How to help an aimless high school graduate
October 22, 2012 7:07 AM   Subscribe

My Little Brother is directionless after dropping out of college. He spends every day sleeping until 2, waking to smoke up, and then watching TV. I'm worried that weeks of complacency will lead to months of inactivity and eventually years of a pattern of self-defeating behavior. But I don't know what else I can tell him.

I've been a mentor in some form for half my life. When I graduated college, I was connected with an 11 year old boy in the area. He was smart and creative, but faced a lot of personal challenges because of his family situation. His father had been in and out of prison for his entire life. His mother had been (and at that time was about to seriously begin) struggling with addiction issues (as had his dad). Between the Section 8 housing, food stamps, and general lack of income, his home environment was often chaotic.

My background is pretty much the exact opposite. I grew up in the suburbs, my parents were both educators, and my sister and I went to private schools. We were hardly rich, but by comparison. . .never had the base advantages I had solely because of the circumstances of the family I was born into been so apparent. And while perhaps it was naive, I thought that it shouldn't ever be the case that a child who was intelligent and gifted in some ways should be destined for a life no better than his parents simply because he did not have some of the characteristics that other people can afford to take for granted. In my mind, a college education could be a key to help him avoid falling into a trap of struggle, poverty, and very possibly drug addiction. While there was no guarantee, I thought he surely stood a better chance.

Over 7 years, I worked with him to insert positive influences into his life. Where he once had a hobby of stealing bikes with his cousin, I introduced him to after-school sports. Where he used to view homework as completely optional and test performance based on random chance, I tried to teach him how consistency and preparation led to success. I supported him through his newly developed interest in acting. I helped him prepare for midterms and exams. Our work highlighted habits that most take for granted but that he lacked. He made progress and showed that he cared about his work and his future.

As a junior he began dating a girl who was a great influence on him. She was a strong student, heavily involved in the theater program and had a great family life. They broke up and he fell apart. His grades, which had been A's and B's fell to D's and F's. He started drinking and smoking up, and he generally became unpleasant and standoffish. He recovered a bit in the months to come, but the timing was awful. At the end of junior year and the beginning of senior year, he was not in a good place. He couldn't be bothered to put more effort into his college applications, he skipped his last opportunity to take the SATs, and he just barely avoided failing his final semester. He did make it into two local colleges and chose the one that did not require him to come in during the summer to pick up skills they thought he would need to succeed there.

He was excited to go because he didn't think he would get in anywhere, then nervous, then very anxious. He had never lived outside of his hometown (even though the college was literally an hour train ride away). We dropped him off, but because he had (through his own inactivity) failed to get all of the necessary medical forms completed, he had to come back for an appointment, missing his first day of class. It was clear that he was feeling a lot of anxiety about the change. He complained that he wasn't like any of the other students (this was his assertion after one day), and that he felt very lonely. He went back to school for the rest of the week, came home for the weekend, went back the following week, and then dropped out. Total days on campus: 5.

So it's been about a month and a half. He is a bit depressed. He has said all along that he wants to find a passion, but doesn't know what it is. He has nothing to do but watch TV and movies on his computer (the one his recently released father worked to get him for school). He stays up all night, sleeps most of the day, wakes up to smoke, and then meets his cousin (the one who he used to steal bikes with who now enjoys gang activity and working on his freestyles) when the cousin gets out of high school for the day.

He says he feels depressed at his situation and might return next semester or next year, but isn't happy about staying or going. He wants something better, even recognizes how his current habits contribute to his situation, but doesn't feel drawn to any particular option.

From his perspective, he says that he wasn't ready for college, that he didn't know why he was there because he didn't have a passion, and he didn't like the specific school (he was talking about transferring before he ever got there).

From my perspective, I think he left because he was homesick, not giving himself a chance to adjust (as most every college freshman needs to). I think he has to expose himself to something different in order to find a passion. And I think he didn't spend enough time at school to even know if it was the right thing for him.

But on the other I know that I am biased. We have different backgrounds. And despite all of my help, he may still be struggling with a lot of issues that were inherent to his situation growing up. In addition, college isn't for everyone: a point that I've reluctantly accepted. And finally, I'm too close to this. I've been wrapped up in his life for 7.5 years. Not only is it difficult to watch your efforts crumble (at least in the near term), but also I care about him and am worried that he has made a big mistake. It hurt me that he did what he did, but he does have to do what he thinks is right. My concern though is that he perhaps is at a higher risk for addiction because of his family situation. While college isn't always the answer, it is a plausible road out of the cycle of poverty that surrounds his family. If I were to have dropped out of college, there would have been a larger safety net and less perils surrounding that choice than might be there for him.

