During my freshman year of college, I woke up one morning across from a man I didn’t recognize. He was about 400 pounds, had on a white undershirt and boxers, and he was snoring. I flung myself out of bed, scrambled around on the floor for something more concealing than my pajama tank top and shorts, and bolted out of the room.
But it’s not what you’re thinking. He wasn’t my 400 pound, half-dressed, snoring man. He was my roommate’s. He was her vaguely menacing, morbidly obese, boyfriend from home who had come to visit her and slept over in her bed. Who, even though she had an early morning class, was still sleeping in her bed when I woke up. She’d never asked me if it would be okay. Because it wouldn’t have been. It wasn’t. Oh my God.
There were a lot of ways my parents had prepared me for adulthood. I knew how to balance a checkbook, I was a careful and law-abiding driver, I knew how to operate the washing machine, and I could sew on a button. But what to do when you wake up across from a strange man who was in your room through no fault of your own? That wasn’t something I was prepared for. So, what did I do? I called my mom.
There’s an ongoing debate about how much involvement parents should have in the lives of their college-aged children. An article this month in The Atlantic details some of the ways that colleges are trying to support the growing numbers of parents who want to be kept more in the loop than parents have been in the past. For some, parents who expect their kids to check in regularly by phone and speak directly to their children’s academic advisors represent just another example of helicopter parenting. But, for others, it seems only natural that parents should remain abreast of their not-quite-adult children’s lives.
Going to college is really a pretty daunting prospect. One minute you live at home, a child in your parents’ household, subject to their rules and under their protection. And the next minute (literally), you’re totally on your own, with very few rules to guide you, and no one to vouch for your safety. I mean, sure, for a lot of 18-year-olds that sounds like heaven. But should we trust them? I mean, their brains aren’t even fully developed yet.
When I left for college, I assumed I was entering a sort of halfway phase. I figured I’d have more freedom than I did at home, but thought that helpful adults would be available to support me if I needed guidance. And I assumed that part of the job of these helpful adults (whoever they were) would be to check in on me from time to time and make sure I was okay. Because, otherwise, what was the point of going to college? Why wasn’t I just heading off to my own apartment somewhere and attending classes at some non-residential institution? College is supposed to be a transitional environment. But it sure doesn’t act like one.
It ought to be fairly uncontroversial to assume that an 18-year-old woman (girl?) is in need of a little protection and guidance. I mean, sure, most dorms have “Resident Advisors” (RAs), older students who are meant to take the freshmen under their wings. But, more often than not, they’re just in it for the free housing and can’t be counted on for much beyond a halter top to borrow if you’re on your way to a party but can’t find anything to wear. (I’ll pause here to apologize to all the excellent RAs, of which I’m sure there are many, who actually perform their jobs admirably. If only they were all like you.)
Who should I have called when I found myself alone in a room with an unknown man? What about when another student, high on the drugs he dealt out of his dorm room, broadsided my car with his and sent it careening out of control with me inside? What about when the supervising adult on an overnight trip I went on with a club I belonged to was outside smoking pot with the other club members?
A few weeks before I woke up in a room with a stranger, down the hall from a bunch of girls who probably would have thought the whole thing was funny, I’d been sleeping in my childhood bed down the hall from my mom and dad. A few months before some dope-head totaled my car, I’d been allowed to drive myself to school and back for the first time. It’s not that I was sheltered, and it’s certainly not that I went to a bad college, it was a good one. It’s that, right before my parents dropped me off, I’d been a kid. And, basically, I still was one.
Personally, I think parents wouldn’t have to be so involved if colleges made more of an effort to provide their students with the type of adult guidance they very suddenly lack. If, for example, when I woke up next to a snoring stranger, there’d been some sort of kindly and understanding “dorm mother” to go to, I wouldn’t have needed my mom to come help me navigate the rather complicated bureaucratic process of switching roommates. I could have just called her on the phone later to chat about the whole ridiculous episode, feeling good about the fact that I’d been able to handle the situation myself. But there was no one.
It seems to me that, instead of spending resources on parent portals and webinars to keep parents in the loop, colleges ought to create an adult support system for their students. One that’s less hands-on than a parent/child relationship, but that still lets impressionable young people know that there’s an adult nearby who cares about them and can nudge them back to the straight and narrow should they begin to stray. I sure would’ve liked that. And I’d definitely want it for my own kid. Wouldn’t you?