Preparing children for college

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

Two weeks ago, as Labor Day rolled around the corner, my family and I frantically began the yearly ritual of sending our kids back to school – only this year we were sending our youngest child off for his first day of college.

With a mountain of gear already packed in the car – from plastic closet organizers and computers, to egg crates, shower caddies and boxes of granola bars – I looked at the mounds of stuff still sitting on my driveway and contemplated how in the world we would fit it all in the car.

Although the plan was to have everything organized the night before, instead, we had found ourselves making an absurd amount of trips to Wal-Mart for those never-ending last-minute provisions.

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With all the gear, I had started wondering whether we were sending our children off to college or to a deserted island.

I focused back on the pile of stuff on the driveway. This wasn’t much unlike our kids’ first days of school, I told myself- a much larger scale, but essentially the same.

I remembered those first days so vividly.

The night before, nervous with excitement, our children had laid their favorite clothes out next to their beds, their shoes placed neatly next to back packs swollen with school supplies.

I remembered the hours shopping for those school supplies with my wife, endlessly wandering up and down aisles in search of wide-rule spiral notebooks in a sea of college-ruled paper. How quickly today had come!

As I sandwiched the twin extra-long bedding my wife had searched around town for between crates of tee shirts and sneakers, my worries began to pile up.

How will my kids do in their classes this semester?

Will they get along with their roommate?

The little worries became jumbled with the big.

Will they adjust from being away from home? Will they forget to lock their doors? Did we remember to buy that sticky putty to put their posters on the wall?

Oh, I hope we don’t have another trip to Wal-Mart to make!

A week after safely packing my children into their dorm rooms I would visit the United States Military Academy at West Point to have lunch with the students that I had nominated to the service academy over the last couple of years.

As I sat around the table, I realized that the students who surrounded me were not only incredibly alert, bright, and engaged, but that these cadets truly seemed happy.

Later, a counselor at West Point would tell me that the Academy is known to have the happiest students of any college in the nation.

They attribute this to the community of discipline, structure, and opportunity they give their students.

Sitting there at lunch with these cadets, I knew that despite all the preparation I had gone through in the previous week, as a parent you never feel you’ve given your children enough preparation for this big day as they go off on their own.

What allows us, as parents, to let go is that we know before our child awaits the greatest opportunities of their life. Whether they’re leaving to further their education or begin their first career, we’ve given them the best roadmap we could in the short time we had to raise them. Through sacrifices, dedication, and love, we’ve seen our children to this point.

And while we will continue to hope, pray, and offer direction, we know that their life decisions are now largely in their hands.

That afternoon, when we finally pulled out of the driveway, we were significantly more exhausted and more behind schedule than we could have planned.

With a long car ride ahead, countless trips up and down crammed dorm stairways in August heat upon arrival, and, of course, several more runs to the store still in our immediate future, I realized something very important.

In the 25 years that my wife and I have sent our children off to public school in Chesapeake, I’ve come to know that as Virginians, we have a lot to be grateful for in terms of education.

We have many outstanding teachers and principals to prepare our children for their adult lives, and if and when our children decide to go to college, they have many outstanding choices close to home.

In the end, what truly makes our children prepared and equipped is not all the supplies and clothes you can pack in a car, but the combined effort of our families, our schools, and our communities to instill direction, discipline, structure, and purpose in our children’s lives.

And this effort has been ongoing since the first day of their lives.

J. Randy Forbes represents the 4th district of Virginia as a Republican in the United States Congress.