For parents, sending a kid off to college is an emotional rollercoaster, so we asked an expert for some advice

Washington State University photo

I didn't know who to call in case of an emergency. I didn't know where to buy late-night comfort food. I didn't even know what my bathroom looked like. The dread that proliferated the weeks before starting college was the worst kind: the fear of the unknown. What my life would be like in September — who I would meet, where I would go, what I would do every day — was a complete mystery, a blank canvas, a yawning void. This ambiguity made the fear gnawing at me feel like a waste of energy — I didn't even know what I was afraid of.

My parents, despite their best intentions, could only provide bittersweet reassurance. Every home-cooked meal, family get-together and nostalgic walk around the neighborhood only reminded me of the looming lack of these comforts lying ahead. My appreciation of the tangible, immediate present only made the future feel more abstract.

Once my time at home ran out and the forced smiles, hideous small-talk and multiple-hour sex-ed seminars of new student orientation were put behind me, the fear evaporated very quickly. Friends, like clouds, appeared as if they'd always been there, I familiarized myself with the local bodegas, and my dorm's communal bathroom proved to be, somehow, tolerable. The unknown became known, and now I could move on to the much more concrete, and manageable, fears of tests, papers and the subway system.

If I could give parents any advice about how to console the nervous mess pacing through their house all August, it would be to emphasize continuity. Life goes on.

For my first birthday away from home, my grandma sent me a batch of her signature chocolate decadence cupcakes, and I appreciated, even more than the taste (sorry grandma, they were still amazing), the comforting realization that a few days ago, about 2,500 miles away, this woman I had known and lived next door to my whole life had been puttering around the kitchen, churning batter with a ferocity that belied her age, thinking of me. My favorite parts of my mom's phone calls were hearing my little siblings bugging her in the background and recalling the exact glare she would whip back towards them, her silent over-enunciation of the words, "HEY — I'm ON the PHONE." Some things never change, and whenever I felt adrift, I could cling to those little moments of familiarity.

A few years later, I spent a day with a friend who had recently graduated and was about to start grad school in Belgium. He had never been to Europe, knew very little French, and wasn't even sure if he was going into the right field — he was completely miserable, in the same way I had been. But seeing that fear in someone else, that teeth-clenched, eyes-screwed-shut march towards the complete unknown, made me come to appreciate it. I started college blank, scoured completely free of expectation, masterplan, or prejudice by my uncertainty — in other words, completely ready, in a roundabout way, for whatever life was going to throw at me.

Philip Thompson is a Spokane native, currently studying creative writing and music composition at Fordham University in the Bronx. He bears a striking resemblance to Health & Home contributor Dr. Matt Thompson.

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