Thursday, September 10, 2015

From Homeschool to College: Dealing with Culture Shock

There was always an expectation in my family that I would go to college.  Both of my parents had a college education and saw its value, and they didn't cave to the general attitude at our homeschooling cult church that higher education wasn't appropriate or necessary for girls.  Even though my parents' expectation was for me to attend an extremely fundamentalist Christian college simply to get a skill to "supplement my future husband's income, if necessary," that expectation was more than what many of my female peers at church had, and I'm grateful for it.  And, unlike many homeschooling families in our circles, my mom also put in the necessary work to make sure I wouldn't encounter any roadblocks on my way from homeschool high school to college--she made a very professional-looking and detailed high school transcript that included my GPA, she signed me up for the CHSPE (California High School Proficiency Exam) so that I could have a legal high school diploma, and she made sure that I took the SAT.

Still, it took me three years after graduating from homeschool high school before I began to pursue higher education.  Years and years of severe isolation had not emotionally or socially prepared me to deal with the world outside my home. Years of listening to sermons about the evils of the outside world had left me terrified to leave the "shelter" of my home, even though my home life consisted of nothing more than broken family relationships and debilitating depression during those years.  Years of heightened spiritual sensitivity had also paralyzed me with no sense of direction in life, waiting for a sign from God about what to do with my life, terrified of making a mistake.

With no end in sight, the darkness of those years gradually increased my sense of desperation until it was finally enough to overcome my inertia.  I decided to be a moving vehicle that God could steer, and I would simply make the best decisions I could until I heard from him.  I started taking a full load of classes at my local community college a few months later.

I entered my classes confident in my academic ability.  Thanks to my mom's willingness to administer yearly standardized tests and my scores from the SAT, I knew that I was an above-average student.  As I expected, I performed well on tests and got great grades.  But I had other college struggles that caught me off guard.  For instance, I was used to simply reading textbooks for the info I needed, so I had no idea how to take good notes in class, and my handwriting and rushed spelling looked like a child's.  In class, I'd get distracted occasionally by hearing the pronunciation of words that I had only ever seen on paper and had been saying wrong in my head for years.  I sometimes had questions, but no idea about the etiquette of asking questions during the lecture.  Additionally, my teachers were surprisingly fond of group work, something that I had no experience with, and I was at a loss as to how to collaborate or give/receive feedback.

But for me, the worst thing of all was my discomfort with myself, my body, my existence.  While everyone around me seemed to just plop down easily on any available floor space or chair in order to study and eat and chat, I simply couldn't do it.   I could never relax and be at ease where there was even a chance I might be seen by another person, and attempts to talk with others left me breathless and sweaty, with my heart racing.  At this time in my life, I couldn't even eat in front of another person--not because of an eating disorder, but because of anxiety.  The pressure of eating and chatting at the same time made me physically shake, because I had only really experienced eating silently together with my family, and we never had people over for meals.  Because of these issues, I couldn't handle being on campus for a second longer than necessary.  For breaks between classes, I would sit in my car or drive home and come back just in time for the next class.  The stress of being in public and being surrounded by people was too much.

But over time, my continued practice and effort started to have positive effects.  As I went into my second semester in community college, I wasn't constantly teetering on the edge of panic, and I started to notice positive things happening despite my social stress.  People around me didn't seem bothered by me.  People sat by me in class.  People smiled at me.  People tried to talk to me.  I started to feel a spark of human connection and see that people could be kind and decent even when they didn't share my beliefs and even when they had no agenda and nothing to gain from it.  It confused me because it didn't fit the narrative I grew up with, but it also gave me a vague sense of hope about the life I might be able have as an adult out on my own.

Meanwhile, I was ramping up to transfer to a conservative Christian university far from home, in a place where I didn't know a single person.  It sounds like a big deal, except that I really had almost nothing that I was leaving behind--really, just one close friend that I had made several years before and that I'd been able to confide in, a person who was similarly sheltered and homeschooled.  The thought of a fresh start somewhere was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.  I figured that the culture of the Christian university campus would feel at least a little familiar, and that having my own room on campus to hide in would be a welcome relief.   I made sure to request an international roommate so that my weirdness--my odd clothing style, my poor conversational ability, and my nearly-total ignorance of my peer group's slang, movies, music, etc.--wouldn't be as obvious.

