My husband and I just returned from our youngest daughter’s graduation from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
Four years, come and gone in a flash.
It seems a minute ago we moved Emily and all her boxes up three flights to her freshman dorm room on a warm August afternoon, making small talk with another family to break the ice between the nervous roommates while a freight train rattled past.
Now our van is parked in our Alameda driveway, filled to the brim with relics of her college life: welded metal sculptures, handmade rice paper lanterns, a burnt-orange bicycle with corroded handlebars, duffels stuffed with dirty clothes, and boxes of paintbrushes, pencils and mismatched kitchen utensils.
And her bunny is getting reaquainted with our dogs in the kitchen.
Emily thrived at Willamette, and we are both grateful and relieved. Like many families, we agonized over selecting just the right college to ensure a good experience and a successful future. Her older sister, Sarah, went to UCLA. It was a perfect fit for Sarah who, after a lifetime of small schools in a small city, was aching for a much bigger school in a much bigger city.
Sarah’s competitive nature allowed her to fend for herself in the bureaucratic jungle and get what she needed. Emily avoids competition at all costs, so Willamette’s smaller classes and nurturing environment was a better choice for her. It continues to amaze me how two girls in the same home from the same parents can be so entirely different.
Willamette’s campus looks Ivy League—formal brick and limestone buildings on rolling green lawns, right across the street from the grounds of the state capitol. There are blossoms everywhere—pink and white dogwood trees with so many flowers you can’t see leaves, magenta rhododendron and gigantic azaleas the color of tropical sunsets. (It’s amazing what a little water will do. I just bet that’s where the Miracle-Gro folks go to film their commercials.)
A private school that beautiful doesn’t come cheap. Even with a partial scholarship, it was still more than we could afford. But because it seemed so right, we made it happen, one monthly tuition check at a time. Then came the Great Recession.
Emily was a junior when we received a letter from the university summarizing their position on the economic downturn. My stomach dropped just like the time Sarah talked me into riding the Vortex at Great America. I was sure they were going to hike tuition, and I didn’t know how we were going to tell Emily she had to transfer.
I took a deep breath and pulled out my reading glasses. The letter said Willamette understood that parents who chose to send their children to private college before the economic crisis might no longer be able to afford it. So rather than raising tuition to meet expenses, the university would offer a “scholarship” percentage discount on tuition if the student worked hard, kept grades up, and graduated on time. If for some reason they didn’t, Willamette would consider the amount a zero interest loan, payable after graduation. The letter shook in my hands as my tears threatened to splash onto the page.
So we accepted their terms, sent our monthly checks, and now college is over. Emily met her prerequisites, kept her grades up and made it out in four years. I am grateful to Willamette, to her professors, to the college counselor five years earlier who told us that this school would be a particularly good fit, and to Emily.
You should have seen the beaming smile on her face at graduation under that big white tent, under that mortarboard cap, strands of tassel blowing across her cheek, teasing the corner of her mouth.
Across the crowd in rows of chairs, we waved our code wave, one of us pointing to our eye, then crossed fingers, then pointing at each other, translating to “I – Love – You”, and the code response the same, ending with two fingers up in a peace sign, meaning “I – Love – You – Too.”
Years ago, when our girls were little, an old boss of mine warned me that parents were not entitled to take credit for their children’s accomplishments. We shouldn’t say, “We are so proud of you.” They are the ones who earned it, and who are entitled to ownership of their accomplishments. What we should say instead is, “You should be so proud of yourself.” So I say, “Emily, you should be so darned proud of yourself!”