When The Kids Go Away To School

Back in the day, going away to college meant that students cut the cord connecting them with parents and home. That's no longer the case in a world of text-messaging, tweeting and two-way video calls. NPR's Richard Gonzales has an up-and-close personal look at what it means today when the kids go away to school.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It is the season when a new crop of college freshmen try to find their way around unfamiliar campuses, searching for psych 101 or the dining hall. Going away to college requires a big adjustment for students. It's also a time of adjustment for parents, as NPR's Richard Gonzales discovered.

RICHARD GONZALES: We had been warned, my wife and I, that moving our first-born son, Diego, to college could be emotionally wrenching, especially since he's leaving Oakland for the East Coast. Even so, there were emotions we weren't prepared for, like the surprise we encountered as we drove into the parking lot at Fordham University in the Bronx. The school president, Father Joseph McShane, is there to greet each family individually. He extends his hand through our open car window.

Father JOSEPH McSHANE (President, Fordham University): Where's Oakland?

GONZALES: Oakland...

Ms. GONZALES: Oakland.

Fr. McSHANE: Very good. What high school?

GONZALES: Bishop O'Dowd.

Fr. McSHANE: Very good. We have one or two O'Dowds with us in the upper classes.

GONZALES: Father McShane is a slight, charismatic man, a Jesuit. He's wearing a white collar and black shirt even in New York's withering heat.

Father McSHANE: Welcome (unintelligible), all right? Don't lift a thing when you get to the dorm. Our kids will take care of you.

GONZALES: This is our second surprise, a small army of upper-class men and women wearing crimson T-shirts that say welcome home are there to carry the gear of every freshman into their dorm.

Unidentified Man: Everybody. (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of applause)

GONZALES: They do this every year, and Father McShane's eyes sparkle when he says it's more than a greeting for the class of 2014.

Father McSHANE: Ah, the parents. Well, we do small things in the hope that the parents feel cared for, like refusing to allow them to lift and carry anything at the beginning of the day.

And today, it's a day of both rejoicing and grieving at the same time because it's not just starting college. It's a change in a whole family dynamic.

GONZALES: Maybe that's why I'm noticing there are more than a few parents smiling through their puffy eyes.

Ms. TINA CAPISE(ph): I am Tina Capise, mother of Santina Capise(ph).

GONZALES: First child leaving home?

Ms. CAPISE: First child of four, lots of tears, lot of crying, could start now, but I won't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONZALES: In my day, going to college meant cutting the cord, but today, between texting and Skype, the cord has gone cordless, and there's no reason to be out of touch. Yet even technology can't trump the reality that her daughter's leaving the nest, says Capise.

Ms. CAPISE: And just try to make the best of it because I think it's going to be hard on her, as well. But she's going to have to work through it, and 18, I think she's ready, got to let them go.

GONZALES: Her daughter, Santina, sounds just as convincing.

Ms. SANTINA CAPISE: I am not really excited right now. I'm a little I'm afraid. I'm nervous. But I think it will be the best decision and the best move in the end.

GONZALES: Some families drop their kids off and leave right away. Just ask Rosanne Pettijean(ph), a junior history major helping freshmen get oriented. She says every family has a different way for dealing with this day.

Ms. ROSANNE PETTIJEAN (Student): Some parents really don't want to leave, and they try to push it off as much as possible. I've seen a lot of crying. I've seen a lot of the student wants the parents to leave. So they'll just start being like Mom, Dad, it's okay, it's okay.

GONZALES: My son Diego fits in this category. It's just a couple of hours before we're required to leave the campus. Time to check in with him.

So Diego, you'll be 3,000 miles away. How often do you want to hear from me?

Mr. DIEGO GONZALES (Student): I have no idea yet.

GONZALES: Maybe I'm thinking about this more than he is.

Do you think we should set up this Skype thing so that we can see each other face to face?

Mr. DIEGO GONZALES: Probably not.

GONZALES: So you don't look at this as an ending, huh?

Mr. DIEGO GONZALES: No, not at all. I felt like saying goodbye to my friends at home was completely blown out of proportion. There's no reason to get upset about anything.

GONZALES: Brave words I try to remember come the deadline for the parents to leave the campus. But first, there's a mass and a blessing from Father McShane. He says these rituals meant to reassure the parents are never enough.

Father McSHANE: But you're going to cry at the end of the day. I know that. It's going to be a long flight back to Oakland, my friends, a very long flight. And you're going to worry all the way back: Did you do X, Y, Z. And your wife will say: We did X, Y and Z, but I'm not sure we did A, B and C.

GONZALES: And he's right. I do worry about my college freshman, but I try to remind myself that while Diego is my son, he's not mine to keep.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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