CHICAGO — Like thousands of college students this time of year, Northwestern University freshman Jim Sannes can’t wait to spend time at home this summer.
Sannes, 19, is looking forward to relaxing and “just being around the surroundings I grew up with, the same house I grew up with. It will be a nice feeling.” He grew up in Kasson, Minn., 350 miles from Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Ill.
But after nine months away, campus and the place where college students grew up may seem worlds apart. Summer at home — so often eagerly awaited by the students, their parents and siblings — is often a mixed-up time of happy reunions, unexpected challenges and weird new family dynamics as not-quite adult kids return temporarily to the nest.
“They have a whole new world, filled with new friends and new ideas, new independence,” and that sometimes clashes with things back home, said psychologist Karen Levin Coburn, a consultant at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years.”
Cindy Jez, a 55-year-old real estate manager in Richmond, Va., has gone through these transition summers several times with her two oldest boys, a junior and senior in college.
“I remember crying when they first went to college. Now I’m crying when they come home,” she jokes.
Don’t get her wrong — Jez loves having the boys back home. And yet, she also knows their return means piles of dirty laundry, a perennially lost TV remote, a disconnected security alarm to accommodate their late nights out, and jealousy from her two younger sons as the big men on campus suddenly get all the attention.
“The first time they come back there’s always an adjustment period,” Jez said. They’re used to the freedom of college life, and “there are still boundaries at home.”
“I try not to be a nag. I try to recognize that they’re young adults,” she says of sons Nolan, 20, and Cory, 22. “They need to have their own sense of responsibility. At the same time, I find myself constantly doing reminders. I’ll send them texts: ‘Picked up eight pairs of filthy socks in the family room last night.’”
“It’s a balancing act” for everybody, Jez said.
Meryl Pearlstein, a New York City public relations executive and writer, experienced that last summer when her son, Evan, returned home after freshman year at the University of Vermont. Having him back home was a treat, and knowing he’d successfully navigated that first year away made Pearlstein and her husband proud. But with a younger son at home, “there are turf wars for the car, the living room, the TV and more,” Pearlstein said.
“I do hate having World Wrestling Foundation on TV and finding snack wrappers in the living room.” And when Evan would announce that he’d be home at 3 a.m., “We said, ‘No you won’t.’ ”
“There’s a bit of give and take over the summer,” Pearlstein said.
Times have changed since Coburn’s book, now in its fifth printing, was first published, in 1988. Today’s college freshmen weren’t born, and talking with mom and dad while away at school often meant waiting in line for the pay phone in the dorm hallway.
“The whole concept of helicopter parents didn’t exist,” Coburn said. Now, with ubiquitous cell phones, texting, email and Skype, families often communicate daily. That can create an illusion that things will be like they always were. Coburn says students and parents need to “do a reality check.”
“For many parents, it’s hard to let go of that parental role, even after nine months apart,” Coburn said. “And kids used to leaving dorms a mess, staying up all night, need to realize that’s not how it works in their parents’ house.”
Families should discuss expectations soon after their students arrive back home — things like curfews, household chores, family dinners, and spending money, so everyone is on the same page, Coburn said.
Despite all their new-found independence, for college kids, home “is still their emotional touchstone. It’s just important for parents to be sensitive to that,” Coburn said.
“They expect their parents to be totally supportive of their changes — maybe the kid who used to only eat burgers has gone vegan or cut off all her hair. But they really don’t want their parents to change at all,” she said. “They want things to be just as they were when they left.”
When Cindy Jez’s son, Nolan, returned home after freshman at the University of Kentucky, he found that his 17-year-old brother had taken over his room, with the big TV and a huge Texas Longhorns mural Nolan loved.
“I was very connected to that room,” Nolan Jez said wistfully. He had to move to an upstairs bedroom. His parents had warned him, but still, it was “definitely” an adjustment.
There are other adjustments, too, he said.
“My brothers hate when I come home. They feel like I’m ruling the house.”
“My mom goes off on these random spells when she wants us to do one million chores,” he said. And his parents “make it very obvious to my brother and I that we have to be in by a certain time.”
Still, Nolan said he doesn’t really chafe at the rules. “I understand. It’s their house.” And, he added, “I love being home.”
Darla Weaver, a transfer student at DePaul University’s bustling Chicago campus, says going back to her parents’ house last summer in sleepy Sacramento, Calif., was sort of a culture shock. Classes, work on the student newspaper and big-city life keep her really busy, “and when I went home it was just so slow,” Weaver said. “It’s kind of like I was living different lives.”
Her parents had sold her car, so “it kind of felt like I was in high school because I had to borrow my mom’s car.” Plus, her mom would ask where she was going.
“She doesn’t know what I’m really doing out here in Chicago. I could be getting drunk every night. I’m not — but I could be and she couldn’t say anything about it,” said Weaver, 22.
And yet, she, too, loves going home, and even likes sometimes lapsing back into the kid role, “not having to worry about things, like what I’m going to eat tonight, am I going to have to eat off the dollar menu. My mom will pretty much take care of that for me and my family,” Weaver said. “There’s definitely a comfort level I miss a lot.”
Sannes, the Northwestern student, will spend part of his summer on a broadcasting internship in Wisconsin. But he got a taste over spring break of what may be in store when he does head back to his small Minnesota hometown.
“When you’re driving through town, you feel like people are thinking, ‘You’re not supposed to be here. You don’t run this town anymore.”
He’s looking forward to some changes. His stepbrother, a fifth-grader, “seemed older” at spring break, “almost in that age where he kind of wants guidance, like a big brother,” Sannes said. “That’s going to be kind of cool.”