Flying The Coop, by E.A.

The dog days of summer are here, and the start of a new school year is fast approaching. For many, our sons and daughters will “Fly the Coop” and begin another chapter in their life as a freshman in a college far from the nest they grew up in. Their nest, our home, felt safe. They had us for guidance, to prepare meals for them, to do their laundry, to nurture and teach them, and above all to keep them safe. Now, they’re off to explore the world. Both the student and the parent(s) are naturally nervous, apprehensive, and maybe even feel some separation anxiety. This article is about letting go, sending your offspring off with certainty and well prepared into an ever-increasing uncertain world. This is an article on “College Survival”. Many schools require freshman to stay on campus their first two years, and some don’t allow a personal vehicle on the premises, so I frame this article with those two things in mind.

Start off on the right foot

Visit the college or university you intend to enroll, take a campus tour, ask lots of questions, and make sure it fits your needs and that you are comfortable there. Talk with current students (like the tour guide), campus staff, and alumni. Study the campus map, visit the adjacent towns, and study their maps, too, noting key entry/exit points and main streets. Get your bearings (N-S-E-W), and use a compass and map to note major intersections, landmarks, river-ways, walking paths, and so forth.

Plan to meet your roommate ahead of time, if possible, to see if you are compatible; after all, you will be living together for at least one year. Hopefully, you can divide up responsibility for dorm furnishings– microwave, fridge, futon, curtains, TV, et cetera.

Maintain and develop a positive mental attitude (PMA) to complement your GPA. Unlike your GPA, your PMA will determine your altitude in life. Expect some setbacks and some embarrassments, but always, always look on the bright side; the cup is half full rather than half empty. Portray a positive physical image and smile. Trust yourself and your instincts, and have faith.

Develop a network for now and the future

Make friends (plural) from the first day on and every day after. Join one or two of the many clubs offered. Participate with and get to know you classmates. You are all in this together, and the connections you make today will last a lifetime. Get to know your professors– they will guide you and help you with future connections, too. Attend a church with persons of similar faith, attend a church group, and volunteer some time to the community. Find a buddy you can trust with your life; this may take some time, but don’t overlook it. Look for someone with similar interests, and don’t be afraid to learn new skills from your new friends. Your “buddy” can be man or woman and doesn’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be your significant other (SO).

While you are at college, hone your life and independence skills. If you don’t swim at all or very well, use the swimming pool and get some lessons. Learn CPR and first aid; volunteer as a first responder, if possible. Also, consider joining a fire or security squad. Get a group together to geo-cache, and hone your compass and navigation skills. Take part in one of the many student clubs, such as archery, fishing, outdoors, trap/skeet, or similar activity.

What to bring (and not bring)

Pack minimally. Think of it as an extended vacation, and bring only what you need. People pack too much. If you forgot something, don’t sweat it, you can get it locally or have it mailed from home. Pack for the upcoming season, and use fall and spring breaks to swap your wardrobe. Use the list the college will supply of what’s needed from you, and don’t bring valuables. Conversely, bring minimal comfort items and entertainment CD’s, DVD’s, and the like. Leave your stuffed animal or knife collection at home.

Dress for success and dress for comfort. Dress like a student at the university who is serious about his/her education. If you dress promiscuously or like a slob, then that’s what people will think of you. There is no second chance for a first impression, so get it right the first time.

Carry a small pocketknife and bandana at all times, and wear your comfortable hiking boots or shoes. If you are walking outside in the stormy season, carry an umbrella, rain jacket, or poncho. I prefer a poncho, as it has multiple uses. Always have your cell phone on you and charged; it is your lifeline.

Bring your bicycle. It will save you a lot of time, if your dorm and class halls are far apart. You will also need it to go to town for supplies or employment.

Stay organized

Keep everything organized– your school backpack, gym bag, your shower bag, dorm, and even your dresser. You don’t have time to waste looking for stuff. If you have access to a food locker, use it for snacks, Raman, dehydrated food, beef jerky, peanut butter, et cetera. Keep your planner up-to-date with all classes, appointments, test dates, phone numbers, and other important information. Eliminate all clutter. If you don’t need it anymore, send it home, give it away, recycle it, or toss it. Keep your Bug Out Bag (BOB) ready at all times, and keep hard copies of all critical documents and contacts in the bag.

