Year of Lasts to Year of Firsts: From High School Senior to College Freshman

Just a year ago I spent a lot of time simply gazing at my daughter. A lot of long, wistful stares as she did pedestrian things like toast a frozen waffle, brush her hair, scroll through Instagram, even sleep. I was a bit of a creeper. And I took photos sometimes. (Ok, a lot of times) Like bizarre surveillance photos. Sometimes she would bust me and say, “Mom, seriously?”

Maybe I was trying to hold on to the “lasts” as she wrapped up her senior year of high school. Maybe I thought I could stop time and she wouldn’t soon be 18, packing up, moving on, moving out. Maybe I was having a weird mom crisis as I wrapped my mind around a chapter in my parenting journey coming to a close and all the things I could have done better.

Life after senior year of high school

I had a lot of unanswered questions and nerves and hopes and dreams about what would happen after this era…such is the burden of parenthood. When you get something figured out-the kid is on to the next stage. On this side of the ‘new normal’ I have to say it has been magical but far from perfect. And for any of you who are crawling through the last few weeks of senior year with your student, clutching at the lasts…

Best things about sending a teen to college-a wealth of stunning firsts.

There are many firsts when you send your teen to college. (Twenty20 @saragirl420)

It’s the toddler years again.

There is something sweetly familiar about this stage. I think it mimics toddlerhood. Remember toddlers? When they marveled at the world? Where a nearby butterfly or a construction truck or albino squirrel sighting would stop them in their tracks? When $1 worth of bubbles would entertain them for an hour? When they would force us to stop and slow down to look and point at everything?

That’s what the first semester of college was like. All brand new seen through fresh eyes. New people. New rules. New patterns. New them and new you. Lot’s of oohs and aahs and wows. Some stubborn refusal to try food at a new place. Some unexpected naps at inconvenient times. Like when they were toddlers.

It’s their window to explore their passions.

I realize many kids love learning their whole life. My daughter was not a “I love academics at the core of my being” type of high school student. It was a grind. Take the classes. Turn in the assignments. Check off the boxes. But she has changed. She has new interests, professors who have invested their time in helping her uncover her passions, and a college setting that encourages her to explore topics she has never been exposed to.

She is developing her own opinions. Creating her own worldview. She is going far beyond merely skimming the syllabus, skimming the book, skimming the surface and it’s exciting to see her excitement. She taught me all about Schistosoma Japonica. Please do not look that up. It’s not pretty. But now that I know about it I can’t un-know it.

It’s time for me to calm down.

In this case, it means I can finally calm the hell down. Turns out there was no perfect plan, no perfect college, no perfect roommate match, no ideal schedule, no way to engineer perfect for her because freshman year is freshman year and they all have to run the gauntlet. And she did and she is doing well. And for all the time I spent worrying and watching and considering what other people were doing was all wasted. WASTED TIME.

Parents of seniors-close your ears right now. People say the dumbest things as post-secondary plans are made and decisions are solidified.

“They’ll never be independent if they stay in state.”

“They won’t have a real adventure if they are too close to home.”

“They have to go to college or they’ll never have a good job.”

“They won’t stay close to family if they are 1,500 miles away.”

“They won’t make friends without Greek life.”

“They’ll just party if they join Greek life.”

“They’ll stay on the coast if they go to school there”

“They’ll never get a job if they study art and probably end up in your basement.”

“They’ll get too little religion at a state school.”

“They’ll get too much religion at a religious school.”


Nobody has a crystal ball for these kids. Nobody knows what the future holds and what choices and growth will result. And a hard truth-some kids who wore the best sweatshirts on May 1st of last year have changed course, dropped out or are floundering and others who had no solid plan a year ago are pursuing their future with great enthusiasm and are soaring.

It’s a tiny peek into the future.

Freshman year feels like such a “launch” but really it’s just the next on-ramp. All the celebrating of all of the firsts is leading to bigger and bigger firsts. Hearing about them planning for next semester, next year, an internship, a major change, a summer job is so beautiful. Seeing who they are as a friend, a child, a roommate, a classmate, a sibling who lives away, a citizen from a slightly further distance is amazing. And it’s a clearer picture of who they are because we aren’t caught up so much in the small details as much as much as the larger plot line. It’s the best reality show I’ve ever watched.

It’s a return on our investment.

Seriously. You witness the payoff of years of work and hope and love-you see that the blood, sweat and tears you have put in are coming to fruition. In our case…my daughter-She seems so damn grateful. I think her most commonly uttered phrases this year are, “He didn’t grow up like me.” “She didn’t grow up in the same type of family as I did.” “They grew up in a very different household than I did.” And it has given her some time to think about her own childhood, her own accidental luck, her own talents and be grateful for all of it.

We were at Target recently when she was home and were buying some essentials. She said she still likes ramen. So I threw a big pack of it in the cart. I said-“Well let’s get a few.” She said-“Thank you SO much.” I had to laugh. I told her it’s $4. She said-“I know. But that’s so nice.”

When you don’t recognize your teen, in good way

Who is this person? A year ago we had long conversations about wants versus needs. She went to an affluent high school. And now she is grateful…for ramen. For a glimse of her dog through FaceTime. For her good luck in life. For her family. Be still my heart, I might have done something right.

So for all you parents of a Senior…they are going to make it.  And more importantly you’re going to make it.  There is so much good ahead.  So much new.  And so much unpredictable.  My girl is headed home for a month due to her school going online during the COVID-19 virus.  She is understandably disappointed.  It’s certainly not what she thought.  It’s certainly not what we planned for.  But part of freshman year is learning to roll with it…and she is rolling. 

More Great Reading:

Last Call List for gh school Senior Year

About Jen LarsenFortner

Jen Fortner lives in Minnesota with her husband, three children and the best dog on earth.  She has a MSW degree that never gets used other than to diagnose family members at holiday gatherings. She has a blog at where she tells stories about her family that they never read.

Read more posts by Jen

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.