We still have a great relationship. He looks to me for advice, knows when I might scold him a bit, but listens to what I say even if he doesn't go with my opinion. I've skirted the line between friend, older brother, and father figure, which feels weird for someone turning 30 to be that for someone turning 20.

I've taken a hands off approach since September. Partially because I'm still a little hurt. Partially because I think I set up too much expectation for him. And partially because I don't know what else to do

All in all, there could be no problem at all. Plenty of people take time off, drop out, or wander for years. It's really only with time that one can determine whether things work out.

So for the tl;dr version:
What help or advice can I offer someone who, because of age and family background, doesn't understand that his life can be more than what he's seen? How can I encourage him to break away from his pattern of behavior in hopes that he will at best discover a passion and at worst begin to establish a life for himself that enables him to avoid the struggles that his family faced when he was growing up?
posted by ChipT to Education (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
He sounds more than a "bit" depressed, and maybe that combined with the challenges of fitting in to an alien environment (which for him college definitely is) is more than he can handle right now.

Is there any chance of him getting some psych counseling?

In the meantime, is there some other pursuit he could go after, that would give him some confidence? An internship, an interesting entry-level job? Does he have any skills? Could he take classes just to enhance those?

But he really needs help with his depression if that's possible.
posted by emjaybee at 7:14 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, depression. It's sad, but often kids in bad situations don't get treatment for depression because it's assumed their circumstances are responsible. This definitely reads as depression to me, though, and I have hope for him. Being able to talk to a counselor on a regular basis might be a wonderful thing and give him some of the continuity and stability that he has lacked.

Would it help him to read any of the anecdotes or books that have been offered up on AskMe about making the transition from a low-income family to the "middle class" environment of college? Things like that helped me immensely when I was a freshman with no support network who wanted to drop out. Just knowing that others have had the same struggles of you and have made it through is a powerful thing when you feel like you don't belong.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:22 AM on October 22, 2012

Here's a post that I made awhile back about being afraid of professionalism because I came from a blue collar background. Our circumstances are very different but there were a lot of stories and book recommendations in that thread. I'm kicking myself because I can't remember the name of the essay collection I read as a sophomore that turned my outlook around, but when I remember I'll come back.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:24 AM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

It's a couple of things. Sure, depression. I had it in my first year after high school, and I was a high achieving kid. My grades plummetted and I could hardly get up to go to class.

A 4-year college may have been very intimidating for your young friend. I went from a graduating class of 84 to ASU with a total enrollment of 30,000. And I was living at home and attending a school that was only 10 miles from my house.

How about enrolling at Community College in January? CC's have much smaller classes and I think are much more like 13th grade than a straight up University.

Frame it as a way to discover what's interesting to him. He can take all different kinds of classes, perhaps he can "Find His Passion (TM)." Of course he'll still have to work, and put up with boring stuff, because that's life. Some of the stuff we put up with is boring.

Community Colleges are inexpensive (see Chris Rock's description)

I also recommend a job. Just some bullshit job that he can go to every day. He shouldn't balk at flipping burgers, but he needs to be in the habit of getting up and going someplace everyday and being productive.

Naturally, he shouldn't smoke, because it will rob him of initiative. But I'm not sure how you can tell a kid who feels like a failure that he needs intitative.

I think helping him get a plan together will really help him feel better about himself and get him off the mat and back in the ring.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:37 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you talked him about trade schools and doing an apprenticeship? They're hands on and the results of learning new things are more apparent than college courses.

He doesn't sound depressed to me, at least not clinically. Changing one's life is scary and it sounds like going away to school, even one close by, freaked him out. Is there a community college right in his community that he can go to? Maybe starting part-time is better.

It also sounds like he needs a job, being in the working world and earning money can help put things in perspective. It provides a financial reality, i.e. I worked all day at Starbucks and I'm still broke, as well as being a place to meet people, hopefully, who are also probably working there while going to school and have further aspirations. In other words, a minimum wage job might be a kick in the pants and get him to thinking he needs skills. Plus, maybe being around other college students will encourage him.

Also, you can only do so much and I hope you continue to encourage him but he has to pick up the ball. From his perspective, he has no role models other than you and you're kind of from another planet.

