Calming the
pre-college jitters

Mainland-bound students from Hawaii
are often ill prepared for the rigors
-- and carousing -- of independent
college life

About this series

This is the fifth in a series of occasional articles on college for Hawaii students and their parents by C. Richard Fassler, in preparation for his book "Hawaii's College Guide: From Preschool to High School." Previous articles published in the Star-Bulletin were:

Nov. 30, 2003: Choosing a college.
June 13, 2004: The transition from high school to college.
Nov. 14, 2004: Whether to attend college on the mainland or stay home
Feb. 20, 2005: The great scholarship hunt is on for Hawaii students.


Tiffany Au is scared.

Back in April, when the Sacred Hearts grad was accepted to prestigious Grinnell College in Iowa, her vision of college was relaxing on a green lawn under warm blue skies, surrounded by happy, smiling, multiracial friends. She saw herself as acing another test and starring in the school play -- one of the most popular kids on campus. These would be the best days of her life!

Now, as the end of August approaches, Tiffany's spending more time packing than partying. Her thoughts of college have changed, too. She sees herself in inky darkness, dressed in six layers of clothing, battling a raging blizzard on her way back to her dorm. She's put in some extra time at the library because she's flunking out. Her dinner that night of breaded catfish, with greasy potatoes and canned corn, will contribute to her weight gain of 10 pounds. She's the only Asian at the school, and to her classmates, she's "the weird girl" from Hawaii, continually teased about not wearing a coconut bra. When she gets back to her room, she'll find her roommate and her latest boyfriend drunk in bed -- all three are now sharing a tiny space. And just that morning, she got a terrible call from her mom. In order for her folks to pay for her education, Tiffany will either have to return home, or they'll have to sell their house!

After a summer of nonstop fun, the anxiety level of students entering college increases as the dreaded opening day of school approaches. Those leaving for the mainland will be especially fearful. Let's take a closer look at these fears.

» I'm going to flunk out.

How well you do academically mainly depends on two things: 1. how difficult your college is, and 2. how tough your high school was. Don't expect to breeze through Stanford or Swarthmore. On the other hand, Iolani and Punahou grads have told me that for many schools of "middle difficulty," their senior year in high school was a lot more challenging. One thing is for sure: If the admissions committee lets you in, it feels you can do the work.

» I won't be able to handle the weather.

When you leave a place where the weather is often regarded as the best in the world, you're not going to improve your situation by going overseas. California and the South will be OK. The Pacific Northwest, with its continual rainfall and overcast skies, can be depressing, but students from Hawaii generally adapt. The greatest return-home rate comes from our students who venture into the Midwest and East Coast where the long winters, freezing cold and darkness are definite factors. Alas, these areas are where the best schools are located.

The first snowflakes bring dancing outside the dorm. But once that novelty wears off, one has to be both physically and mentally prepared. That's why I feel that athletes do the best in these locales.

» I won't be able to eat the food.

Not long ago, mainlanders couldn't spell the word "rice." Now, with large numbers of Asian students in colleges across the land, even the smallest schools are expanding their cuisines. But if you tire of potatoes, buy a rice cooker. What really helps: Tell Mom and Dad to keep the care packages coming until Christmas vacation!

» I'm going to put on 10 pounds.

Weight gain in college, especially among women, is a serious problem. This is because: 1. studying and lousy weather will keep you from exercising; 2. you will snack yourself silly at the dorms; 3. it's an all-you-can-eat pig-out every night at the cafeteria (daughter Kim at Williams College observed: "I've never seen kids eat so much ice cream!"); and 4. and most important, college students tend to go way over the top with drinking in their freshmen year.

Everyone knows that you can get drunk if you drink too much. Few realize that you can also get fat, as alcohol is chock-full of calories. At Christmas, I could tell which of my daughter's friends were into drinking by the amount of weight they put on. If you don't want those extra 10 pounds, exercise, don't snack, don't overeat and don't drink.

» I'm not going to be able to adjust to the haole culture.

