We all know that military family life and civilian family life differ. What you might not realize is that this month, and next, as families drop their 18 and 19 year olds off at college for the first time, military families face more difficult separations than are the norm. Case in point: I moved our firstborn son, Zack, into his college dorm last Thursday, and I’ll soon have to say goodbye to him and fly 7000 miles back to China, leaving him on campus in the Midwest. I’m lucky that he chose a school in my hometown; my parents live in a spacious house 25 minutes from campus (our home away from home –thanks, Mom and Dad) and are ready and willing to help Zack with anything he needs.
Approximately 200,000 Active Duty Service Members are stationed overseas, and many of them have families who accompany them. Going through the college application process from overseas adds a degree of difficulty. Many military families do not own a home, and therefore, when stationed overseas, we face the predicament of paying out of state tuition no matter where our kids go to college. Establishing residency has always been difficult for military families, but in 2009, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), obliging public universities and colleges to grant in-state tuition status to children of active duty service members in the state in which they live. This progress does not always make it easier for military families overseas, however, who often have to petition for eligibility for in-state tuition.
Tuition aside, sending a military kid to college is a unique escapade. For our family, like many others, it has been a more than two-year process. During summer break, home in the US from our posting in Taipei, in 2015, our we toured the campuses of three universities in my hometown. Zack took the SATs and ACTs as a student at the Taipei American School. The school’s college advisory department helped him through the application process. He applied to schools in both my home state and the state in which we might have been sent had our follow-on overseas tour orders fallen through unexpectedly. We always have a plan B.
Zack received acceptances and chose a small liberal arts college in my hometown; the small number of students, low student to faculty ratio, and proximity to grandparents all appealed to him. He was granted academic and military kid scholarships, making the private school tuition more affordable. When Zack was due to start his Freshman year, our family executed our orders to move to Beijing, China. Zack wanted to spend a year in Beijing before starting college, so he took a gap year and stayed with us for an extra year.
Zack spent his gap year studying Chinese, nine hours per week, in a one to one class. He learned to navigate Beijing on foot and by subway, and began to enjoy some independence. He passed his Chinese fluency exam and will continue to study the language in college.
The process got increasingly more complicated. Summer 2017 arrived and the four Homefront kids and I wasted no time getting out of Beijing to enjoy time in the US. Zack grew very anxious about staring college and living so far from his parents and brothers. My anxiety reached a peak at the same time. Like any parent, I worried about Zack starting college, but I also fretted about sending Dwight, Bob and Harold back to China on their own. They had to get back to start school, but I had to stay in the US for several extra weeks to help Zack.
We originally planned for Horatio to fly to the US, spend a few days with family and then fly back to Beijing with the boys. Times are a bit tense in the Asia lately, though, so Horatio canceled his trip for more pressing matters at work, leaving 16 year old Dwight to take charge of getting himself and his younger brothers through immigration, security and three airports. Despite some delays, the boys made it safely back to Beijing, where Horatio waited for them. Thank G-d.
Horatio was tied up with high-level delegations, not to mention all of the other complicated issues in the Asia/Pacific region, so the boys were on their own for much of the weeks leading up to, and including, the first week of school. Dwight and Bob helped Harold and they all persevered. It’s what military kids do.
I remain in the US. Zack is settled into the dorm, but I’ve heard too many nightmare tales of kids who don’t fully settle in and need extra attention in the first weeks of college, so I’m here for three full weeks after move-in day. My phone is on 24/7, no more airplane mode during the night. I have to be available when any of the kids might need me, day or night, in the US or China. Horatio’s schedule has settled down a little, he’s not traveling and working just 18 hour days, so he is spending some good time with the boys. I’ll be back home (where the Navy sends us) in a few weeks, and for the foreseeable future, we will live a bi-hemispheric family life. It’s our new normal.