College life: Allowing your child to soar

The not so easy process of letting go

Freshman Sarrah Wilkes, sophomore Rebekah Sheff, and freshman Sydney Kolker enjoy Cafe Chabad on Wednesday night.


It was 2 a.m. in March of 2020, and my daughter and I watched the COVID news while scrolling through Hillel’s College Guide to find schools with a Jewish population.

One by one, we went through the list to find a school with a Jewish population. It didn’t have to have a sizeable Jewish population; however, she didn’t want to be the token on campus. Then she hit the jackpot and landed on the Chapman University website. Was this a country club or a beach vacation, I asked myself? It was a far cry from the cornfields I saw on the drive to my alma mater, Indiana University.

I vividly remember running upstairs telling my husband we found the perfect college, and I wanted a redo. He thought I was nuts for waking him up in the middle of the night. I told him she had found the perfect place. I was half-joking, but remember, it was March of 2020, and the world shut down.

Fast forward one year. At the tail end of my daughter’s senior spring break, we made a side trip to California and visited Chapman in the city of Orange. Both of my daughters fell in love with the campus, and I cried myself to sleep; my heart couldn’t handle the thought of both kids potentially living halfway across the country.

My oldest committed to Chapman by May, and it was time for me to start accepting my fate. There would be no visits for lunch. Instead, we would be a phone call away, I told myself.

I grieved all summer long. Then, when August rolled around, it was time for her to spread her wings. She was assigned sophomore housing as a freshman, which sounded great. It was a dorm, but not like my experience. She and her roommate were in an apartment-style dorm with a living room, kitchen, private bathroom and bedroom. There was no hallway to congregate. When she opened her front door, she faced the outdoors.

While this sounded great and looked beautiful, it scared me. How was she going to meet her people? Where was the “community” that a dorm provides? My head spun as I left. I’ll be honest; I cried the entire four-hour flight home. I called my dad to tell him my thoughts, and he assured me that he and my mom did the same thing on their four-hour drive home from IU when I was a freshman. That made me feel better; I wasn’t alone.

Letting go was difficult. I realized this wasn’t my experience. I needed to step away and let my daughter’s college experience be just that, hers.

The first few weeks were rocky as I listened to her navigate Cali life from a distance. Then, she found Chabad, which is ironic because she had initially found Chapman University through the Hillel website.

Her happiness soared as she met over 200 students from varying grade levels. Throughout each week, Chabad hosts three events and truly engages the Orange County community. Students can attend Cafe Chabad every Wednesday night with theme dinners from ChaBBQ to “Breakfast for Dinner.” What college student wouldn’t want a fresh home-cooked meal? It certainly beats the inedible dorm meals.

In addition, first semester Chabad attracted students to events like their sukkot hop, where they rented a party bus for the students as well as gourmet sushi Shabbat dinners, tie-dying and challah bakes.

If students were interested, they flew them to New York for a weekend to see Pegisha in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. While my daughter hasn’t attended all the events offered, the connections she continues to build at each outing are what keeps her returning.

With sorority recruitment starting the second semester, Chabad provided her an outlet to meet like-minded people right off the bat. I couldn’t be more grateful for Chabad and my daughter’s new life. It provided her with a home away from home and got her involved. After one semester, she is now on the board and is actively planning weekly events for the community. Seeing my daughter find her place 1,805 miles away gives me so much joy.

Parents with children going through college acceptance, please know your child will find their place. I learned this is not my experience, this is hers, and she is living her best life. Allow your children the freedom to choose where they want to go.

After four months with her away, I am happy that she made the right choice. While she went there not knowing a soul, she found a community where she is thriving. I am grateful she gave Chabad a chance and for all the people that she met along the way.

Debra Klevens, CJE (Certified Journalism Educator), has advised the national award-winning publications program at Parkway West High School for 22 years. What began as a yearbook career turned into an expansion into the online newspaper world nine years ago. Under Klevens’ counsel, the publications staffs have earned multiple national awards. Klevens is married to her husband, Michael, and is the mother of two daughters, Sydney and Zoe. Klevens is also Secretary of the Jewish Light Board of Trustees.