A good blue collar job might be a better fit and many of them pay while you learn.
posted by shoesietart at 7:41 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

"What help or advice can I offer someone who, because of age and family background, doesn't understand that his life can be more than what he's seen?"

You cannot convince him about what he has not seen, but what he has seen should be convincing enough. He's got plenty of role models. Bad ones. My Dad always tells me a story about growing up poor in Pittsburgh in the 1940s: "I looked around me and all I saw were men who worked hard, physical jobs during the week and drank heavily on the weekends. It was obvious that if I didn't do something different with my life, I was going to end up like them."

His life is never going to be like yours, but it doesn't have to be like his.
posted by three blind mice at 7:47 AM on October 22, 2012 [11 favorites]

2nding trade schools. I think they have really become an overlooked option in this country nowadays. There is a mindset that after high school, you go to college, and often they aren't even presented as a choice. A program that is more hands-on and focused on building a particular skill-set, instead of a more general education may be something for him to consider. There are so many different programs, maybe one of them will catch his interest and be a "passion," or at least a way to help build a better life while looking for that passion.
posted by catatethebird at 7:49 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, duh, I linked to the book in my Ask: this one.

Also it is possible the community college/trade school suggestion is a good one, but I've seen a lot of kids taking the "stepping stone" approach with a CC, and I think it was ultimately worse for them, because they needed high standards to rise to the occasion. They go to a CC/trade school, see other kids doing a mediocre job and dropping out, don't see anything exciting for themselves beyond a blue-collar job, and they drop out too. I went from a graduating class of ~30 kids, to a smallish state school, to a fairly large research university, and it kicked my ass at first but I achieved much more than I would have if I'd stayed at the small CC-esque state school. He was getting A's so he seems like he has the smarts and motivation inside him, but he needs a framework within which he can visualize success (and not think of it as the province of the Other, I don't fit in, &c.). He also needs a little room to mess up and find his "passion," just like any depressed middle-class or rich kid. One of the worst things about being poor is not having that safety net and feeling the pressure to never fuck up on your only chance.

You know him better than we do so if you think a hands-on approach or a stepping stone approach is more appropriate, go with that. Just my two cents. No one told me as a kid that it was even possible for me to go to a good private school-- I knew no one personally who had gone to college or could have given me a heads-up-- and I felt pretty betrayed when I realized people (counselors) had been pre-sorting me as a small-time future townie just because of my family background. Outside expectations do actually shape one's conceptions of self. I would actually think having high standards would be a pivotal part of the Big Brother program.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:52 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

He sounds more than a bit depressed (now, he sounded anxious and overwhelmed before). Also, why was he going to a school that wasn't local and was away from his support system? Look into local community colleges or trade schools. Have him visit them, sit in on classes. See if you can help him get a job -- retail, food service, construction, etc.

You also need to accept that his dropping out of a school wasn't at all about you. He needs you not to back away just because you think he made the wrong choice.
posted by jeather at 7:53 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thirding the suggestions to look into a trade school apprenticeship. I had a boyfriend that sounds a lot like your Little Bro. College was too much for him, so he dropped out. He got signed up with the IBEW and learned electrician skills while working and actually earning a decent wage. Being on a construction site was a bit much for my ex--he wasn't from a blue collar background, he just didn't dig school. Being around SO MUCH vulgarity (and he was no prude, but the dudes on the job site were constantly asking him lewd questions about me/us/sex/etc.) was hard for him to take at first but he did get used to it. Anyway, I think it worked well for him and may be worth checking into.

Also, I know you mean well and I don't want to hurt your feelings, may be coming off as a little bit condescending to him. I'm not saying you ARE, but with the issues of class/education, he is probably looking at you like "This dude is so off-base, he's all rich and thinks I should just be like him and go to college and blah blah." Going to college can seem like the obvious next step for a lot of us middle to upper class people, but for him it might seem pointless or a waste of money or too fancy or too brainy. Try to be supportive of whatever he wants to do, but keep in mind your goals and his may be totally different. Also try to leave the judgment about pot-smoking out of it. For some people with anxiety it can be helpful. It CAN also "rob" him of his initiative, thing at a time. If he's already feeling judged or like he's disappointing you, harping on him about this fairly harmless thing might make him totally discount anything you say.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 8:08 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Basically what I'm trying to say is that the "college isn't for everyone" narrative gets dropped hard on poor kids, for reasons of low expectations. I actually think that's quite unfair and harmful. If he has the intelligence to do well at a 4-year university, I would continue to recommend that path. He does need a support network of some kind-- I would help him look into student societies, therapists, and other mentoring programs at his current school or a school he'd like to transfer to. And if he really wants to transfer, and did before he even got to school, encourage him to transfer. I transferred (and thereby know a lot of transfer students) and it helped a great deal.

