The world is their oyster

The extraordinary things young people accomplish here in the United States and throughout the world continually amaze me. And, yes, I mean the world. While in the past, children went off to college and then came home to find work, this is oftentimes not the case today. The distance separating families has grown to encompass continents and cross oceans. Dealing with this kind of separation requires adjustments to the limited amount of time families are able to spend together. Distance can be a very difficult challenge unless all involved make necessary accommodations.

News filters back to me about the whereabouts of former students when I meet up with their parents, when they stop by on a visit, call for a reference or seek consultations on career planning or potential graduate school programs. An example of a student living far from home is a boy in my first high school prep class in the early 1980s. As a teenager, he was charismatic and popular with his classmates. I was always particularly grateful to him because his success in our program sent out the word to other students.

Highly intelligent and dancing to his own drummer, his practice of never taking a notebook to class during his career at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School earned the chagrin of teachers. A history buff and voracious reader, he entered Macalester College and majored in one of their specialties, Slavic languages. After graduating from college, this intrepid young man spent time in Prague during the Velvet Revolution of the late 1980s. From the Czech Republic, he moved on to Kiev in the Ukraine founding the Kyiv Post, an English-language business newspaper in 1995. Many miles away from his family in Brooklyn, my former student is married and settled. His is just one such story in a world where going off to college can mark the beginning of a lifetime of separation from families that are not otherwise estranged.

Another young lady switched colleges several times before graduating from the program that Tufts University holds in affiliation with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A photography major and documentary filmmaker, she is continually traversing the world from one hot spot to another. Recently, in response to the horror of war, she took a position with a world hunger organization. The junior year abroad is often a given and can fire a love of travel and a lack of trepidation about working in far corners of the globe. This January, an ambitious college junior is off to Paris and has plans to spend quite a few years in Europe working towards a doctorate in art history.

Another young lady told me she aspires to become the next Mother Teresa as she embarks on a year in India before applying to graduate school in public health. The world is indeed their oyster, but what of the parents and siblings left behind? How do families cope with long separations? It certainly can be difficult. Candia Wilson, the protagonist in Margaret Drabble's novel, "The Seven Sisters," feels abandons as she protests, "I am stranded useless, as on a high kitchen shelf."

Fortunately, Candia surmounts depression by a change of scenery, moving from the suburbs to dynamic and exciting London where she starts anew. Although initially overwhelmed in the new environment, Candia has made the right choice and accepted the singularity of her new life.

I am sure the parents of my students traversing the globe far and wide had no idea four years of college would slip into decades of separation. Yet the reality exists that with a world grown smaller and employment precarious, the empty nest may become a permanent condition. It is sad, and one would love to see more families in close contact, but economics and globalization render this impossible.

A dear friend of mine has a wonderful marriage and three beautiful children. She and her husband live in Frankfurt where he works for the World Bank. Her family is in southern California. They are very close, and the separation pains my friend. "My children and husband bring me unspeakable joy everyday," she says. "These little creatures are absorbing three languages, many cultures and show such remarkable flexibility. I envy them for that. My own family, sadly, is falling apart, and this is a source of great sadness, which weighs on me."

The complexities of modern life make it reasonable for the parents of grown children to assume they will need to work and find ways to live a productive healthy life when distanced from those they may so dearly wish were closer to home.