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Column: How I survived the college drop-off

I don’t have the words (which is not something I say very often) to describe taking one’s child to college and then driving away. He didn’t turn around to wave as we pulled out of the parking lot. Which was not necessarily a bad thing.

It doesn’t matter how far you’re driving; not really. We’re six hours away from Ian now, but even one hour changes your family dynamics. Because you’re not together every morning, even if it was just a quick “Have a great day!” as he headed out the door. You’re not saying “Hey” as he walked up the stairs on the way to work or cross country or band. You’re not walking past his bedroom, hearing strains of unidentifiable music filtering out from under his door.

Now his bedroom door is open all the time. Which in and of itself is strange.

Over the past few days I’ve thought of a few things to write to you all, but none of them were amazing. I’ve had a few insights, but nothing life-changing. I’ve considered dishing out wisdom and advice and heart-warming images. But what it all comes down to, what keeps coming back to mind, is that this stinks.

But it’s also the best thing in the world.

Yes, it stinks to have to say goodbye to those daily interactions. It stinks to give that last hug and get into the car and drive away. It stinks to worry and it stinks to cry and it stinks to just plain not know.

But it brings joy to know he’s where he needs to be. It brings joy to know that he’s at a school — South Dakota School of Mines and Technology — which, in all we saw through two days of parent orientation, genuinely cares about him and about his success and about his well-being. It brings joy to know he’s already making friends and he’s already taking responsibility and he’s already gone to church. It brings joy to remember how much fun I had, 30 years ago exactly, doing just what he’s doing, and surviving. And thriving. And growing.

I remember saying goodbye to my parents, all those years ago. I remember my dad’s last words to me right before they drove away: “College was the most fun years of my life.”

“What are we, chopped liver?” I thought, a little offended.

But then, over the next days and weeks and months, I came to understand. Yes. College is a lot of fun. I had a great time over those four years. And I still have many friends from the University of Oregon.

But of course, college also requires a lot of work. Especially for an engineering major, which my son (like his father before him) is. (I, by the way was an English major … which didn’t lead to very many job options after graduation. I always say that it’s a good thing I married an engineer.)

Ian is our oldest child. This means that we were new to this whole “drop your kid off at school” thing and didn’t really know what to expect. Now that we’ve done it once, I suppose it might be easier the next time? Then again, I remember clearly, when he was born, being scared because I didn’t know what to expect. And when his sister, Katie, was born two and a half years later, I was scared because I did know what to expect. So I suppose it could be the same with dropping her off in two years. We’ll be sad because we’ll know what to expect: changing family dynamics, open bedroom doors, no one heading off to cross country, or band …

… but we’ll be happy knowing she’s where she needs to be. Where God wants her to be, just like her brother is now.

But no matter how great the school, or how friendly the administration and supportive the professors, the thing that makes it all OK is knowing that God is with Ian, wherever he goes. In that I can trust.

So even when the tears flow and little things set me off and I have no idea if he ate his breakfast or did his homework, or got to bed on time, it’s all good, because he’s in hands far more capable than mine. And nothing could be better — or more exciting — than that.

“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.” Genesis 28:15 NIV

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is