I was born into a world of hopelessness and addiction issues and it's a numbing miasma-- it's hard to pull yourself out the first time. You know what they say about leaving an abusive relationship? Leaving an abusive lifestyle is just as difficult and can take just as many attempts. There will always be guilt and the feeling of failure, feelings of inadequacy, feelings of jealousy or rage about the unfairness of where life has placed you. Please continue to be there for him and keep having high expectations in line with what you perceive to be his abilities. That is an important constant among all of that.

It's HARD getting out of the cycle of poverty-- seriously hard. I understand your disappointment, but I have no doubt there are a multitude of contradictory emotions swirling around in him right now that only he can resolve, and sometimes what it takes is a bit of time. The addiction risk is real and you're right to be concerned, but don't feel crushed because it might take more than one attempt, for sure. (It has taken me literally a year after my college graduation to finally feel secure about leaving my semi-toxic, go-nowhere hometown for a life of my own dreams and passions. It has taken a tremendous amount of soul-searching, reading, writing, talking, and therapy to get to this point, and that's yet another reason I think treatment for depression will do him good.)

Actually, during college I met with actual therapists only 3 or 4 times. Just those few meetings gave me a much stronger sense of self and the idea that I actually belonged among smart, successful people. I very vividly remember my second therapist saying in a tone of absolute certitude, "You belong here," when I expressed my doubts about ever integrating into the culture. That was actually a life-changing thing for me-- how ridiculous, but true.

Some university/college therapists work specifically with students from particular backgrounds, and I'd check on that for sure. Failing that, I'd try to find an outside therapist who deals with these kinds of issues. He might be depressed and he might also need a professional "life coach" type experience from someone who understands his circumstances.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:09 AM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Where is he doing all this sleeping, smoking, and TV watching? That's usually not done for free. Whoever is in control of this may need to issue an ultimatum. Either work, go to community college, or get out. Fear of nowhere to go can get the wheels turning. Plus just being out and about even doing a menial job may lead to connections that can produce better jobs or the incentive to get more education.
posted by PJMoore at 8:16 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you tried contacting the college that he attended for 5 days? He says he "might return next semester or next year." Even if he does, the chance are that if he just shows up the way he did this year, he won't do any better. But the school must have some programs aimed at this type of student. If you can find a good contact or program, that might both motivate him to return and increase the chances of success if he does.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:26 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ugh. Don't dump this poor kid in some apprenticeship program that he's also going to fail out of because college didn't immediately work out. He's severely depressed. He needs meds and a therapist, stat, before he can be successful in any capacity.

I've come to believe that the single most pernicious lie told to Millennials may well be to "follow your passion". How are you supposed have passion for some random thing you have no real knowledge about, no experience with, and no skill in? As your mentored kid is demonstrating, being told to follow your passion results in adults being entirely aimless about their lives because they can't immediately identify the single career that is the best possible career choice out of literally millions of possibilities, and so they find themselves paralyzed and unable to move forward.

Cal Newport has a lot to say about passion, both in news articles, and his blog, that I found very enlightening.
posted by zug at 8:32 AM on October 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Is he black? He might have interest in a historically black college or university (HBCU). I think that might help a lot with feeling out of place. I definitely felt out of place in my undergrad and it was really tough socially, and I wish I had gone to a place where there were more people like me. It's easy to brush off the importance of feeling like you fit in if you've always felt like you fit in; it's easy to say "oh well it's school and he's there to learn". But think about how you would feel if you showed up somewhere and nobody looked/talked/dressed like you, and everyone wanted you to go there so that you could spend your WHOLE LIFE surrounded by people who didn't look/talk/dress like you, and those are the people you're supposed to be competing with and it's costing thousands upon thousands of dollars and you can't even make it to class because nothing you do is right and they all seem to know these things's tough and extremely lonely, and people are social creatures.

Good luck to you both.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:02 AM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

After 5 days? That's not a situation of "university just isn't for him." I know the people above who suggest trade school or community college are well-meaning, but the problem here isn't that he lacks the intellectual capacity for college-level work. The problem is that he has no idea what to do with himself there.

