When Does the Empty Nest Begin?

Reflections on the College Search

by Connie Wesley

Does the term empty nest demarcate the time when the last child moves out or when you stop storing all their treasures or junk? If you are longing for the rosy empty nest stage of life, you may find it to be a bit of a moving target. My husband and I have been blessed with four wonderful children. Because of the spread of their ages, 37- and 34-year-old daughters and 27- and 25-year-old sons, however, their growing-up years presented some unique family experiences.

The College Tour
As our eldest began the traditional college hunt, we all piled into the family car during spring vacation to check out schools. If we were really lucky, we would notice a sports team having a practice and the boys and a parent could watch while the others did the more serious job of following a tour guide and listening to an admission director’s talk. The boys did an impressive job of cooperating when silence was a necessity, knowing we would all relax afterward with ice cream, a trip to McDonald’s, or some other fun activity. During one trip, our youngest son’s leap into a large, enticing sidewalk puddle brought laughter and much needed levity to our mission.

There must always be time for fun. At one college, one son presented us with daffodils he had plucked from the manicured gardens gracing the campus. (That incident wasn’t considered “fun” by all involved, of course.) Once, we were visiting a small school in Ohio and we promised the boys we would have lunch at a local McDonald’s. We soon discovered, to our chagrin, that the town had none. We joked that surely our daughter couldn’t go to a college where there was no local McDonald’s! Upon our return home, our younger son was asked during kindergarten circle time what he did on spring vacation. He volunteered that he went to look at colleges. I’m not certain, but it is highly probable that few of his classmates even knew what a college was!

The number of colleges we visited for our two daughters was extensive, really over the top, and the deluge of information was bewildering. The list included Vassar, Colgate, Cornell, Harvard, Yale, Syracuse, Williams, Skidmore, Oberlin, Swarthmore, Macalester, Wheaton, Carleton, Tufts, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. At the time, we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and so we were familiar with the University of Michigan. Because we were so immersed in University of Michigan lore, applications to Ohio State or Michigan State were totally out of the question!

Is a Visit Necessary?
A parent beginning the college hunt might ask, “Were all those visits necessary?” Our response would be “Yes” and “No.” As it turned out, both of our daughters graduated from colleges they had not visited before being accepted. Prospective freshman weekends organized by colleges are invaluable in helping students decide if the school will be a good fit for them. Visits to colleges before the application process, though, are key in assisting students to choose between big and small, rural and urban, private and state, and far away and close by.

It is important to visit schools when students are present: A clearer picture of student life at the college emerges (which is unlikely to happen in the summer). If a particular school is far from home, though, a promise to visit after acceptance is perfectly legitimate. The student’s experience of visiting colleges in general will offer a good perspective when he or she finally sees a school after acceptance. Our second daughter once apologized for not liking one of the colleges we visited. I replied, “That’s great. You can’t go to all the schools we tour—you have to make those decisions!” A “No” is just as important as a “Yes.”

In the progress toward the empty nest, one moment can sometimes loom larger than life: the final good-bye as you leave your child at his or her chosen college for the first time. In our case, that moment with both our girls passed very quickly, with no lingering hugs or just one more straightening of beds or clothes. The reason? Two much younger brothers who were intrigued by the new roommate, curious about what she had on her bed and desk, and anxious to ask lots of questions. Mother, father, and daughter knew that a fast exit by the parents, and, more important, by the brothers, might circumvent what the daughter feared would be an inevitable disaster: any embarrassing moment that would taint her first days of college life.

College Tours: Round 2
Our elder son’s college search was a bit different because he knew where he wanted to go. We had, however, during vacations, squeezed in visits to other schools in which both boys might be interested. We added to our college list Stanford; University of California, Berkeley; and the U.S. Air Force Academy. In this case, the stress of the college search was replaced by the hand wringing of “Will he be accepted?” And he was!

Then the moment arrived for our younger son’s hunt for the perfect college. We tried to point out to him his current wealth of information on the subject. He had already visited many colleges—small and large schools over a broad geographic area and in a variety of settings, both urban and rural. He had experienced the moving-into-college moments and even two college graduations. This was a “slam dunk,” we thought. He wouldn’t need a college tour. “No way!” was his reply, however. He had (somewhat) patiently endured years of siblings’ college searches, and he wanted his turn. Of course, we enthusiastically set off once again to visit colleges. We added the University of Illinois and MIT and did a repeat of Harvard and University of Michigan. In many ways, this tour was the most delightful. We ate well (no McDonald’s) and tours were calm, with no need for eyes behind our heads to see what the younger children were doing. We were able to have thoughtful conversations about the pros and cons of the colleges, their programs, and campus life. Our son had our complete attention. But is that what a teenager ready to leave home really wants? Some days, yes. Some days, no. Such is parenting!

The empty nest is fun, but so was having them home. Just as they are exploring new directions, so shall you. Besides, you still have all their “stuff” at home to keep you company. Your nest is not empty until they take all their treasures, but do we want the nest to be that empty? I enjoy looking in their rooms and being reminded of so many wonderful shared moments. I don’t want the nest empty—just tidied up. In fact, in some ways one’s nest enlarges as the “children” marry and begin their own families.

Here are some links to help with your own college search. (And make sure you visit the colleges’ own Web sites):

Organized tours:
http://www.college-visits.com http://www.educationunlimited.com/tour/eastcoast.html

Virtual tours:
http://www.ecampustours.com/ http://www.collegiatechoice.com/

Perspectives on the in-person tour:
http://www.businessweek.com/1996/46/b3501146.htm http://www.collegetoolkit.com/Guides/College-Visit/resVisit1.aspx

Connie Wesley, BS, MA, Wheaton College, has finally eased her fourth child into independent life. Her empty nesting activities include working one-on-one with students with disabilities as they are mainstreamed into public schools, quilting, traveling with husband John, and visiting their four children and three grandchildren in Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, and California.

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