Preparing a BOB

Buy the best, lightweight 3-day pack you can find. Fill it with bare necessities needed for three days minimum or whatever is the estimated time it would take you to get home. If you have camped or backpacked at all, then you may already have many of these items (some are dual purpose). For instance, one-liter water bottles can be used and refreshed every day, and a high quality headlamp can be used for finding your way in the dark or nighttime reading. I would also include map(s) of routes home, a small compass, water treatment tablets, fire starter, hand sanitizer, rain poncho, wool socks, spork (spoon-fork combination) [HJL adds: Anyone who has ever watched Veggie Tale’s “Lord of the Beans” knows that sporks are evil. Drink your soup and use a fork], metal bowl, bug dope, hat and mittens, and dental floss, which is lighter weight than toothbrush and paste and serves multiple uses. The last two items I would add are a small can of mace and some dehydrated back-packing food that has a shelf life of years.

There is no need to pack a knife, boots, Kleenex, or bandana, as you already have these on you.

Staying healthy, alert, and fit

Eat and stay healthy. Look for healthy options in the food program, and avoid junk food, fast food, and foods high in carbohydrates. Keep your distance from smokers, sick people, and above all avoid STD’s. Stay alert, get a minimum of eight hours sleep, and be attentive during class and aware of the outside world. Stay fit, participate in the gym, use the swimming pool, and participate in intramural sports; all of these are usually free of charge. Go hiking and camping with your new like-minded friends. Test out your navigation, outdoor cooking, and camping skills. Learn how to pitch a tent and sleep comfortably and dry out of doors.

Sharing a bathroom

When I first saw the communal dorm bathrooms, I was pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness, but it was summer and probably didn’t portray real world conditions. Nevertheless, it reminds me of a communal bath at many of the state parks with separate toilet and shower facilities. Leave your valuables locked up in your room, and put your room key on a necklace on you. Bring everything you need in a bag, so it can hang from the shower door. Use liquid soap to eliminate the hassle of transporting bar soap to and fro. Use a toilet seat cover or layers of TP on the seat, if needed. Wash your hands well before exiting the facilities. Find a time when shower activity is minimal, such as midday or evenings.

Avoiding trouble

Stay away from pool halls, bars, and alcoholic parties. Don’t smoke (anything) and, for goodness sake, don’t do drugs. Hang with a clean crowd and remain reverent. If you are not 21 years old, you have no business in a bar. Go on group outings, not blind dates. Have a buddy system. Don’t fight or argue; resolve to solve.

Ask for help, if you need it. The university is there for you; you and your parents are paying for your education. Use the resources that you are paying for. That means use the library for study, research, and quiet time. Use the administration or nurse, if needed. Take advantage of the facilities– the commons, the sports areas, and the campus. They are yours for the next four years.

How to hide stuff

If you are clever, you can hide things in plain sight, like under a rug, in a thermos, et cetera. Hide your room key on a necklace, and if you don’t want to carry a knife in your pocket, there are ones available that can hang from a necklace too. Use your food locker to hide/store nonfood items. Here’s how to hide $185.00 in plain sight: Take your Bible and fold a five dollar bill in half, tuck it in page five, a ten in page ten, a twenty, fifty, and a hundred accordingly. Now you have five bills, each progressing in value hidden away in your bible. No one would ever steal a bible, right? Don’t touch the money; it is for emergency only. It is for getting home!

Nightly rituals

Contemplate today. What went right; what went wrong? Learn from the mistakes and move forward. Plan for the next day. Update your planner, whether paper or electronic. Charge everything electronic– phone, headlamp batteries (rechargeable, of course), computer battery, et cetera. Fill your water bottle(s), check in with your roommate to see how their day went, relax, and pray goodnight.

Stay in contact

There is no excuse in today’s world to not stay in touch. Your parents want to hear from you and know how you are doing. So establish a regular scheduled time to communicate by phone, e-mail, an old-fashioned letter by snail-mail, Skype, or Facebook. Have an agreed upon code-word or phrase to alert your parent if something is wrong and you need immediate help. Learn an alternative language (morse code). Join the ham radio club and practice often.

Getting home in a hurry

Suppose you have to leave in a hurry, due to a family emergency or natural or man-made disaster. How will you get home? After all you’re a freshman in a college 400 miles from home and have no car. Don’t panic; you have options. If you need to vacate campus quickly, then walk or ride your bike. Have mom or dad come get you. Just be sure to prearrange a meeting place and approximate time. Check the share-a-ride board and split the costs of gasoline or catch a ride with your “buddy”. Know the locations of the nearest bus station, train station, and airports. Don’t procrastinate; take action to have an exit plan, before you need it.