People who grew up middle class, or rich, often have no clue how much of their "successful" behavior has been modeled for them in many different small ways. They don't see how their families showed them the different tiny steps it takes to go to college or find a job or a profession. I grew up kinda on the borderline -- basically, parents who had checked out of parenting by the time I was in high school -- but I attended a high school with a number of high achieving students, I did the whole AP classes and extracurriculars cycle myself. No one told me how to apply for college, how to deal with the funding, anything. But I muddled through the application process (I imitated my friends - I did not perceive at the time their parents holding their hand throughout) and was accepted to a well-regarded state university. Here's where it goes off the rails: my class schedule changed midway through my senior year of high school. I called up the university admissions office and told the first person I spoke with that my schedule had changed. That person told me that I probably couldn't enroll as a freshman, sorry. I didn't know any better. I had NO IDEA that at a big state university, student workers answer the front desk phones, and that person I spoke with had no business at all telling me anything!

I didn't tell anyone because I was so ashamed of myself! I went to community college and paid for it out of pocket because I didn't know that financial aid could be a thing there too. I had a lot of problems navigating the bureaucracy of transferring to a 4-year institution, even though I was motivated and becoming better at identifying the pitfalls. I also wasted a lot of time and money on the process. My life would have been so different if there had been one adult doing a reality check on this stuff with me, who would think it odd that I went from "yay going to UC Awesome!" to "OH, I want to go to community college" and probed me for details.

I had a friend who was in foster care, but was admitted to a private college. She had the fun of being humiliated in class because she didn't know that you had to buy your books in college. It seems funny, but really, when none of this has been modeled for you and you do not have someone explaining steps A-Z to you, it's difficult.

I imagine for a young person like your Little Brother, the whole thing is overwhelming, and he wouldn't have a better idea of how to enroll in and be successful at a community college or trade school. (I mean, do you know how to determine a worthwhile trade and get yourself set up for training? You could probably infer some of the steps based on your life experience, but we're talking about a kid who's only known high school.)

I think what would help him is to call the undergraduate advising office of the university he almost-attended and get on the phone with the advisor who helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds. (Err, not the front-desk student worker!) Ask that person what the steps are for someone in his situation to enroll the following semester or following year. Get that person interested in his case. "How does a student who doesn't know he needs support, get support?" etc Ask this person to call your Little Brother. Basically, ask for help for him.

Also, get your Little Brother to talk to this person.

Definitely try to get him screened for depression. It is so, so, so common among college freshman.

He doesn't need a passion. Passion is nice, but what he needs are a series of steps to success. He could have all the passion in the world for something, but that isn't going to teach him out to break this whole adult world into manageable chunks.

And kudos to you for caring and looking out for him .
posted by stowaway at 9:52 AM on October 22, 2012 [16 favorites]

I think I'd encourage him to go to community college. He'll have a structure, he can still be at home, and after two years he'll have a wider choice of schools to transfer into. It's a good transition between highschool and university.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:20 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think a job may be a good place for him to find positive modeling, after all his coworkers would be there working for ...something. Some might be working so they can send their kids to school, some may be working to get a better home, some might be working to go on vacation, some may be working just to get some food adn be independant. Maybe after he has a job and can have some pockey money, he can envision some other things that he might want in life. From that type of background things like "adults have jobs" isn't a given so i can see why school may seem pointless. Help him get a job, he will probably find things he does not like about that job so help him slowly translate what a better job for him would be like, then take the appropriate educational route (college, a few classes, trade school, apprenticeship, internship) to get there.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:23 AM on October 22, 2012

I think a job may be a good place for him to find positive modeling, after all his coworkers would be there working for ...something.

When I was a junior in high school, I finally managed to get a supermarket job. I started out on the cash register, but as Upstate winter approached, the managers put me out to collect carts from the parking lot. I didn't have time to socialize with coworkers much, but I'm very glad I didn't model myself on the ones I did talk to. Sending kids to school, saving for a better home, or earning money for a vacation wasn't exactly what those people had on their minds.

I hate to sound condescending, but a minimum-wage job may get your mentee into a lowest-effort lifestyle. He'll be surrounded by people going nowhere fast, and he doesn't sound like he has the energy and inspiration to work on improving himself in spite of his surroundings.
posted by Nomyte at 11:56 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe it will help with your hurt and disappointment to know how common this is. This situation is repeated over and over. It's a big adjustment to be a first generation college student. I agree with the advice above that you help him find support wherever he ends up.

