a life-changing, independence-building, scheduling-shifting, self-finding experience. And that means the first long trip home - whether it be for fall, Thanksgiving or winter break - can be a culture shock for students. And their parents, too.

"When your student leaves home, it's like they've taken a snapshot of life," said Brian L. Watkins, the director of parent and family affairs at the University of Maryland. "They expect to walk through the door and pick up right where they left off. They don't expect anything to change."

But students might realize fairly quickly that they aren't the teenagers that they were during the summer. Sometimes the changes are small, such as when Christopher Hamrick, 18, journeyed home to Potomac for a week-long break in October and kept referring to his dorm room at Villanova University in Pennsylvania as "home."

"I would say something like, 'Back home I eat cheese steaks at least twice a week. ...' My parents were like, 'You are home,' " said Hamrick, a freshman studying political science. "It was very strange how quickly things changed."

But the most common problems usually involve the word "curfew." College students are accustomed to coming and going as they please. Parents would rather not lie awake worrying until 3 a.m.

During U-Md.'s parent-orientation sessions this summer, Watkins asked each audience whether their soon-to-be-freshmen had a curfew, and about half raised their hands. Then he asked how many parents would continue to set a curfew when their children are visiting home during college.

"A good number of them raised their hands, and I asked them, 'Do your students know that?' " Watkins said. "Both sides expect two very different things, and that's where the conflict comes."

Sometimes, the shifts happen back home. Sarah Kaplan, a Georgetown freshman, lost her large bedroom in her parents' Brooklyn home to her younger sister , which could cause tension as she returns home for the first time this week.

"Now I am in the tiny, tiny, tiny room," said Kaplan, 18, who is studying international affairs. "It's going to be very weird."

New home situations can also be more serious, as some students return amid a parental divorce, financial problems or family moves.

"We know that when students come home, they have a discerning eye and might point fingers," said David Leonard, the dean of first-year students at Washington and Lee University. "They might suddenly see their family in a different light."

A growing number of colleges are helping freshmen and their families navigate the fine art of learning to live together once again. Last week, George Washington University hosted a seminar for about 40 students on "Going Home: It will be different."

The university's Office of Parent Services also sent a letter to parents explaining that their kids won't be the same people this semester - and probably will sleep a lot.

Tips included: "Try not to remove all of the freedoms that your student has become accustomed to over the past few months. They have developed a new way of living, and reverting back to the 'old way' may cause stress." The letter ends with a couple of phone numbers to the school's Office of Parent Services that parents can call "if things get rough."

At Washington and Lee, Leonard encourages parents to work with their children to set a calendar of events that everyone can agree on. Usually, students want to keep their college schedule - falling asleep in the wee hours of the morning and waking up late - and spend as much time as possible visiting friends.

"I think that 'flexibility' is a very important word for parents to digest," Leonard said.

Many freshman will spend a chunk of their vacation hanging out with high school friends and learning how those friendships have changed. The holidays are also host to a phenomenon that college counselors and student affairs officials like to call the "turkey drop" - or the "turkey dump" - when a college freshman returns home and breaks up with a high school sweetheart. Or, being home might prompt a breakup with someone back at college.

"These are young, budding relationships. ... Students will come home for the holidays, and, well, long-distance relationships, long-distance romance is very difficult," Leonard said.

Despite the potential tensions and heartbreaks, going home for Thanksgiving means a much-needed break for most college students. It's a chance to catch up on sleep, see old friends and eat meals that aren't served cafeteria-style.

"I'm really looking forward to it," said Kaplan, the Georgetown freshman from Brooklyn. "I think I'm realizing now how much I depend on [my parents], how much they comfort me and just how much I enjoy their company."

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