LOS ANGELES — It’s 2,111 miles from Elkhart, Ind., to Los Angeles, but Alexa Sieracki isn’t counting.
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The new freshman at the University of Southern California would rather not know exactly how far she is from home, the better to enjoy the first days and weeks of a college dream that managed to transcend hard times in her northern Indiana city.
“I feel like I’m on the brink of so much change,” said Sieracki, 17. who started classes Aug. 24.
But Alexa’s mother, Kris Sieracki, like other parents of some 1.8 million first-time college students at four-year schools across the country, is aware of every inch of the distance. After leaving her youngest daughter in a USC dorm two weeks ago, she is trying to heed the advice of experts who say it’s possible, if painful, to smooth the transition from full house to empty nest.
“It’s just going to take me a while,” said Sieracki, 56, an herbalist and entrepreneur who largely arranged her work around the schedules of Alexa and her other daughter, Natasha, 21. “Motherhood has been like the most wonderful job in the world.”
Although it’s exciting and fulfilling, sending a child to college has rarely been easy, family psychology experts say. The move marks the end of the active stage of child-rearing and a shift to more passive kind of parenting, said Dr. Karen Soren, director of adolescent health services at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
“Ideally you’re onto the next stage, which is the ‘you’ stage,” Soren said.
But for a generation of so-called “helicopter” parents — mothers and fathers who were urged to be extensively involved in their children’s academic and social lives — the shift can be particularly hard, said Marjorie Savage, director of a University of Minnesota parent program and author of a book on the college transition.
“Families today are not the same. They’re closer,” said Savage, author of the 2003 book, “You’re On Your Own (But I’m Here if You Need Me.) “It’s an experience for the family, not just an experience for the child.”
'The end of a phase'
That’s certainly the case for Alexa Sieracki, one of five Elkhart, Ind., students msnbc.com is following as part of long-term coverage of the effects of the economic crisis in one of the nation’s hardest-hit cities.
She was a star student and athlete at Elkhart Memorial High School whose college plans were jeopardized by blows to her family’s income, including medical bills for her mother’s bout with breast cancer and cuts at the U.S. Postal Service, where her 53-year-old father, Tim, is a letter carrier.
But Alexa Sieracki’s dreams of studying geochemistry were fulfilled when she was chosen for an elite spot in USC’s Resident Honors Program and offered a generous scholarship to pay tuition and living expenses, which top $51,000 a year.
“Oh, gosh, how can you not be so thrilled for her?” said Kris Sieracki.
Still, the thrill is mixed with sadness when the family lands in Los Angeles and lugs seven suitcases into a waiting rental car.
“I’m all over the map,” said Kris Sieracki. “It’s the end of a phase for everyone.”
Modern-day parents typically struggle to wean themselves from intense, daily engagement with their college-age children, even as the children struggle to establish themselves as independent young adults, Savage said.
“We tell parents to think about the difference between letting them go and letting them grow,” she said.
That may be easier said than done, especially this year, when new college students are starting school in the midst of a historic recession, which has added financial worry to the emotional toll of the transition.
“I think it has had a more sobering effect,” said Savage, who has surveyed dozens of families. “Parents feel there’s a lot more at stake.”
More than 53 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges said they and their families had some concern about paying for school, and another 11 percent said they had major concerns, according to a December poll by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In the Sierackis’ case, the family scrimped all summer to pay the $2,500 in travel fees to get Alexa to Los Angeles, plus necessary extras that tallied $300 at a local Target store and $800 at the USC bookstore. On top of that, there was a $150 bill for a chiropractor when Alexa woke up on moving day in severe pain with a pinched nerve in her neck.
“It’s a paycheck-to-paycheck game right now,” said Kris Sieracki, who estimates it’ll take until October to resolve the bills.
Still, for the Sierackis and others, finances take a back seat to emotions when it comes time for the actual separation — and then the weeks and months that follow.
In a tiny alcove outside Alexa’s dormitory, the family gathered to say goodbye.
Kris Sieracki clasped Alexa’s hands, then enveloped her in a tearful embrace. “It’s going to be amazing,” she said.
Natasha Sieracki, who’s been through this before, offered her sister a big hug and a broad smile.
Tim Sieracki swallowed hard and reminded Alexa to always remember to take her keys with her.
He hugged her quickly. “Until we meet again,” he said in a tight voice.
Then Tim, Kris and Natasha walked down long, concrete paths, away from a throng of new students waiting for pizza, Alexa among them. When she got far enough away that Alexa couldn’t see, Kris looked back, just once. Tim reached around and patted his wife’s shoulder.
“I can’t believe we’re going to leave her here,” Kris Sieracki said. “Life goes on back in Indiana.”
Such scenes are common every year, and even experts who help organize events to ease college transition say they understand the struggle to separate.
“It can be very hard,” said Joyce Holl, executive director of the National Orientation Directors Association, an agency that provides education and resources for college officials. “It’s like that first day of kindergarten, but my child’s not coming home after school,” she said.
Last month, Holl left her youngest daughter, Maggie, 18, at Minnesota State University. Her older sister, Kalyn, 20, attends the University of Minnesota nearby, but she lives in an apartment.
“I’m still dealing with it, to be honest,” Holl said. “At home, it’s been very quiet.”
Fortunately for parents and students, there’s a science to the freshman year departure process. From convocation ceremonies to parent barbecues, every activity is designed to ease parents away from the school — even as students are eased in.
“At orientation, our people are really having to remind parents to focus on letting go,” Holl said. “If they’re not pleasantly asked to leave, they’re going to stick around with their child.”
Such rites are as much for the benefit of the student as the parent. When parents linger too long, it can delay the young person’s adjustment to the situation, said Jacquelyn Crinnion, 20, the USC resident adviser who will supervise Alexa Sieracki’s dorm.
“Normally, once the parents leave, they do well on their own,” said Crinnion, who has been a so-called RA for most of her college career. “We really find they do a lot better without mommy and daddy.”
In touch by text
Today’s families probably have it easier than those in the past, Soren said. Technology allows them to stay connected in a casual, daily way. Instead of a weekly Sunday night phone call, students are more likely to stay in touch by text or e-mail.
That works well, Soren said, as long as neither parents nor students overdo the communication. She’s heard of parents who text or e-mail their children several times a day, asking about every class meeting or test result. And she’s heard of students who turn to parents with every minor problem instead of figuring it out on their own.
“A lot of families don’t let go and a lot of kids are happy not to let go,” she said. “In some ways, it eases the separation and in some ways, it prolongs the separation.”
The best approach is a balance, Soren said. But that has to start long before the family car is loaded with bed sheets and school supplies. A year or more before a student leaves for college, parents should start allowing far more autonomy and freedom – and focusing on their own post-kid interests.
“I feel strongly this should not be an abrupt transition,” she said.
It’s also good to remember that not all families struggle with the transition to college. Another Elkhart-area girl, Kelsie Draper, 18, moved last weekend into a dormitory at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
For weeks, the family’s mood has been more celebratory than sad, noted her mother, Gail Draper, 52, a guidance counselor at Elkhart Central High School who is sending the youngest of her three kids to college.
“I am just excited about the opportunity for her to go,” she said. “I think Kelsie’s much more capable than she thinks she is.”
But, unlike Alexa Sieracki, Draper’s daughter will be only three hours away, securely on the same side of the country. That proximity makes the transition easier for everyone, Draper said.
“If I was taking Kelsie to California, you’d see tears.”
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints