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Saying goodbye

Going away to college can feel to some students like entering a witness protection program. They leave behind their friends, most of their possessions and their reputations, and start all over again.

If that experience seems daunting, consider the students' grieving parents. They are saying goodbye to a child they have fed, nursed and prodded to learn since Day One. Now, at around Day 6,570, they have to let go. And it's not easy.

On Sunday, a handful of Ashland parents boarded the late-night United Airlines flight from Denver to Medford sans a child. Each had just dropped off a teenager at a different college. The parents realized they were on the same mission when they saw each other at the airport before they flew home.

"We almost missed the plane because we were commiserating together," said John Javna, who spent the weekend in Colorado Springs with his wife, Sharon, and daughter Sophie, 19, who is attending Colorado College. "They were calling our names on the address system."

Separating is serious, especially when students leave a small city such as Ashland to attend college, said Michele Borba, author of "The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries."

"Going from a small town to a small college in a small town isn't such a jolt as going from a small town to a huge university," she said Monday. "The basic difference is the home-spun feel. Everyone knows everyone."

The Palm Springs, Calif.-based expert thinks teens who have spent time in a large city and those with an easygoing temperament may have an easier time.

"Some are orchids while others are dandelions and grow anywhere," she said. "The adjustment may take a bit longer for some, but it's all part of the away-from-home experience."

The Javnas attended presentations during the college's orientation days that focused on the philosophy of learning, what to expect and how to let go.

"It's the universal experience of parents handing their child over to people they don't know and realizing that there is a permanence to this," said John Javna. "What a trauma."

He said his daughter is lucky because she likes the school and her roommate. But not everyone has that experience. He has heard stories of college-bound children deciding not to go at the last minute.

"The kids freak out because they are not ready to go," he said, adding that his daughter's experience brought back memories of his first days of college. But now he sees it from the other side.

Parents are wrestling both with the joy of seeing children going off to do what they were raised to do and the sadness of knowing that if it works out, they will not be coming back.

Even when children return to the home temporarily, it is never the same, said Southern Oregon University psychology professor Patricia Kyle.

"This separation is a natural time to cry and experience pain, but it is also the time to start a new relationship with your children," she said, "one in which you are a coach or cheerleader on the sidelines, not someone doing everything for the child or telling the child what to do."

Kyle, who teaches family counseling and child/adolescent development, said parents need to show that they believe their child has the capacity to succeed on his or her own.

Ron Hansen, who owns Gold & Gems Fine Jewelry on the Plaza, was on Sunday's United plane, too. He had spent five days with his son Billy, 18, at Regis University in Denver. Billy's mother, Ingrid Hansen of Ashland, was also there to get Billy oriented to his new residence.

When asked how he felt the morning after he returned home, Ron Hansen paused and then said quietly: "Do you have three hours?"

After reflecting for a few minutes, he said, "Honestly, I am overjoyed for my son. He has worked very hard to earn this opportunity. At the same time, I am sentimentally reflective and can hardly believe that my little boy is off to college."

Parents of students attending Southern Oregon University have a few more weeks to prepare for the separation.

SOU's Weekend of Welcome is Sept. 20-23. In between Thursday's family barbecue and Saturday's tailgate party before a football game, there will be discussions on adjusting to the change.

Freshmen are required to live in the campus dorms, and even though they may be only blocks away from their parents, there still will be tears.

"It doesn't matter if they are eight miles away or 800 miles away," said Scott Ralston, whose son Alec graduated from Ashland High School in June and is attending SOU this fall. "But good parenting is letting your child grow and move on."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.