- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

As summer comes to an end, more than 3 million young Americans are preparing to begin college as freshmen. For parents and students alike, it can be a wrenching process.
I've been on two sides of this emotional rite of passage. As a parent, I've encouraged our two children as they headed off into uncharted college territory all the while fighting my own mixed emotions. At the same time, as a university president, I've greeted thousands of freshmen and their parents at the start of a new academic year.
What do I tell 700 excited yet naive new college students? And what to say to those clinging parents terrified about leaving their full-grown babies in the care of strangers?
Parents let go. You can set your children free without casting them adrift. And they will love you for it. It's perfectly normal that your child's foremost concern after moving into their dorm is getting mom and dad on the road home as soon as possible. However traumatic it seems at the moment, letting go is a good thing. After all, the most important attribute that parents can instill in children is the ability to get along well without them.
Rest assured that your child is going to stay in touch with you, sometimes in peculiar ways. One year, for instance, a freshman wrote home, saying: "Dear Mom and Dad, I haven't heard from you in nearly a month. Please send a check, so I'll know that you're all right."
Students this is the start of a great adventure. College involves an entirely new way of thinking and acting, a new way of living on your own and dealing with intriguing ideas and diverse people. Beginning today, you are as free as you will ever be again. You will be able to think, do and act as you please. No one will tell you to go to bed or to get up, to make your bed, wash the dishes or do homework.
New freedoms, however, imply new responsibilities. How you handle your independence may well shape the rest of your life. College is a redemptive experience in the sense that students can make mistakes and still have time to correct them. Will you learn from your mistakes?
In coming days, you will discover that bright young people don't always behave in intelligent ways. Eating Lucky Charms at every meal is not healthy; nor is binge drinking. Moreover, students do not always manage time or money well. (By the way, it's not wise to pay your Mastercard bill with your Visa card.)
Perhaps the most common mistake that freshmen make is to become so intoxicated by their new freedom and the temptations of college social life that they quickly get behind in their schoolwork. Eager to be liked, to fit in, they often let others determine their actions. Remember what you're here for and be careful about what you fall for. "Always do right," as Mark Twain suggested. "This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."
Over the next four years, your college is not going to give you an education it should help you seize one. In the process of stimulating your curiosity and bolstering your self-confidence, a college should help you become an independent thinker and a tenacious defender of your own values and beliefs. It should also help you develop the humane sympathies and moral courage required to overcome uncertainty, disappointment and suffering.
By the time you graduate, you should better understand the difference between wisdom and intelligence, freedom and foolishness, convictions and dogmatism. College offers new discoveries and great fun, but it's not painless.
While making lifelong friends and earning a degree, you will encounter discomforting ideas, beliefs, attitudes and personalities. At some point, you will feel an aching loneliness. You will suffer setbacks and disappointments. You will confront dating problems, roommate problems, academic problems, financial problems and parent problems. Learning to deal with such difficulties defines an educated person and signals the transition to adulthood.
If you make your selections wisely; if you discover early on that your self-worth does not rely on how much you drink or how long you party; if you choose not to major in minor pursuits then you will thrive in your new community of learners.
The next four years collectively known as "college" are going to become bright threads in the fabric of your life, mythic in your memory as the years ahead become the years past. As Robert Frost observed, "If you have to fall in love with something, you can do a lot worse than a college." Before long, most of you will recognize that college has become your first true love.

David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

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