NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Exactly 50 years ago, a new woman sat down in my spot at the family Thanksgiving table.

The stranger bore a vague resemblance to the chair’s previous occupant. She answered to the same name, took the same heaping helping of the same green bean casserole and knew where to put the roaster when she helped clean up after dinner.

While her appetite was about the same, her attitude was enormous. The achingly shy bookworm whom the family had packed off to Fargo-Moorhead 10 weeks before had seemingly shape-shifted to an altogether different species. Five decades later, she would realize they’d have traded this one to get their old daughter back in a New York minute.

But it certainly wasn’t New York. Home was still the same tiny hamlet in darkest North Dakota where she’d graduated from high school six brief months before. Yet their daughter, v.2, wasn’t the same one they remembered.

Have you, by chance, sent your own fledglings off to college in recent times? Are they coming home from a distant campus for Thanksgiving? Bank the homefires and batten the hatches! That first big family get-together after they’ve unfurled their wings is bound to blow up with a flap or two. You may think you know your kids so well … but guess who’s coming to dinner?

On Thanksgiving 1967, the dutiful 17-year-old who’d sewn her own tidy pastel cotton frock the night before graduation came home in bellbottom denims, fringe and beads, dragging otherworldly LPs to tide her over. Sedate and deferential when her parents sent her out into the world, she returned for the holiday weekend louder, revved up, spoiling for debates and virtually bursting with all the confidence and grass-green wisdom only three scant months on a college campus can impart.

Now that she’d seen the world (Moorhead, at least), her eyes had been opened to all the planet’s miseries and triumphs, contradictions and intellectual shocks. The self-styled scholar headed home eager to share her thoughts on absolutely all of it … a firestorm of newly formed opinions unlike any ever hinted at in that household.

If you’d been at that dinner, along with Grandma, Auntie Irene, Uncle Oscar and her bemused little brother, you, too, could have been battered at length by all she suddenly knew about … well, pretty much everything. The quaint, cozy slipcovers of humdrum home and family had finally been lifted from her eyes. Fresh from one quarter of History 101 and Basic Philosophy, she was personally thrilled with the vast new insights she possessed, and she couldn’t wait to enlighten all the dear simple folk she’d left behind in the hinterland.

The college girl’s parents would have put it rather differently: “Uff da! This kid thinks she knows everything!”

Grandma sadly shook her head but commented only on the hair the fledgling was growing out as fast as she could force it from her scalp. “Your poor hair,” she commiserated vaguely, and added, “You would look so much better with a normal hairdo,” patting her hairnetted steel-blue coif.

The collegiate escaped the fam the next night to meet up with a gaggle of classmates temporarily on leave from the Real World there in the hinterlands. Oddly, they’d changed, too. They all talked more. Boone’s Farm Apple and Strawberry Hill were prominently displayed in a neighbor’s rec room, along with exotic fare like taco chips. For so many who’d been barely hatched into the world, they were eager to reminisce about of the “old days” of their youth, while comparing tales of derring-do in the far-off Big City — Grand Forks, perhaps, or Valley City, Ellendale or Fargo-Moorhead.

Thanksgiving is famous for twanging family tensions, where friction between youthful all-knowing offspring rubs awkwardly against parents’ innocent assumption that they’re still in charge. If you haven’t seen your own little whippersnapper since you dropped him off at freshman orientation, it’s best to practice deep, calming breaths. Those familiar-looking aliens who’ll soon drag duffels of dirty laundry through your front door are going to face a shock or two themselves.

“Our house had gotten so much smaller,” our daughter recalls of her first Thanksgiving at home. “And you and Dad were … not as big as I remembered.”

Fresh from her campus in the Twin Cities, she remembers Fargo-Moorhead looking quaintly droll — pretty much as desolate as my old stomping grounds did back in 1967. “Everything was slower. Drivers had forgotten how to use turn signals, and everybody mostly looked alike.”

She points out, “I remember how pissed you were when I went out with my high school friends the next night and stayed out really late.” Darn right. When preferred to hobnob with her far-flung crew, all fascinated by sizing up how each had changed, than sitting on the couch reminiscing with Mom and Dad. She spent the remainder of her weekend doing what all college students apparently whenever they go home — sleeping soundly in her old bed.

