On Letting Go

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Terry Conn, Former Assistant Vice Provost for University Life and Peter Conn, Professor Emeritus of English

Sending a child off to college: the two of us have gone through this joyously painful ritual four times—we are the parents of two sons and two daughters—and we can testify that it is never easy or simple. However, we can also testify that you will survive. General statements are risky, since everyone will experience this major transition differently. Nonetheless, we think we've learned a few useful things, and we are grateful to Dean DeTurck for the chance to share our thoughts.

Your students will rapidly have to adjust to circumstances that may be completely different from what they have known. Most have not shared a bedroom, even with a family member; suddenly they will be living with a complete stranger. Most have come from relatively homogenous communities; suddenly they find themselves joining a remarkably diverse, cosmopolitan student body, comprising members of every ethnic and religious group, and representing all political and intellectual outlooks.

Your students need to learn to manage time, money and priorities. They need to adjust to the high expectations of a university faculty. They even need to learn to do their own laundry! They need to negotiate relationships, including a new relationship with their parents. They will find some of this difficult, but we can assure you that just about every one of them will succeed.

In some respects, the college setting they've come to is quite changed from the one they would have found just a few years ago. On the other hand, the chief challenge your students face is the same one faced by earlier generations of college students: to take advantage of the rare opportunity that these next years offer, and to become independent, well-educated citizens who will play a valuable role in the nation's future. Those earlier students met that challenge; yours will, too.

What can you do to help them succeed? We can't offer categorical advice, since each of you knows your student best. But we suspect that, in general, the old adage is correct: you can only hold on by letting go. Your students need to strike out on their own, to develop and grow, to discover who they are and what they can be-and they can only do this by making their own choices.

This leads us to a concrete suggestion: keep things in perspective. When your students call to tell you "I don't belong here," or "I can't do the work," the chances are that they are just working off their quite temporary frustrations. A few minutes after they hang up, you will be nursing a ruined evening while they will probably have gone off for pizza with their new friends. If your student does run into difficulty, it is usually best to offer advice but to let them develop skills in handling problems on their own. You should also be aware that the University offers a number of resources for students to help them with both academic and personal problems and questions.

They will continue to need you-but on different terms. And you will continue to need them; after all, seventeen or eighteen years of affection and attention and hard work don't evaporate on the first day of college. We believe you will find full compensation: the children you leave behind at Penn will soon be replaced by the fascinating young men and women who come home to visit you. Wait just a year or two: your children can become your closest adult friends.

We welcome you and your students to Penn, where they join a community in which we have felt at home for over thirty years.

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