This month, I'm writing two appeals letters on behalf of two students who were denied admission (inexplicably, in both cases) to UCLA. Both students are very bright young women, but one of the two presented me with a bit of a dilemma: my alma mater accepted her, while the so-called "Southern Branch" rejected her. I must admit that my Golden Bear pride was hurt. I know that admissions decisions can be capricious; a few years ago, I had one student get into Stanford while being rejected from UC Santa Barbara. But it stings a Cal alum to have UCLA appear to be more selective!
This young woman, whom I'll call "Amy", would much rather attend UCLA than Cal. She's appealing her denial of admission to the former school not for academic reasons, mind you; she knows the education in Berkeley is world-class. Amy is appealing because she wants to live at home while finishing up her college education. She's blessed to be in a position where her family could easily afford to have her live in on-campus housing anywhere she was accepted, but she still wants to be close to her parents.
I've had a number of students like Amy. True, a very high percentage of community college students have limited financial means. Living at home throughout their academic careers is a necessity, not a choice. But I've also met many, many students whose families did have the wherewithal (or the financial aid) to send them away to college -- but who nonetheless chose to remain at home, picking Los Angeles-area schools over superb colleges and universities farther away.
Even after a dozen years teaching in this multi-cultural greenhouse called Pasadena City College, it's hard for me to fathom why folks who can afford to move away to go to college don't do so. In my family, no one lives at home while going to college. Indeed, my brother and I bucked a long-standing trend by not leaving the state, though my brother and one sister did end up living and working in the UK. Many of my cousins went as far as they could from California, to schools in Virginia or New York or Illinois. Yes, they were blessed with the resources to do so. But we were also raised with the belief that a truly worth-while college experience hinges on physical distance from one's family!
Before I went off to Cal, parents told me (indeed, everyone in my family told me) that college was not just about getting a formal classroom education. College, we were told, is about having new experiences, creating a new identity, developing one's own emotional, spiritual, and intellectual autonomy without interference from one's family of origin! "Two-thirds of your education takes place outside the classroom", I was told. And I believe it now. If I had lived at home, I would have missed staying up until three in the morning arguing politics and religion with my roommates. I would have missed the lessons in financial accountability (and doing my laundry) that were so valuable during my college years. I would have missed the opportunity to find out who Hugo really was. (Even as I write that, I recognize my own use of the fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc.)
I've had this discussion about "moving away" with many people. My office mate and I have radically different views. He tells me that this obsession with independence and autonomy is "a white thing" (he's Latino). From what I can see, he seems to be right more often than not. Students from families that have recently immigrated to this country, as well as Hispanic and Asian students, tend to be the ones most eager to live close to home. Perhaps they aren't eager to live at home until they get to the bachelor's degree, but their parents are worried about them and pressure them to stay under their roof. (I say again, I'm only questioning those who have the financial means to live outside the home while going to school. I'm quite sympathetic to those who are forced by economic necessity to remain with a parent while completing their education.)
My colleague is on to something, though I suspect it transcends color. For all of my professed evangelicalism (and my brief sojourn amongst the Anabaptists), I'm as fierce a defender of individualism as can be found. My feminism, despite my own misgivings about it, is borderline libertarian. I want to help my students and my teenagers in youth group develop their individual autonomy, their individual selves, their individual identities. For all my professions of faith, I still see offering people "choices" as among the highest of moral imperatives in a good society. I want my teenagers to be able to extricate themselves from the constraints of their families and go off to find liberation in the dorms and the leafy green quads of American colleges in, if not another time zone, at least another county!
But I'm smart enough to know there's something shallow about all this. I've had too many students in my classes who did leave home at 18, go off to colleges across the country, and then flunk out. Sometimes their setbacks were purely academic; at other times drugs and alcohol (or eating disorders) knocked them for a loop and sent them home to their families. In a few instances, these end up being my best students, largely because they've been humbled by their own failures and have resolved to make significant changes. (I recently had one young man in class who had gone off to NYU straight out of high school. Drugs and alcohol led to his flunking out within a year. He came home, went to PCC, worked hard, and is now off at UC Irvine, doing very well, I hear.) The point is, some young people may not be emotionally ready to handle the freedoms that come with living away from home and eighteen. Young people mature at different rates, and some may simply not be ready for complete independence.
At the risk of getting flamed, I wonder too if recently-immigrated families are more mistrustful of the places to which they are sending their children. In families where a college education is a multi-generational norm, parents (such as mine) had their own experiences living away from home to reflect upon when they got ready to send their kids off to college. Parents who have experienced the joys and freedoms of living on-campus themselves seem much more likely to be eager to offer that same privilege to their kids. But families who come from parts of the world where kids rarely move out before marriage may be far more reticent to allow their daughters, or even their sons, to move away to a strange place in what may still be a strange land. That "sounds right", but I don't know of any evidence to back it up.
This morning, I'm thinking about my family, scattered as we are across this country and across the European continent. I think of my sister in Leeds; my other sister in San Francisco; my brother in Exeter; my mother in Carmel; my father in Santa Barbara; my cousins in DeKalb and Anchorage and Charlottesville and New York and Tucson and Seattle and Boulder and Montecito and Charleston and Karlsruhe, Hamburg, and Vienna. Does it sometimes make me sad that my family is so dispersed? Occasionally. But it also makes me proud, too. My brother and sisters and cousins have pursued their dreams unconstrained by geography or guilt -- what could be more worthwhile than that? If we only see each other at weddings and funerals and other special occasions, it makes our reunions all the more sweet. Once we moved off to college, we all began to make the series of choices that would shape our lives and carry us to the various corners of the earth. We traded physical closeness for the privilege of pursuing our individual dreams, and on balance, I'd say, it was worth it, though the distance sometimes weighs heavily upon us.
I look at my friends who went to college while living at home, who still live near their parents whom they see every weekend. I think, of all things, of the film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", which seemed, in a remarkable way, to capture (and caricature) some of the distinctions between what I grew up calling (with a touch of self-conscious irony) "our kind of people" and those who arrived in this land more recently. I remember watching that movie and shifting uncomfortably. I felt suffocated just watching the Greek family's emphasis on togetherness and community -- but I also felt just the tiniest twinge of envy. A focus on radical individualism and personal autonomy at the expense of community has a high cost, and it is a cost I have not always paid happily.
So, I wrote a glowing letter for this young woman who'd rather go to UCLA than Berkeley. I told Amy that in my personal opinion, she'd be better off moving out and "finding herself" in a very different environment; of course, that was just my opinion, and it didn't mean that I wouldn't try and help her. Amy, born in South Asia and raised in America, simply smiled when I told her this. She thanked me for the letter, and told me, very politely, "Hugo, you just don't understand."
Sigh. She's probably right.