On Thursday, if you secretly fear college has turned your kids into puffed-up know-it-alls, be reassured. Given the next four years of exposure to the universe of knowledge left to absorb, and realizing what a scant fraction they’ve mastered, their heads will eventually deflate. Humility will reclaim the upper hand. Remember, please, that — when you trekked home from school to tackle the ritual roast turkey — your parents thought the same of you. Yet their pride and patience prevailed. They sat back to watch you flap proud wings and crow on the edge of the nest.

DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me —Going Home Again

Here’s a final photograph, and some thoughts about it, from the recent trip Dorette and I made to attend the jazz festival in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe all said you can’t go home again. Wolfe even used the expression as the title of one of his novels.

But I keep trying.

For example, at least once a year, I revisit the North Dakota town where I was born and attended high school. It’s much changed. The last house of my dead parents is dilapidated and apparently abandoned, with no connection now to my inner life.

And then there’s this house at 810 Colfax Street in Evanston, Ill., photographed just the other day. It was my home in the mid-1960s while I studied at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Like myself, it shows the effects of more than half a century of time.

Back then I had traveled by rail to Chicago, arriving at Union Station and connecting to another train to Evanston. After checking my baggage, I walked to Northwestern’s off Camus housing office, hoping to find inexpensive lodging.

I didn’t make it to the long lines of waiting students. A guy with a big grin spoke to me.

“Looking for a room?” he asked. I nodded. “Come with me,” he replied.

In his car, I learned his name was Lester Welty. We retrieved my stuff at the station and drove to Colfax Street.

The house looked great. For $50 a month, I rented one of two rooms he had available (the other was soon taken by a Medill classmate).

Lester’s wife had died recently, and I sensed he was providing sleeping quarters to students so as not to live alone.

Later that year, Lester mentioned he was a retired life insurance agent, although he said his first goal had been to become a Methodist minister.

He showed me several filing cabinets in the basement packed with the records of insurance policies he’d sold over the years. He asserted with pride that he’d done more good as a life insurance agent than he ever would have as a pastor.

And so last week, after tipping my hat to Lester Welty’s memory, I walked from 810 Colfax St. to the Northwestern campus, as I had every day when I was a student.

The distance seemed longer than I remembered, and at one point, I had to consult my iPhone’s mapping application.

So I guess it’s true: at my advanced age, you REALLY can’t go home again

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Navigating The College Admissions Process

It’s the last week of March.

This year, for me, that means that I begin the process of relieving my yard of the detritus that gathered over the winter and recycling all of the items that have been stored in my garage, waiting for a day that was nice enough to haul them to the city recycling bins.

But I also know that this week feels a little different for me this year as an empty nester. Because this is the week when many of the most competitive colleges  in the country send emails that upon opening will yield either shouts of joy or tears of sorrow.

It’s been three years since the tense day arrived for my oldest son. We knew he was going to hear from most of his top choices on Thursday, March 27, 2014.

He’d spent the day at the Regional Science Olympiad and returned home, turned on his computer and sat at the dining room table waiting for them to arrive when the clock turned to 4 p.m. CST. At 3:57 he made me go to the basement. He said I was making him nervous.

So I was emptying the dryer when I heard the first whoop of joy and I ran upstairs to hear the University of Pennsylvania Quakers Fight Song blaring from his computer. When he opened the email from Penn, the first thing he heard was the song, as he read the words, “Congratulations.”

Now that we knew for sure that he had gotten in to one of his top choices, I was allowed to stay in the room, as he opened the rest of the emails as they rolled in — with another yes from Brown and then his dream school, Columbia. We were elated.

About an hour later, when the email from Harvard arrived, the tension was off. Harvard had been a throwaway — a last-second decision made literally because he had an essay he could use for the supplement, and it would be fun to see if he could get in. Columbia had always been the goal.

When he read the words “Congratulations” and clicked on the video of Mark Zuckerberg welcoming him, we were both stunned, to be completely honest. But it wasn’t long before Duncan was hooked, and after a trip to Boston to visit, it was a done deal. He was Harvard bound.

It was a little over 20 months later when his younger brother was put out of his misery of waiting for a decision a bit earlier in his senior year.

