Launching Your Geek: Helping Your Outlier Transition to College

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What will college be like?

Thirty years ago, I walked into my freshman college dorm, hung up all my U2 posters, and waited for the fun to start. Nothing happened.

You see, as an introverted book nerd, it was next to impossible for the other kids to get to know me, and I still hadn’t learned how to “speak the language” of the friendly kids. That September began a long, tumultuous quest to fit in, one that may or may not have yet ended.

Last weekend, we dropped off my oldest son at Northeastern University in Boston to begin his freshman year, and although he’s sick of hearing me talk about it, I HAVE learned a lot since my rocky start back in the ’80s. It IS possible for a loner/geek to enjoy his college career, and gain the independence and confidence that comes so easily to his extroverted and popular peers.

A Parent’s Guide to Launching Your Geek

The process of transitioning from an individualist, living in a comfortable cocoon, to a relaxed, functioning member of a group of friends who are responsible for their own happiness is a three-part progression. Whether you have just waved goodbye to a new freshman or are simply thinking ahead on behalf of your younger children, these tips are helpful at any stage of the game.The process of creating an adult version of a geek includes:

1. Letting Go
2. Reaching Out
3. Taking Control

Photo: L. Natcharian
Welcome to college!

Letting Go

Geeks come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing that unites them is their tendency to live in their heads. Also known as being “spacy” or “zoned out,” this habit often results in them missing important bits of information, such as the time of a class meeting or the length of a required paper.

Admit it; you’ve saved your child’s neck more than once when they forgot (or never realized) something important they had to do. And now that they’re away at college, it is completely their responsibility to keep on top of EVERYTHING.

In addition, geeks lean toward the innocent, less-mature end of the spectrum when compared to jocks and popular kids. They still fangirl over the new Star Wars movie trailers, they love their video games and card games, and they are very likely to insist on bringing their collection of toys to college (including Hobbit figures, Bionicles, and the 3,800 piece LEGO Death Star). As a result, they are more likely to suffer from homesickness during their early weeks away. These thoughtful children think deeply about their childhood ending and have a harder time feeling comfortable with that.

These traits may compel you to want to provide extra support to your child, but “letting go” is, in fact, a step that applies to both children and parents when college begins. Your child will learn to let go of his dependence on you when you learn to let go of your panic at letting him fail. It’s time to see if he’s been listening all this time that you’ve been talking. Send him off with his choice of online organizational planner, then don’t ask about it again. Let him figure out how to captain his own ship.

The same goes for packing his things and organizing his room. (I say “he” because it’s familiar, but you know I mean “or she,” right?) His room, his plans. No matter how the piles of Magic cards on his new desk are making your OCD gene engage, keep your hands off. Go make the bed or something.

When we parents went off to college, calling home was a big deal involving hall phones and unwieldy 10-digit long-distance phone card codes. Now, you and your child could technically text each other anytime day or night–but DON’T. Sit on your texting fingers and wait until the freshman wants to talk. Let a few things happen first. Let him work through a few ups and downs by himself. You’ll be there when he needs help.

My son will not answer a text that reads, “How’s it going?” but will immediately text back a silly gif to a photo of a pair of weird wild turkeys unexpectedly walking through our backyard. It’s his way of asking us not to pressure him, while still indulging his fondness for his goofy parents and familiar home. If you can stand it, wait a week before contacting your fledgling flyer. If not, keep it light. A meme along the lines of “May the Force be with you” is always appropriate!

Stocking the geek dorm room
Stocking the geek dorm room

Reaching Out

Here’s where you can finally indulge in your longing to lecture your child. Having raised a geek for approximately 18 years, you have no doubt seen him struggle with making friends. Going to college is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a do-over.

Your child is harboring secret hopes that he can find “his people” at college, yet is simultaneously terrified that he will not make a single friend. Now you can start making comments at the dinner table (apropos of nothing) and talking out loud to yourself in the car about ways to recognize a kindred soul, and how your child can position himself to appear open to new friendships.

Luckily, college students live in t-shirts, so the first step is easy. Geek-themed t-shirts are a walking advertisement for your child’s interests, as are posters and other room décor. Imagine your delight if you had walked into your freshman dorm room and found your roommate wearing a t-shirt featuring Circular Gallifreyan (the written language of Doctor Who, for the uninitiated). Suddenly, you would have had no trouble talking to this stranger. Stock up on your child’s favorite fandom items (which will also function as security blankets).

