Editor’s Note: Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., has joined the staff of America. Fr. Schroth has taught or served as dean at five Jesuit colleges and universities and taught at three secular universities since he was ordained in 1967. Among his nine books are Fordham: A History and Memoir, Dante to Dead Man Walking, on books everyone should read, and The American Jesuits: A History. This post on "How To Succeed in College" is the first in a series that will appear every two weeks.
On Leaving Home
I am on my way to a party honoring the son of friend whom I taught at Fordham in the 1970s. The young man is about to leave home and go to a Catholic university in New Jersey. The idea that leaving home for college should be celebrated seems to be catching on. Next week the graduates of the Cristo Rey high schools — a network founded by Jesuits where highly motivated inner-city students finance their education by working one day a week in a sponsoring business — will meet for a party in Central Park to celebrate those headed for higher education. There is something sacramental about these parties — like Baptism, Confirmation or even Marriage.
College is one of the three biggest decisions — like where you should live and whom you should marry — that a young person makes. Chances are that in college you will meet the person you will marry, the roommate who will become your best friend and your best man or bridesmaid at your wedding, the professor or coach who will inspire you to become a social worker, research scientist, basketball star, or journalist.
With bad luck you may also have a student on the hall who brings a hook-up partner in after midnight, offers you booze or weed, wants you to write his term paper, and laughs when you say you are going to Mass on Sunday. You’ll have teachers who don’t learn your name or return your papers for weeks or who just lecture out of old notes or the textbook they have written and made you buy.
The first personal challenge for those who go away to college rather than commute to a local school is to both accept and create the necessary distance between yourself and your family and neighborhood life. Without some real break — without accepting the challenge of freedom — real education won’t happen.
One way of putting it is that the student should pick a college close enough for the parents to drive several hours to watch him or her compete in a swim meet or appear in a show, but not close enough where mother is tempted to come in and do her son or daughter’s laundry.
I met a young man from China recently who had come here to study and who accepted the fact that he would not see his family for two years. I suspect he will embrace loneliness as a challenge, master it, and return home an adult. But I confronted a student in my class last year who sat in the back of the room and tried to surreptitiously slip out his cell phone under the desk. I told him no cell phones during class. He replied that his mother was calling and that nothing would separate him from his mother. I told him I’d be glad to call his mother and ask her not to call her son during class. He did not do well.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.