We were in New York City, where Ian was one of finalists for the National Wendy’s High School Heisman. The awards event started Friday, and we arrived Thursday, so we spent the day trying to avoid talking about the elephant in the room.

When 5 p.m. EST arrived, Ian left our hotel room to pace the halls, waiting for the email. He opened it as he walked back into the room with a shout of joy — he would be joining his brother at Harvard.

It was actually a good thing he was accepted with Early Action that day because that evening, we had decided to go to a Broadway play — to either celebrate if he got in or drowned his sorrows if he didn’t.

Ian picked the show  — the musical “School of Rock” — based on one of his favorite movies as a kid. But what both of us had forgotten was that in the movie — and the musical — there was a running joke about how you were an utter failure if you didn’t get in to Harvard.  It would have been a really long evening if he had gotten a rejection or even a deferral.

But the truth is, no one is a failure if they don’t get into Harvard. Having two kids there, I hear it from them both all the time. Harvard is just a school. It isn’t heaven.

And the reality is that getting into top college can be a crapshoot. Often there is no rhyme or reason why a student gets an acceptance from one college, waitlisted at another and rejected at a third.

For example, I am aware that none of Duncan’s friends at Harvard who applied to Vanderbilt were accepted. Every last one of them was waitlisted.

Even so, it isn’t uncommon for me to get an email from someone who has a child who wants to go to Harvard, asking for advice. What did my boys do to get into Harvard? And what can they do as parents to support them in their dream? Because in all honesty, the college application process becomes a family affair — even if you have to leave the room when the decision arrives.

I was talking about this to my friend, Tammy, who is also from small town North Dakota and has two children who graduated from Yale and Stanford as well as a daughter who is currently at Princeton. She said she also gets people contacting her, asking for guidance.

As we visited about it a little more, we realized that there may be an untapped market in this area of the country to help both parents and students navigate the college application process, and there are some “tips” we’ve learned along the way. As well as an understanding that not every school is for every student.

Neither of us take any credit for our children’s success in this process — that was done as a result of their own hard work, commitment to being good citizens and natural ability.

We did however, help direct them from time to time. One of my son’s friends refers to her mother as her “Momager,” and that phrase fits Tammy and me perfectly. Doing what we can to help our children succeed on their own terms.

A lot of students have all the tools that they need to successfully get into elite schools, and they most likely would do well there, but they either don’t apply because they are afraid it will be too expensive or else they do apply and don’t get in because guidance counselors and school administrators are not aware of some of the best ways to prepare the best application. That’s not because they aren’t good at their jobs but because so few students ever apply and when they do, they may not know the breadth of top schools available.

In all honesty, many students find that the top schools are more affordable than local state colleges, thanks to generous financial aid programs (for example, anyone making under $65,000 doesn’t pay anything to attend Harvard and you pay only 10 percent of your income up to $150,000.) And there are definitely some ways to improve your chances of getting into a top school. It’s a crapshoot as to which school, but there are pathways to being more successful and to choosing a school that is a good fit.

After talking this over, Tammy and I have decided that we are going to try and fill a niche market. We want to help students tell their story in the application process so that they present their best — and truest — possible self to the college admissions officers. And we want to help mentor parents so that they can present, be supportive but not alienate their children in the process. They may have to leave the room when decision day arrives, but hopefully they will still be on speaking terms!

I’m not sure where this will lead — my empty nest keeps getting filled with opportunities I never imagined. But Tammy and I are excited about the prospect. We are planning a free informational meeting in early June to gauge if there is even interest in college consulting for students and parent mentoring. We want to offer some basic advice to rising seniors who are looking at colleges,  guidance for younger students as they focus on how to develop the best resume while also pursuing their passions and some words of wisdom for parents as they accompany their children. And we will go from there to see what this idea might become.

If anyone who reads my blog has interest or knows someone who might like some guidance, let me know, and we will send you information as our plans become more fully formed. Right now, it is just a pipe dream that we are working to make a reality.

I just know that whatever unfolds in this process, if  I can help some parent hear a whoop from the other room and some student cry tears of happiness as a dream comes true, that it will make this last week in March a little more joyful.