Now, about that roommate. We all have stories about the weird roommate, but don’t assume that if your child’s roommate isn’t a fellow geek, they won’t get along. That kid is a homesick freshman too, and your geek stands to learn a lot from him. Remember the scene in Dead Poet’s Society when the shy, new guy Todd (Ethan Hawke) first meets his outgoing, popular roommate Neil (Robert Sean Leonard)? Despite his devil-may-care attitude, Neil is a kind boy who recognizes Todd’s anxiety and reaches out to include him in his group of friends. Todd resists for a while but is eventually folded into a strong bond with his fellow students. Let your freshman know that now is the time to say “yes” to every overture, and see where it leads. Specifically, tell him not to bury his head in his phone every minute he’s in the room.

Talk to your child about the best ways to start and nurture conversations with strangers (asking them about themselves, for instance) and how to recognize social signals (eye contact, casual comments while waiting in line, etc). Depending on your geek’s individual level of introversion, you may need to spell out what these signals look like, and even role-play, if you’re charming enough to pull that off before your child locks himself in his room.

One surefire way for your child to position himself as a member of a group, as opposed to a loner, is to offer to help with things. Your computer-savvy geek might like to help the kids on his hall set up their ethernet cables, for example, which not only will endear him to others but will give him a positive reputation that will spread. Encourage him to open his eyes and reach out to the kids around him in minor ways. Again, they’re all potential friends, especially in that early-September window when everyone is looking for their niche.

And speaking of niches, there are more special-interest clubs and activities on college campuses these days than books in the library, or so it seems. At Northeastern, for example, there are over 300 different student organizations, including the alluring appeal of the Anime Club, the Game Development Club, the Tabletop Roleplaying Society, the NU Planeswalkers, and the League of Legends(??). This one’s a no-brainer. You can just drop a list of clubs on the dinner table and walk away (the geek parent’s version of a mic drop).

Who will you be?
Who will you be?

Taking Control

Once your child is comfortable opening himself up to meeting and interacting with all kinds of other people, it’s time for him to start editing. Fitting in is not so much about becoming just like the popular kids, but more about lowering those walls that keep others from seeing who he really is. Once the walls are down, and your eager freshman is surrounded by potential groups of friends, ideally he will be able to choose to join the group(s) that are most like his authentic self.

And who is he? Who does he want to become? This step is the most important in his quest to grow into a happy and productive adult geek. It’s worth it to risk a few epic teenage eye-rolls to ask straight out, “Who do you want to be in college?” Sure, chances are the answer (to your face) will be “I don’t know,” but rest assured, that child is thinking about what you said.

Does he want to be the guy who runs the D&D club? Or will she be the girl who dresses like a forest fairy in the LARPing games? Will he be known for his wry wit, or his prodigious programming skills, or his encyclopedic knowledge of the Star Trek universe? Will she be recognized as the girl in the engineering classes who the boys ask for help, or as the clever person who combined chess and community service in a novel way?

Encourage your freshman to dream big, because college is a rare opportunity to reach for grand goals while still surrounded by support systems if you fall short. Advocate for roaming–suggest that your student step out incrementally into the real world (taking public transportation to find a local Magic card store, for example). Send the message that you support their explorations and experiments.

Which leads to the scary part of college: the experimenting with less-than-legal things. Every parent has his own philosophy in these cases, and that’s a subject for another post, so I’m going to tread carefully here. Let’s assume that we parents will only advocate for strictly legal activities, yet many of your child’s new friends will find themselves drawn to experimentation with unauthorized substances and activities. What is your advice to the child who is still in the early stages of becoming accepted to a new group?

Hiding from life is not productive. Adults do all kinds of things, and an argument can be made that understanding those things and their consequences helps protect a young adult from making similar mistakes. In other words, once you’ve seen a kid throw up because he drank too much, it’s easier to modulate your own intake, once you are legally able.

For that population of geeks who aren’t ready yet to jump into the college party scene with both feet, but would prefer not to stay home alone on weekends, you can prepare them for their experience as interested observers. Discuss how to pleasantly decline a drink or an invitation to participate in any activity that they aren’t comfortable with. Explain how to be present without being completely immersed–how to nurse one drink all night, or plead “designated driver” status, or “I’m taking medicine and can’t drink tonight (aw darn),” or “I have asthma and can’t smoke (can you believe it).” Clearly, your child needs to know when to walk away when things get out of hand, but knowing how to mingle yet stay above the fray is just as important a skill.

Congratulations!

Your child is off to college! You may not recognize your introverted gamer when he comes home for Thanksgiving, and that’s a wonderful thing. We all just want our children to grow up to be happy.

And in the meantime, you can furtively check on them with Find My iPhone. Don’t forget to send Magic cards in those care packages!