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Incoming college freshmen have a lot to learn — about living, as well as their studies

Someone yelled “Dogpile!” and Strawberry Crest seniors piled on at Senior Field Day on May 25 at the Dover school. They’re prepared for their caps and gowns. Parents may wonder — is my child ready for college? There’s some comfort that there are small safety nets along the way.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Someone yelled “Dogpile!” and Strawberry Crest seniors piled on at Senior Field Day on May 25 at the Dover school. They’re prepared for their caps and gowns. Parents may wonder — is my child ready for college? There’s some comfort that there are small safety nets along the way.

By the time they turn 18, teenagers have had countless lessons hammered into their heads:

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

How to find the value of x in an equation of alphabets.

What happens in the cross of a mother's dominant genes with a father's recessive ones.

But what does that all matter if they don't even know how to wash their laundry?

"Until you leave home, you always have that element of 'Mom and Dad are there to help,' " said Riverview mother Stephanie Wilson, 34. "Mom and Dad are there to pick me up, clean me off, guide me through it."

But then most teenagers are forced to face unconquered territory: how to live alone.

These new adults will need to buy groceries, pay the electricity bill and clean the toilet. They will deal with roommates and landlords, weird neighbors and that funky smell drifting out from who-knows-what corner of the kitchen.

In the thrill of coming of age — of independence — responsibility sure has a way of tempering gleeful freedom.

Luckily, teens aren't entirely unprepared, no matter what lifestyle they pick to follow.

In addition to what parents choose to teach at home, all Hillsborough high school seniors have to take a personal economics class created in partnership with Junior Achievement.

Through simulations, the class introduces students to monthly budgets. Students balance salaries against expenses, factoring in theoretical spouses, children or car payments.

"They really have it in their minds that they're going to be able to afford everything," said Sickles High teacher Art Swary.

He watches students blow money on expensive items then realize they still have bills to pay. Teens like finding ways to save money so they can spend it on entertainment, Swary said.

"There's probably no better time for them to learn," he said.

Teens also may pick up life skills from extracurricular activities. Wilson, the Riverview mom, leads a Girl Scout troop of high school juniors. For three years, the troop has been selling cookies and raising money for a $48,000 trip to Europe.

"They have pinched pennies," Wilson said.

The girls have debated whether $25 for a camping weekend was better worth saving. At one point, Wilson had to intervene: "They've started to realize you have to have a little fun along the way."

The girls also earn badges for practical lessons such as how to solve car-related problems and analyzing credit scores. So Wilson feels better about her daughter, Rowan, making it on her own after she graduates high school next year.

"I'm a lot less worried about her," she said. "She's level-headed. She can work through problems."

For teens enrolling in college, many universities can smooth the transition to self-sufficiency. Dormitories ease students into independence with a safety net of resources.

"I think that's very challenging, to go from a controlled environment at home to an environment that has a lot of freedom to it," said Justin Osborne, assistant director of residential life and education at the University of South Florida.

Freshmen moving into dorms sit down with roommates to discuss expectations for living together. That helps students start to understand how to get along with others and makes them more self-aware of their own values and living habits, Osborne said.

Residential assistants make themselves available in dorms. Programs walk students through how to do laundry. And students have access to health and counseling services if needed.

But it's up to them to develop skills like time management.

"You have to learn to have a little bit of self-motivation," Osborne said.

USF also guides parents to detach themselves a little bit, so students move toward becoming their own advocates and work through issues with critical thinking.

"We help the parents to understand what the transition is going to look like," Osborne said. "During orientation, we give parents tools for helping them let go — we actually use the term, 'letting grow.' "

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Incoming college freshmen have a lot to learn — about living, as well as their studies 05/31/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 31, 2012 1:42pm]
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