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Saying Goodbye

October 10, 2010

Here’s a column I wrote for the Gulf Daily News, which appears in today’s edition. Every year, thousands of students, both nationals and expatriates, head out of the Middle East to foreign academic institutions, both in the West and in the East. For kids who have been brought up in tight family groups, this can be a difficult and disorienting experience. Reactions to their new-found freedom range from wild exuberence to retreat and rejection. Those in the middle of the spectrum ususally do fine.

One area of my business involves equipping students to deal with the transition from school to university, so it’s a subject close to my heart. Middle Eastern countries spend billions of dollars on foreign education. A lack of planning and psychological preparation can lead to much of that money being wasted through drop-outs and, in some cases, mental breakdown.

Then there’s the issue of the expectation of the students when they come back with their degrees from prestigious universities. Some find that their degrees are less valued by local employers than they hoped. They expect to walk into high-salaried jobs from the off, and are disappointed because nobody told them that there’s a difference between what they learn at university and what they need to know to become effective in the workplace. I touched on this in a recent piece.

Here’s the GDN column, which deals mainly with the parting for students and their parents, something we’ve been through a couple of times:

We first said goodbye when we dropped her off at primary school. Crisp new uniform, two sizes too big because she was so tiny she wouldn’t fit the smallest available. Lunchbox almost bigger than she was. Bright eyes, ready for school. A tear in Mum’s eye – there goes our youngest.

Six years on, and off to big school. Things are getting serious now – exams to think about, careers, decisions, Mum and Dad not sure what to advise. Let’s wait and see how the exams go. Suddenly she’s eighteen, she’s got the grades, she knows what she wants to study. Results day is chaos, but thank God she has her place!

Come September last year, our youngest set off to University for the first day of the rest of her life, following in the footsteps of her sister who took wing four years earlier. This was the big goodbye. Of course we didn’t stop worrying about how she was doing. Was she safe? Was she happy? How was the course going? Had she run out of money? But from a distance.

Around this time, such little dramas are playing out in families across the world. For parents everywhere, especially those whose kids are leaving home for the first time to study in universities thousands of miles away, there will be a sense of an end of an era. They are no longer under our control. They are becoming adults. They’re on their own for the first time. Just as worrying, so are we. After so many years of the school routine – drop-offs, pick-ups, extracurricular activities and family holidays – our babies are gone.

It’s tough for parents to see their children fly the nest. Typically, mothers find it hardest, especially if they’ve given up their careers to care for their young ones, supported them in their education and picked them up when they fall over. We start re-appraising our lives, thinking about what will fill the gap, but still worrying about those who have gone away. This is often the time when we also start worrying about our own parents, who are moving into old age and increasingly depending on us for help and support. So nests are rarely empty – one set of birds are replaced by another.

For the young ones, the path is also not easy. University can be a life-changing experience. We meet new people, we change our views on life. Sometimes we change our career aspirations and find ourselves on the wrong course. If we move away from home, we have to deal with different cultures, different ways of thinking and studying. Sometimes we get lonely and confused. Maybe we embrace the new culture, and become American, Australian or British in our outlook and behavior. Then when we come home in our new incarnation, we’re upset when our parents can’t accept us as we are now. And our parents are upset when we question their lifestyles, customs and behavior.

As I was driving to the airport for my flight back to Bahrain the other day, my wife and I spotted a people carrier in front to us packed with belongings – bags of clothes, a new printer, cardboard boxes, Mum and Dad in the front, daughter in the back. Off to University for the first time. We’ve been there twice, so we can spot them a mile off.

Every family deals with the transition to adulthood in their own way. Leaving home is the final frontier. A new relationship awaits – sometimes difficult, often full of pride and joy. It’s a time to be thankful – as parents that our children have successfully made it this far, and as young adults that we have opportunities denied to many others. Good luck to one and all!

One Comment
  1. Graham Meech permalink

    Steve … been there four times mate .. it doesn’t get any easier with each one, especially as our last one was our only daughter. Get the tissues out !!!

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