Now, for the trickier part of the question: what to do right now. I guess I'd try two things: (1) give him the guidance and advice that your parents would've given you in this situation, and (2) seek out someone with more cultural competency who can help.

On (1), plenty of suburban kids drop out their first semester or take a year off before successfully finishing college. Their parents continue to believe in them and support them in finding a route that works better. For instance, my parents would've encouraged me to get a job and to save as much money as I could, helped me take the SATs and do other cleanup work that I was too bummed to do the previous semester, encouraged me to find and apply to colleges that I really wanted to attend, and helped me get the arrangements made. Then maybe they'd have even encouraged me to use my savings from work to spend part of the spring traveling, like say, backpacking in India. (That's middle class privilege for ya.) Maybe you could try something similar? Re-engage and be reassuring about what happened. Maybe even take some responsibility for not realizing what a change it'd be and providing more support yourself. Assume that of course he will try again, and help him reframe the year off as a positive time to find himself.

On (2), I'd realize that being white (I'm talking about myself here), middle-class, from a stable family, and without drug-addicted parents, I'd had a different experience, and I'd seek out advice, maybe from the Big Brothers / Big Sisters program, maybe from local community centers or churches, and maybe from the college that he dropped out of. He might need to connect with people who have been where he is now and made the transition that he's trying to make, so I'd see if I could find some other mentors to give him added support.
posted by salvia at 5:02 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you for all the great responses!

To the notes about depression, yes I've thought for a while that he's been self-medicating. I wouldn't rule out a genetic component to his depression if that's indeed the case. And maybe it's not and it's simply an adjustment. I encouraged him to visit the school's student services which were there for academic as well as mental health purposes. Unfortunately, he wasn't there long enough to give it a try. He hasn't been responsive to suggestions about talking with someone, but he also hasn't been exactly opposed. I think I will gently lean on that suggestion.

I absolutely agree that he should do something like a job or some other hobby. Right now, he's complete a motivated, wants to be motivated, but can't seem to get there. It's not that he doesn't have a passion (which is what he wants, I agree there may be too much emphasis on finding your "passion"). It's that he doesn't take pleasure in anything anymore (another nod to possible depression). Life has become a series of distractions and he's running out of them (he's watched everything of interest on Netflix, he's sick of video games, and even admits to wanting to stop drinking and smoking because that's not doing it for him anymore). He does need some sort of productivity. Even if he doesn't enjoy it, it's better than sitting around wasting his time (his thoughts, not mine).

He had previously looked down on the possibility of community college. Mostly because of the bullshit high school attitude that those students were somehow failures. I think he's gained some perspective and maturity around that though. And I think it's a great option to transition into a post-college environment. Perhaps even part time.

I will take up the suggestion on the anecdotes from other AskMe's on transitioning. I was struck by a FPP last year that described his family to a t.

I absolutely think that a change in environment would do him well. Part of my goal was just to get him out of his hometown. If only for a little while. Get him interacting with different people and seeing how things could be different. The same way his ex-girlfriend was such a good influence, perhaps other students who are hopefully motivated enough to continue their education could rub off on him as well. I'm kind of afraid to bring up alternatives at the moment. I want him to chill out a little, understand the reality of post-high school, and perhaps approach it from a different perspective (like the one where he realizes that the things he's described as wanting in life will be incredibly difficult if he doesn't make a move/change, college or otherwise). So trade school is a possible option (if he truly feels it's right). He's also considered the military because (his quote) "it seems like a good option for people to straighten themselves out."

You're right that although I'm a kind of role model, I'm kind of from another planet. I think I set too high a bar. Both intentionally just by pushing him, but also because of who I am and my background. If he thinks I'm trying to make him into me, he'll see that as something he could never achieve (even though it's well within his reach).

On race, he's white and I'm black. Which is mildly interesting because he's always felt more comfortable around other black kids simply because that's what he's more used to.

I haven't commented on the pot smoking at all since maybe March or April. I figured there were larger battles to fight and I shouldn't be so naive as to assume you can't achieve and have that as a bit of a crutch if you need it. His level of enthusiasm for it bothers me a bit, as does his family history with drug abuse (say what you will about gateway drugs or not), but again, unless it becomes an objectively serious issue, I'm going to pick my battles.

