How Can a Commuter Student Loosen Family Ties?

Question: It's nearly December of my senior year in college, and I feel as though my entire college career has been a waste. I haven't made any friends or made any memories that will last a lifetime. I've been discouraged from doing extracurricular activities because my family wants me home for dinner every night after my classes are over, and they've traditionally looked down on clubs and organizations unless they're part of a class. In year four, is it too late to change? Should I just give up or do you have any suggestions for me on how to not waste my last year?

It sounds like you've got two separate but overlapping issues here. It's certainly not too late to spice up your senior year with the collegiate activities and friendships that you've missed so far, but you also have to be looking down the road beyond college. If your family has kept such tight reins on you, what do they expect after graduation? Do they still think you'll be living at home and having dinner with them every night?

A family pow-wow is long overdue. Be sensitive to your parents' feelings and values, but try to explain that they're doing you a disservice by keeping such strict control over your time. Show them the letter that you wrote to us. Help them to realize that you feel your college experience has been "wasted" by the boundaries they've imposed.

If there is a "mediator" in your life (e.g., a relative they respect but who will understand your perspective, too; a member of the clergy or any other adult who might be able to build a bridge between your opposing viewpoints), then it may be time to seek an ally when you propose this talk.

If you don't think the talk will work, start by putting your thoughts in writing, as you did for us. You should address not only your concerns about your squandered college years so far, but also a "game plan" that outlines your goals for the months ahead. Make sure that your plan includes plenty of family time as well as an ample dose of opportunity for you to branch out.

It should also include your post-graduation goals. Are you expecting to live at home? What does your family expect? Could this be a good time to assert your independence by attending graduate school or finding a job that will be too far away to allow you to commute?

Before you approach your family, you might want to read this article, "Commuting: Is it the Right Fit?" by Nicole Verardi

Although it's really geared to high school students and their parents who are considering a commuter college, I think that some of the advice is apt for you, as well. Note my own comments near the end that call for clarifying parental and student expectations regarding commitments to the household.

Pay special attention to the section that suggests that "You Don’t Have to be Disconnected from the Campus Experience." This offers you some ideas on how to be more involved on campus. Even with just a semester or so left, you've got time to enjoy your college career.

Here's an appropriate holiday gift for your parents:

Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years, by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger.

While, again, this book is best read by those whose offspring are just finishing high school, your parents should still find it useful and comforting. If you think you can present it to them in a way that won't enrage them, then it's worth a shot. Nonetheless, you should anticipate some anger and/or hurt feelings as you broach this topic, but hold your course. The issue is too important to sidestep simply out of fear of an unpleasant confrontation.

Meanwhile, try not to feel as if your college years have been wasted because of your homefront situation. Sure, you may always have regrets about how you spent your time--or didn't. But rest assured that many of us who did fully participate in college life look back with regrets as well (plus there are all those awful photos that keep resurfacing. Believe me, when you're 55 you don't want to see yourself in a toga at age 19!) With hindsight, you will probably find that there are even pluses to your circumstances. In any case, it does no good to dwell on what might have been. It's time to focus on the future and on the changes you can make over the months immediately ahead--as well as in many years beyond them.

We wish you well.