ActivePaper Archive That Leap of Faith - Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition, 8/28/2016

That Leap of Faith

Educator sees Bryn Mawr College’s Move-In Day from anew perspective, as a parent.

AARON WINDHORST / Staff Photographer

Elizabeth Mosier with daughters Alison (center) and Catherine at Alison’s Move-In Day at Bryn Mawr College. Asa teacher and recruiter there, Elizabeth has assured many other parents that it will all be OK.

‘Why aren’t you crying?” my daughter Alison asked, looking around at the other parents and students saying their goodbyes.

We'd just left the Freshman Assembly, where she’d marched with her class through the grand, gothic hall, following the president and provost, the deans and directors, all appropriately imposing in their academic regalia. Of course I’d teared up as the organ music swelled, and as the glee club sang of childhood’s passing and the bright beginning of college years — she is, after all, my firstborn. And the weight of such an occasion is never lost on me, the granddaughter of people whose formal education ended before high school. I was raised to see school as salvation. I’ll cry at any movie or TV show or commercial set in a classroom.

So why wasn’t I crying on my daughter’s college Move-In Day?

Because after 25 years working in higher education — recruiting and teaching at my alma mater, Bryn Mawr College — I thought the day students arrived on campus was the happiest day of the academic year. For the admissions officer traveling the country seeking applicants or the teacher mapping the semester with a syllabus, the day the anticipated students materialize is the day our theoretical work becomes real. The annual August influx of frosh is a reminder that a college isn’t merely a campus filled with iconic architecture but rather, a complex construction made by the people who inhabit it. Even seasoned professors and career administrators are moved by the shift in focus, from performance to potential, the incoming class always brings.

Over the years, I’d reassured many anxious parents that they could trust the people receiving their children — because I was one of those people. I’d taught my own daughters to see college not as leaving home but as enlarging their world and broadening their perspective in a place designed to develop capacity.

I realize now that my point of view is skewed by my long career seeing promise in adolescents and finding words and images to convey possibility. I’ve written and produced a library of admissions materials to translate Bryn Mawr to newcomers, from the course catalog to the financial-aid brochure to the student prospectus. I’ve traveled 14 weeks a year to talk with high school students in 15 states, interviewed hundreds of bright young women from all over the world, and read thousands of pages of their essays — the best of which projected the applicant into the college landscape, revealing her intention not just to pass through but to lay claim.

I wasn’t crying on Move-In Day because I was all too aware of the administrative scaffolding that would help Alison make a home at her alma mater. Isaw painstaking planning in the spruced-up campus, the team of cheerful sophomores hefting her luggage up the dormitory stairs, the catered reception staged at an awe-inspiring spot — all the scheduled pit stops on the way to this lovely ceremony meant to gently wrench our children from us. I recognized the choreography of separation: families in the audience, students up front facing the in loco parentis leaders of their new community, seated on stage. I’d stood on such a stage myself, sharing anecdotes and citing statistics about our incoming class to reassure them and their families that they were deserving and well-chosen and already familiar.

But this was my first time in the audience, my first experience as the parent letting go. I had no family model to follow; my own parents had shipped my trunk east from Arizona and put me on a red-eye flight to Philadelphia. I still remember how, at winter break in my freshman year, I’d burst into tears at the Phoenix airport when I saw my dad waiting for me at the baggage carousel. I was suddenly homesick — because I missed my family but also because I knew something my dad didn’t: that Bryn Mawr was already “home.”

Perhaps Alison was feeling similarly mixed emotions, after all the studying and daydreaming it took her to get to college. We kissed her and told her we loved her and had great faith in her — and still Ididn’t cry. Because I was all cried out after a cascade of personal loss — most recently, the death of my friend and mentor Karen Tidmarsh, Bryn Mawr’s beloved undergraduate dean, whose campus memorial I’d had to miss to be here to send my daughter off.

Back at home in my office, I opened a closet door and was overwhelmed by the sight of my children’s craft supplies and the scent of the quilting fabrics I’d inherited from my departed mother-in-law, still infused with her perfume. In the way that loss triggers loss, I felt all my losses, all at once. I stood there sobbing in the craft closet, feeling the physical absence of my daughter and the conceptual surrendering of my maternal role and the irretrievable passage of time.

And then I remembered what I’d learned during all those years working at Bryn Mawr, and learned again from hospice nurses who’d offered comfort as my mother-in-law slipped away. As painful as it is to be left behind, departure is progress for the person leaving. When I was done crying, I closed the closet door on those collected, treasured things, and turned to the task of moving into midlife, my time to try to realize my own latent potential.