In the environment of gender-segregated dorms, no alcohol, no sex, no drugs, and no dancing, there wasn't too much around me to shock me at my Christian university.  Instead, it was the little things that made life challenging.  One of my daily challenges was dealing with the shared dorm bathroom, where there were always at least a couple other people milling around.  Even though it was set up so that there was no need for public nudity, I didn't have any idea how to pee or shower in a shared space.  I couldn't stand around casually wrapped in a towel doing my hair and makeup and chatting with the other girls, not a chance.  I couldn't even pee while other people were listening.  This was a completely foreign experience to me and one that took me months to get used to.

For the first semester, my life on campus consisted of going to class, doing homework in my room, and hanging out in my room, which was luckily often empty since my Chinese roommate, despite having just arrived in the country, already had a life and friends.  It sounds like a recipe for homesickness, but this is something that I never experienced the whole time I was in college.  Instead, I was the happiest I'd ever been (really, it was just that I was less severely depressed, but at the time it felt like happiness in comparison to the previous years).  Even though I had no idea about how to connect with the other girls in my dorm and was too anxious to really try, I saw that they were nice people and I felt like the future was full of possibilities.

Things started to change after a few months, thanks to a couple good dorm events that brought me out of my room.  This proved to be just enough for one of the outgoing girls in the dorm to seek me out later and start to pry into my little closed-clam-shell of a life.  Friendship with just one outgoing person in the dorm served as a bridge to making more connections and boosted my confidence to attend other school events.   Although at first I just drifted along trying not to cause anyone any trouble by having opinions or problems, during the next few years I was able to start figuring out more about who I was, what my interests were, and where my place in the social scene of life was.

Figuring out my place in life turned out to be much more complicated than simply getting past the worst of my anxiety though.  Even though I was several years older than my dormmates and classmates, I had years of catching up to do, learning about things like cliques, gossip, power dynamics, the art of self-deprecation/teasing/complimenting, and how people seem to group themselves based on life habits, clothing choices, and hobbies.  It's hard to explain, but I simultaneously felt I was decades older than my peers, and also much much younger, which meant that I either felt like I was taking someone under my wing or basking in their glory.  I had no idea how to connect to someone as an equal, and I didn't even start to learn that until I was about to graduate from college.

Looking back now at my transition from homeschool to college life over a decade ago, I feel a sense of pride in how much I grew and changed in a few short years.  I finished college able to relax in class and chat comfortably with friends.  I no longer hid away in my room all the time.  I stretched myself.  I attended dorm events.  I cheered with enthusiasm at sports games.  I worked out at the school gym.  I went to parties.  I dated.  I asked out a guy.  I got away with breaking the campus rules about gender segregation and alcohol.  Years of pushing through my anxiety paid off, and I finished college feeling ready to tackle life and live on my own as a working adult.

Given my set of issues, I can't imagine how I would have transitioned to adulthood any other way. The most important things I learned in college were not academic, but instead life and social skills that paved the way for me to have a satisfying life today.


  1. Thank you for what you write. I so appreciate hearing your perspective. Although I was not homeschooled, I live in an area where it is heavily promoted, where parents are frequently looked down upon if they DON'T isolate and segregate their children/families.

    I see some children being so walled off, so pushed away from everyone by their parents. Sometimes when I try to talk to the children, even a few words, it clearly terrifies them. I can feel their pain, even from a distance, but don't know how to reach out to them without making them more afraid.

    I am a woman, a mother in her 40s - which I only mention to say, most people don't find me frightening at "normal" life. It is only when I am around these homeschooling, fundamentailst families that I feel this kind of fear - both in them and their children.

    If you ever feel like sharing in your blog - things people could have done to reach out to you, anything to get behind that wall of silence - I would love to hear your ideas. My children are not homeschooled, but they are surrounded by many who are and who don't appear to be thriving in that setting.

