Transitions, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

There are many good aspects about having only one child. There are also certain aspects that are not ideal. For one, as an only child, your child has no older siblings to emulate. I was the fifth child so when my turn came for college I knew what to expect. I was both happy and scared at the thought of semi-independent living. As is often the case, I found college transformational, both academically and personally. College forced me to step outside my comfort zone. By the time I got my degree, although I had no job prospects, I knew I could hack this independent living thing.

Most of us baby boomers could not wait to leave Mom and Dad. If my daughter is a typical example, the situation is wholly reversed now. I went straight to a four-year college. She went to community college. Her choice kept her educational expenses low. There was no off campus housing that could compete with the comforts of home. Here the Internet and phones are free, and she can eat what she wants even at 4 a.m. If she leaves a mess in the sink, while her parents will complain she will blithely tune us out. She is largely tone deaf to our pleas, a habit acquired from twenty years of living with us, seventeen of which have been spent in her bedroom overlooking our front lawn.

Eventually though the community college experience has to end and if you want a bachelor’s degree, you have to go to a real college. This means a big life transition. She sporadically worked with counselors and got lots of conflicting advice on what courses she needed for her goal of being a high school English teacher. Over time, she narrowed her choices of college to one: Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. It helped that they were not too picky. If you had an associate’s degree from a Virginia community college, you were pretty much guaranteed admission.

Deciding to go to VCU and actually engaging our daughter in checking out the campus were two different things entirely. Like many of her generation, she seemed content to drag her feet. She also likes to sleep days and stay up nights. I am frankly amazed that she has almost earned an associate’s degree at all, as most of her time seems to be spent playing World of Warcraft in the wee hours rather than studying. With minimal nagging, she did manage to apply to VCU online. Some weeks later, this caused her to receive an invitation to Transfer Student Day at VCU. She seemed to realize she had no more reason to drag her feet. So on Monday, we drove two hours south to Richmond.

I was expecting to be underwhelmed by VCU, but the campus pleasantly surprised me. It sits on the edge of Richmond’s modest downtown. VCU is actually split into two campuses. Unless you are a medical student, you spend most of your time on the Monroe Park campus on the western side. The campus immediately made me wistful. It was the sort of university I wanted to go to but didn’t quite make it to. I went to the University of Central Florida, which at the time was primarily for older adults struggling to get a degree while working a full time job. It was a commuter’s university. VCU was in my mind a proper college campus where most students were full time, lived nearby, and either walked or biked to class.

It took a while to find a parking garage and we had to ask a few strangers to point us to the Student Commons. Traffic cops assisted the voluminous students (many of whom were bicyclists) across streets. Bikes were everywhere and seemed to be the preferred mode of transportation. The VCU students looked normal. This is in marked contrast to the many community college students I have taught over the last ten years, who often looked like zombies. The Student Commons was clearly the center of academic life on the campus. We acquired a map at an information booth and started scouting the neighborhood, which pulsed with an invigorating academic beat.

When your daughter is twenty, you cannot really tell her what to do, but you can nudge her a bit. Since she wanted to be an English teacher, I knew she would spend most of her time in the English Department. The idea of actually visiting to the English Department had never entered her brain. However, I took the time to study the VCU web site to find the one person on campus that would probably be the most use to her: the undergraduate advisor for the English Department. We actually found her at her desk across the street in the Hibbs buildings. She looked busy, but not too busy to spend fifteen minutes or so advising a new student. I wisely decided to leave the two of them alone, but I did hear snippets of their conversations out in the hall. I listened as my daughter somewhat unwittingly found herself increasingly engaged. She learned things no one else had told her, like she needed to transfer her advanced placement courses, and that she could get her master’s degree at VCU in just three years. I smiled to myself. Score! This is why God invented fathers.

Back at the Student Commons, we also found an off campus housing office. On campus housing is quite limited, so most students live off campus. But where to live? Neither of us had a clue. While I had passed Richmond many times on I-95, I had never really been in Richmond before. Where are the good neighborhoods? Which neighborhoods should be avoided? A young man with a large map of downtown Richmond patiently lead us through the various neighborhoods and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each neighborhood. How to find a roommate? My experience of using bulletin boards had morphed into online bulletin boards. He showed us the site, and gave us tips on registration.

The actual Transfer Day event was somewhat anticlimactic, as we had already gotten most of the information we needed. Nevertheless, we did speak to two other students working on getting their teaching credentials and learned from them a lot about academic life. Student life includes a lot of theater, which I knew would engage my daughter. Before leaving back for home though, we toured the various neighborhoods where students found housing to see if any spoke to her.

Richmond is a prettier city than I expected, full of old townhouses and Victorian houses, most of them very well maintained in spite of being mostly shared by transient VCU students. If it wasn’t for all the obnoxious statues to dead Civil War generals, most of whom were slaveholders, I might consider living in Richmond myself.

Since returning home my daughter has resumed staying up nights and playing World of Warcraft, but I also know she is thinking harder about her future. Before Monday, VCU and higher education was something of an abstraction. Now it is something she has experienced first hand. She now has to sift through a number of choices and deal with some difficult logistical issues, just like the rest of us adults. Slowly, and very reluctantly, she seems to be growing up at last.