Saturday, March 24, 2012

Would I like my child to have a 4.0 GPA? I'll take this instead.

Both my kids are nearing the ends of their college careers, and as I took back over the last few years, I wholeheartedly agree with those who say there's more to the "college experience" than earning a degree. I've been reminded lately, as my son prepares to graduate, just how much more college offers than a name in a frame.

Like most parents of more than one child, I have kids who are vastly different from one another. One has taken a straight path to a goal she first identified in fourth grade; the other has taken a roundabout way of finding his passion. And they're now both on roads that are right for each of them. I'm not at the point at which I can look at them and say "My work here is done," but I'm getting closer.

Scott's road has included a lot of diversity; not just in the places he's studied, but in the friends with whom he's chosen to study. He spent an exchange semester in northern California and a summer in England; he traveled to South Africa, and he's hoping to visit friends in Sri Lanka this summer. His girlfriend is from Johannesburg; his close friends are from Qatar and Japan and India and numerous other countries.

I don't know about you, but when I was in college, my friends hailed from such venues as Davenport and Postville; when I went home with my college boyfriend to a Milwaukee suburb for the first time, the fact that the bars stayed open till 4 a.m. was my idea of exotic. So I look at my son's world, and I'm thrilled for him; as he once said, "No matter where I go in the world, I'll have somewhere to stay."

He invited me to an event that was held last night at Iowa State; it's called the Global Gala, and it's presented annually to celebrate the many countries from which ISU students hail. Scott's friends wore elaborate costumes and participated in dances that honored more than 20 ethnicities. I was enamored of the talent and could have watched all weekend.

Contrast that, again, to when I was in college. "Foreign students" lived in a dorm all their own; I'm sorry to say I didn't know any of them personally, but the ones I remember strapped on their backpacks and walked quickly to and from their classes, not taking the time to participate in many extracurricular activities. I'm ashamed to think of how little I did -- nothing, in fact -- to extend a welcome to these students who were so far from home.

This semester, Scott has visited his friend Ahmad's apartment to eat Qatari food. He cooked an Italian dinner for a group that included not only Ahmad and Scott's girlfriend Katleho, but also Shun from Japan, Onalie from Sri Lanka, Nidhi from India, Ashok from Malaysia, and others I'm forgetting. I look at the photos from that night and see a bunch of really happy young adults reveling in the company of one another, and I'm thrilled for my child.

I'm liberal in my world view, and it's easy to talk about embracing and learning from and respecting other cultures; it's another thing to realize that you yourself have never really taken the opportunity to do that. I'm a white girl from Iowa; with a few exceptions, the people with whom I associate are white people from, if not Iowa, the Midwest. I had Latina friends in grade school and exactly one African-American friend in high school, but since then, I've not found -- or is it that I've not sought out? -- the diversity I've always wanted my kids to experience.

That's why when Scott warns me that he's probably not going to live in the United States -- and certainly not in Iowa -- I really, truly get it. "There's so much more out there," he says, and I know him well enough to know he won't be happy until he experiences it.

The homebody in me wants to gather my kids -- and eventual grandkids -- around the table for Sunday dinner each week. I'm hoping beyond hope that Caroline's career allows her to stay close by, but there are no guarantees; she has a very bright future ahead, and her skills could be in demand elsewhere. So Sunday dinner may entail eating with my husband as I Skype with my kids wherever they happen to be.

Tuition payments haven't been cheap. But as I looked around last night, I realized I would have paid twice as much for my son to construct the world he's built for himself. And I'd best be racking up those frequent-flyer miles now.

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