His mom (who is a much better place now than she was 3 years ago) has been helpful. He's living at home, but she called the school and chewed them out because she felt that they allowed him to make a hasty decision without involving her in the discussion and without guiding him to any of their support services. If he does decide to return, you're right that a network has to be established so he feels secure that he has support both from home and at the school.

I wonder now if I didn't help him enough in the process during the summer. I lined up every pin I could for him, but let him knock them down. I gave him the numbers to call for financial aid, the health forms he needed to have filled out, the due dates, everything. I thought of it as a stepping stone toward independence and taking responsibility for his own future. But if my own freshman year was any indication, there's enough madness and new experiences on its own. I had the benefit of parents holding my hand. I should have done more and maybe not pushed him in the pool assuming he knew it was only 4 feet deep.

And I readily acknowledge that his choice to drop out wasn't about me. And at my age, I should be mature enough to withstand that. He needs me to be there regardless of his choices. I guess I'm just a little scared of trying to help, not being able to, and then watching him deteriorate into what I was hoping to keep him from since he was 12.

3BM said it best: "His life is never going to be like yours, but it doesn't have to be like his."
posted by ChipT at 5:07 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's really heartening that he seems to be groping toward productivity right now.

I think a lot of people encourage the "ease into" a post-high school environment, but I'd go even further with your instinct that being full-time at a four-year institution (living in dorms, especially) will give him a sense of belonging that it's hard to manufacture elsewhere. Being an off-campus or commuter student is a huge blow toward freshman integration. Is he interested in dorm life at all? (Probably not as of now, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to mention.) "Transferring" (i.e., applying to another school) might give him an opportunity to start fresh.

Honestly, reading the details of his situation more closely, it sounds like we actually are somewhat similar, particularly in being first-generation college students. If he does want someone to talk to who has been there, I'd be glad to talk to him about college and the class/life transition. I'd be glad to do anything to help, actually.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:31 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

On race, he's white and I'm black. Which is mildly interesting because he's always felt more comfortable around other black kids simply because that's what he's more used to.

Maybe this is something you could work with. I feel like a change of scenery can be good, but if it's too different it can also be completely overwhelming and the message he gets ends up being "you'll never make it, you'll never be like these people or be able to do what they do" instead of "here are the possibilities".

Either way, you should be very proud of the fact that he comes to you and talks to you. No matter how his life turns out, it will be better because he has you. Don't discount that.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:42 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

On race, he's white and I'm black.

Oops, I assumed he was not white when now I see that I got that idea from the comments (which only asked if he was black), not the question. Sorry for making a racist assumption there. Partly I was projecting and remembering back to my own Big Sister-esque volunteer experience, when as a white female working with a girl who was black, my cluelessness about white privilege and race (and poverty, and so many other things) was a real barrier for me in being a good mentor for her.

I guess I'm just a little scared of trying to help, not being able to, and then watching him deteriorate into what I was hoping to keep him from since he was 12.

This really comes through in your question and follow-up. I totally understand where you're coming from. But people sometimes pick up on fears like this. If he senses that you fear this outcome, he might feel predestined to end up there. Maybe spend some time examining your fear so that you can either let it go or talk to him about it?

It's that he doesn't take pleasure in anything anymore (another nod to possible depression).

Maybe for now, you could just deal with him as you would a depressed friend? Help him get out of the house, ideally to beautiful places? Could you get him to decide if he wants to reapply, and if so, take him on mini-road trips to see campuses of his choice?
posted by salvia at 6:32 PM on October 22, 2012

Absolutely, my goal is have him change his environment fully. On one hand, it may prove to be too overwhelming. But I think the proximity of his college to home allowed him to live with one foot out the door. In the first 2 days, he was even saying how he might just go home every other weekend. How can you really commit to a new community when you're checking the train schedule all the time? He would love dorm life. If only he would open himself up enough to make it through the transition.

On race, it is an interesting switch from the expected dynamic. I was able to see how privilege existed independent of racial lines. He's blocked out of so many opportunities not because of his race but because of his circumstances that are a result of every factor in his life growing up. And likewise, I had privilege because I had support that he didn't have. Tragically unfair.

I must do better to show that I believe in him. Yes, I'm concerned, but you're right that I don't want to unintentionally communicate that I believe he will fail.

He does like road trips, and we took quite a few to visit colleges. Perhaps that's a good short-term move.
posted by ChipT at 9:13 AM on October 23, 2012

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