In less than a 24-hour period I moved my eldest child, Olivia, into her residence hall at Columbia University and formally welcomed the class of 2015 to Susquehanna University where I serve as president. What a powerful and emotional experience it was for me. What a great and unexpected test to walk the talk that has been so much a part of my professional life.
I thought I was ready. I have been welcoming new students and advising them and their parents on this rite of passage in my capacity as a college president for nearly 40 percent of my life. I know this transition inside and out—as an educator. Going through it as a parent is a whole different thing.
Once beyond the excitement and joy of her high school graduation, Olivia’s anticipation and anxiety became palpable. Columbia was her top choice and yet as the fear of the new and unknown built during the summer, staying closer to home looked better and better to her. (She had been insightfully telling people throughout the college search process that Susquehanna would have been a great option if only there was a new president).
When I tried to tell her that I understood her feelings and that I empathized, she kept saying, “Dad, you cannot understand.” Ultimately the desire to leave her well-meaning dad and her own excitement trumped her fear and she is now on the road to discovery in New York City.
Fear has its place in human affairs. In fact it is the “common theme” for freshmen at Susquehanna this year, reinforced with readings and events. Nietzsche called fear the mother of morality. And the fear of that transition from high school to college is not the province of the 18-year-old alone. I know that better than ever today. While I have recognized the anticipation, the anxiety and the fear in the faces, words and bodies of thousands of parents of new college students, this year is different. I find myself filled with the same mixture of excitement, pride, joy and anxiety as all parents.
My prayer for Olivia, and by extension for all freshmen, is that she will find inspiration; friends who give her a sense of belonging; faculty and staff who will both challenge and support her. More, I hope she discerns her vocational calling, develops further her own sense of right and wrong, and is imbued with a desire to work in her own way to make this world better by working hard, serving others and finding joy every day in that which is hidden and that which is in plain sight.
Finally, I hope she will know where and who to turn to in her new community when she falls down and struggles. Dissonance, disequilibrium and difference often produce fear. As an educator, I know that each is also necessary for learning. At times it is tough for me as a parent to accept this reality so I pray earnestly for the faith in Olivia and Columbia to let this learning take place as I know it does here at Susquehanna.
Colleges and universities share with parents a special partnership to help students become independent thinkers and decision makers. My advice to parents—and especially this year, to myself—is to have the faith of the shipbuilder. Launching a ship is hard: full of excitement, concern, doubt, but ultimately shipbuilders must test their precious new vessel and that test must come at sea.
Parents have worked to make their human vessel seaworthy. It is now time to launch it with confidence and faith in their work. Know that the ship will come back to port every few months, usually with loads of dirty laundry.
Understand that there is fear in life. The start of the collegiate journey is one of those times when fear is a significant part of the experience. Remember the words of Bertrand Russell who said, “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
Jay Lemons is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.