    I hope it doesn't sound like I think homeschooling is automatically bad - I don't. It's just...there seem to be so many trappings that go with it. So many rules about dress, ways to have fun (which seem to be FEW), what to eat, what to think, and definitely, what to FEEL. Feelings seem the most off-limits of all.

    Your experience and perspective are extremely valuable. I hope you will keep writing. I have learned a great deal from you and appreciate your voice and insights.

    Warmly, Cathy

    1. Cathy, thanks for sharing your observations. Your comments have got me thinking and I'll try to put my thoughts together for a future blog post about how people might be able to reach out to the overly-sheltered, non-thriving members of the homeschool community.

  2. Hi! I just found your blog and I am floored by how much your journey is similar to mine. I'm 19 years old, a former homeschooler now in college. I grew up my entire life in a church with a very similar view on authority and the raising of proper Christian children. From the age of five I learned that questioning authority was of the devil and that in order to go to heaven I had to obey immediately with a smile and without a thought, regardless of what I was asked. Critical thinking and rationality were considered to be extremely dangerous.

    I never disobeyed, never got in trouble, never rebelled. But the one thing I couldn't hide was the depression. Unlike my mother, a true believer, I wasn't happy all the time and that was upsetting to her. She told me to be grateful for all the things I had and I told her I was, but she didn't see how empty I was inside. A frown would send her into an emotional tirade, a hesitation before a yes would bring down her wrath. In these moments I learned to shut down and close myself off, saying platitudes but knowing I was lying every second. Even this soon brought her anger, because instead of reacting to correction with joy I was merely pretending to.

    I was an extremely academic person, and I read vast amounts of books between middle school and college, a practice my father encouraged but my mother was wary of. In her mind I should only be reading the Bible and appropriate Christian materials instead of vast tomes on science, history, and literature that I loved. I did extremely well in school and I was very bright, so bright that I got a full ride to a very prestigious college. My dad was ecstatic but leadership began to worry.

    I was talented and smart, and thus I was dangerous to others. I loved to write and for a while I wrote constantly in a blog that became fairly popular. But then the leaders said my blog didn't point people to God as much as it should. They told me I should write articles that would "advance the Kingdom of God" and "strengthen the faith." When I would write about my own inner struggle and subjects with more emotion than "Praise Jesus" they said that my writing was an exercise in selfishness and encouraged me to take it down. And I learned to keep quiet.

    1. So I was silent, but I felt like I was being suffocated. No outlet for creativity seemed available anymore, at least under my own name. All anonymity. All secrets. I didn't know who I was anymore. I felt hollow, pretending to smile and be happy when inside I was in anguish. Then came Italy. I was offered a trip to Italy to study classical literature during the summer. I used my God-given gift of writing to get all the money to pay for it from essay and story contests. My parents didn't have to spend a penny. For the first time in my life I would be free. I made a $4500 irrefundable downpayment

      Then the hammer came down. I was brought before leadership and asked to defend my trip. They questioned if I was "spiritually mature" enough to be gone for three months in a foreign country, if I would be swayed too much by "worldly ideas" in "debauched Europe". They went on long diatribes about the dangers of young students souls when they left the protective nest of the church flock. They made it very clear that my desire for independence was sinful. Then they asked themselves if it would be better for me to back out than risk being tainted by the sinful world of academia.

      Inwardly I fumed. These people wanted to take away months of hard work and thousands of dollars away from me, as well as a chance of a lifetime to explore the world. I felt furious but years of learning how to mask my true feelings payed off. I gave an Oscar winning performance as I framed the trip in an evangelical light. I could spread the good news of Jesus to my fellow students in Italy and be a light in this dark world. I went through all the classic texts I would be studying and framed them in a Christian light, even making up interpretations on the spot that would suit their conservative ethos. I portrayed myself as a ardent believer who loved God and wanted to expand the church's message.

      And they bought it. They listened to my lies with approving ears and rejoiced at the product of years of indoctrination. I was a prodigy on the side of religion and I would be such a wonderful poster child of the superiority of their belief system. Yet it was all lies, lies upon lies. I believed in no God. I believed in no church. I believed in no doctrine. But I will get to go to Italy this summer and for a few short months I will be free.

      That is all I hold on to.