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College Family Weekends: Forever Jung

“Growing up is a process, not an event.” -Paul B. Jamison.

bucknellIt was one of those crisp, breezy October Saturdays in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, with the leaves just beginning to sport a bit of gold and copper under a cloudless cobalt sky. It was Family Weekend at Bucknell University several years ago, in the idyllic colonial town of Lewisburg on the west branch of Susquehanna River. My husband and I joined my sister’s family to celebrate our niece’s first semester at college, shamelessly donning blue and orange. The Saturday football game versus Cornell was spirited and fun. We were wowed by the University Orchestra and the internationally renowned Rooke Chapel Choir and Rooke Chapel Ringers. We all left wishing to be young again, able to freely partake of such superb intellectual and cultural stimulation on a daily basis.

All over the country each fall, parents visit colleges for family weekends, especially their recently launched freshmen. For many families, it is the first face-to-face since dorm move-in. It is a time to reconnect, check in and take a pulse, and hopefully find that the kid is “settling in” just fine. With fingers crossed not to fall into the trap of sparring in the first ten minutes! 

As a parent, aunt, college consultant, and lifelong psychology aficionado, I was most fascinated by a presentation by Bucknell’s Psychological Services Interim Director, Dr. Tom Balistrieri Ed.D., known to my niece simply as “Dr. Tom.” I expected the typical “no helicopters” speech, but to my surprise, Dr. Tom introduced a new and intriguing concept I’d never heard before: LIMINALITY.

cliffLiminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes. Liminality is a term often used in anthropology, when discussing rites of passage. Folklorist Arnold van Gennep identified three phases of rites of passage: separation, transition, and re-incoporation. Anthropologist Victor Turner described the transitional, or liminal, phase as “the period between states, during which one has left one place or state but hasn’t yet entered or joined the next.”

carl-jungCarl Jung‘s depth psychology refers to a liminal phase in individuation, the process by which a person becomes his or her “true self.” Jungian analyst Bani Shorter wrote: “Individuation can be seen as a ‘movement through liminal space and time, from disorientation to integration…. What takes place in the dark phase of liminality is a process of breaking down…in the interest of ‘making whole’ one’s meaning, purpose and sense of relatedness once more”. There are many transitional, or liminal, periods in each of our lives. One of the most vivid examples is the passage from adolescent to young adult, marked by the physical separation from family of origin brought about by moving to college; initial disorientation and being in a state of flux; and eventually integrating new perspectives as an independent, whole young adult.

seniorcoupleconflictWhile Dr. Tom spoke, I couldn’t help but notice the irony that while college students are experiencing a period of liminality, so too are their parents. It would be so reassuring if parents were unchanging “Rocks of Gibraltar” while their college students were in such a shifting state, but generally they are not. Parents, too, are entering a liminal period in their lives, doubling the sense of disorientation during the college years. I contemplated all the experiences parents of college students often encounter: empty nesting, home downsizing or relocation, midlife crisis, menopause, divorce, remarriage, career relaunch, retirement.  A kid going off to college is really a new chapter for everybody in the family.

rookechapelDr. Tom explained that it is imperative during a liminal phase in one’s life to find a sacred, safe place for grounding. Professors, counselors and RA’s who mentor in a boundaried, responsible way can give centered guidance to young adults in a stage of searching, flux and self-discovery. In her Sunday Sermon at the Rooke Chapel, Bucknell’s University Chaplain, the Rev. Thomasina Yuille, also talked about college freshmen navigating this disorienting new chapter. She wisely reminded us that virtue offers the anchor in a period of flux, both in the supportive college community a student has chosen and in the student’s own personal character.

A composit of various views of a monarch emerging from its chrysalis.

I would add that parents and students should seek out potential colleges that clearly offer such guidance and support. Rather than focusing on academic ranking alone, I suggest that families identify colleges that help guide the student’s transformatonal process from teen to adult. During a period when our kids need to detach from us, we can at least support them by helping them find a college that supports this vulnerable period of metamorphosis. As Loren Pope advised in his classic Colleges That Change Lives, families should seek out schools with “a familial sense of communal enterprise… and a faculty of scholars devoted to helping young people develop their powers, mentors who often become their valued friends.”

As for parents entering our own liminal phase, we need guides too. We all need a Yoda, whether that be a psychotherapist, pastoral counselor, wise friend, or insightful author (one of my own favorite guidebooks is Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Holis). As long as we are living, we are evolving and in the words of Carl Jung, individuating. The exciting adventure continues: we are all “forever Jung”!