Are We Ever Ready for Uncertainty?

5529952121_7d149150c6_oby Beth Burrell

“I don’t think I’m ready for college.”

These words spilled out of my daughter’s mouth as we rushed this week to the first (of many) orientation events at her soon-to-be college. I was feeling overwhelmed too and I’ve been to college before. What’s more I’ve lived through it again with her older brother and sister, both recent college graduates.

Is it that my soon-to-be college student is the baby of the family? That I’m older? Or that we were both frazzled already by the maelstrom of information and activities? I’m not sure. But my first thought upon hearing her was: Are we ever ready for anything we don’t already know?

I didn’t feel ready for parenting I told her, but I went for it anyway. It’s natural to fear what we don’t know, even when we’re ready to leave what we do. In her case, she’s ready to move on and leave high school behind. But the change coming is a big one.

My youngest daughter is one of the most social people I’ve ever met. She can talk to anyone, and makes friends wherever she goes. Yet one of her biggest fears about adjusting to college? Making new friends. She doesn’t want to be lonely. As her mother, I’m sure that she won’t be. But I can’t wave away her anxiety.

Fortunately, an orientation program our first night helped. A lot. In Scenes from College Life directed by a theatre professor, 33 students put on funny and profound skits about the anxieties felt by all – in the classroom, dorm, parties and on campus. They brought home that newfound freedom can be one part exhilaration, and the other part, a burden. Go to the party or study for the next day’s econ exam? As one dad says (over and over again on the phone) to his child, “Son, are you making smart choices?”

During an especially moving part, half of the students held hands and rotated clockwise in a ‘diversity circle,’ one after the other approaching the microphone to tell a short, personal story. One had lost her father to suicide and said how proud her father would have been to be in the audience; another shared that her college life felt so out of control that she developed an eating disorder to feel in charge; another talked about being an athlete and in a fraternity – and gay, confusing friends sometimes when he says, “And I like guys.”

The kids were astonishingly poised and brave, offering my daughter and other incoming freshmen advice, honesty and acceptance – no matter how things play out once they get here. It was stirring and welcome, and a sign that colleges are thinking more about how to help stressed out and overwhelmed students, many who start feeling this way long before they arrive at college.

Parents afterward said how grateful they were for the program, some wishing they’d had a similar introduction to college life. “I’m very relieved to feel he’ll be in good hands,” a mother said about her son. Another said she was moved to tears hearing the student tell of her father’s suicide.

The theatre professor who directs this part of orientation, called theatre the perfect tool for reaching students without lecturing them. The skit topics also can be great starting points for family conversations. Hopefully, students leave orientation understanding that when they return in August, there are resources and people to help, whatever their story, she said.

This was awfully good to hear having read an unsettling number of recent stories and research about anxiety among college students. More widespread than ever before, rising anxiety means college counseling services are overtaxed, often with wait lists of students seeking help.

Though very complicated, part of it ironically seems to be that many parents – myself included – have gone overboard doing too much for our kids, disabling rather than ‘abling’ them to live independently. Two skits made light of this as a young woman arrives to campus literally tethered to her mom, while in another, a freshman childishly thanks ‘mommy’ by phone for his weekly care package of food and extra-soft toilet paper.

In a closing session for parents, an administrator in charge of parent services encouraged parents to support their kids’ highs and lows and forego the usual ‘these are the best years of your life’ line. That’s an expectation no student needs. But be prepared, he said, for your child to return home with all kinds of new ideas and habits. “You’ll need to embrace the strange.”

I’m glad my daughter and I had this chance to learn and laugh about what lies ahead, whether that means smart choices, strange habits or something else altogether. Maybe these will be the best years of my life.

Beth head shotBeth Burrell is a journalist who worked in daily newspaper reporting before winding her way to parent newsletter and freelance writing. Currently, she helps produce the weekly parent e-newsletter for Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa, She lives in Merion, Pa. with her husband and three (sometimes fewer) children.

Read more of Beth’s posts at

Image: Heading towards uncertainty by Patrik Jones via Flickr


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2 thoughts on “Are We Ever Ready for Uncertainty?

  1. GREAT piece! My youngest daughter is also starting college this fall, and I’m going to have her read this today. Hopefully, her overnight orientation next month will be similarly well thought out and helpful!

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