For Hawaii students, this can be a tough one. It mostly depends on the school. While I favor small schools over larger ones, I'll have to admit that when it comes to dealing with "culture shock," you're better off at mammoth University of Washington than at tiny Kenyon or Grinnell. But some small schools, such as Pacific University near Portland, have large populations of Hawaii kids, and go out of their way to make them feel at home. Fortunately, most mainlanders have warm feelings about our state and are curious to know more about "paradise." You will receive lots of popularity points just for being from Hawaii!

» I won't get along with my roommate.

I've heard few complaints from Hawaii students about their roommates. Of course, it helps to give him or her a call to get acquainted before arriving on campus and to see who's bringing what. The greatest source of friction I've found is when one roommate locks the other out in order to have sex with his/her boyfriend or girlfriend, or even worse, invites that boyfriend or girlfriend to move in. There's even a common expression for this: "sex-iled from one's room."

"Sex-iled" happens with surprising frequency in today's college dorms because they are usually coed, and the college generally looks the other way. Most often, it's a girl inviting her boyfriend to join her. I suggest reaching an understanding before this occurs and, if it does, putting your foot down ... hard. Let the situation persist and you'll lose not only your privacy, but your ability to sleep and study. Something else for parents to worry about: Many colleges are moving in the direction of allowing students to choose a roommate of either gender!

» Everyone around me is going to be having sex all the time.

Coed dorms, drinking and drugs to the max, the pill and constant exposure to sex on the Internet, in movies, magazines, etc., etc., all add up to -- like it or not (students like it, parents don't) -- a huge sex scene on today's college campuses. My daughter talks about classmates who have to check the freshman "Face Book" to see whom they slept with the night before. All this activity seems rather dangerous to me in light of AIDS and other unfortunate things that can occur from unprotected sex. One indication I had of the problem: the "Welcome Freshmen" lecture at Williams was on date rape. Ladies, be very, very careful.

» Everyone around me is going to be drunk all the time.

Alcohol is such an enormous problem on college campuses today, it's hard to think of the word "college" without thinking of the word "drinking." Indeed, drinking is so pervasive that many students feel that unless they drink, they're not having the true college experience, like going to the library, joining a fraternity or attending a football game.

But the statistics are sobering. According to a recent Harvard study: "Two out of every five U.S. college students regularly binge drink, resulting each year in approximately 1,400 student deaths, a distressing number of assaults and rapes, a shameful amount of vandalism, and countless cases of academic suicide."

Perhaps more fearful of lawsuits than student safety, colleges are starting to react to the tidal wave of alcohol by getting tougher on underage drinkers. But don't expect the situation to change anytime soon.

Parents, getting your offspring ready to cope with booze is, perhaps, the greatest challenge you'll face. I'm sorry. I don't have a magic bullet here. But I've found that some schools, such as Dartmouth, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Colorado and, oddly enough, schools associated with the Catholic Church have a much greater propensity for alcohol abuse than others. Also, if your kid's drinking really bothers you, stay clear of colleges with an active Greek scene.

» I won't be able to afford college.

This one is more for parents than students. We all know that a college, especially a good college, is an extremely expensive proposition. My wife and I pay more than $41,000 per year for the privilege of sending our child to Williams. We've seen the tuition go up a few thousand dollars every year since she's been there, and I don't think we're going to see any slowdown in the years ahead.

But cheer up! There are plenty of loans, scholarship opportunities and campus jobs out there, and if you and your child are aggressive, you shouldn't have difficulties coming up with the bucks because so many people totally disregard these sources of funding.

How do we do it? Like buying anything pricey, we pay on the installment plan! Instead of making one or two heart-stopping payments, we send in a monthly check to a company called Tuition Management Services and then it doesn't seem like we're on the road to bankruptcy.

Tiffany is going to face more challenges than most Hawaii students. She'll have to be tough, strong, sharp and flexible if she's going to make it through four years in Iowa. But if she succeeds, in terms of building a foundation for the rest of her life, she'll be light-years ahead of her friends who decided to stay home or who chose more comfortable college situations on the mainland.

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