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Making the Break

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the moment of truth arrived, there was no way to hold back the tears.

In a scene played out on college campuses across the nation, freshman Kristin Price spent the better part of a morning moving out of her Thousand Oaks home and into an apartment across the street from USC, where she started school 1 1/2 weeks ago.

To ease the sting of their daughter’s departure, Jeff and Donna Price helped with the move, hanging artwork, hooking up her stereo and stocking her pantry with popcorn and rice cakes and other essentials for all-nighters.

They also set up medical equipment she will need to continue her fight against cystic fibrosis, a fatal disease she has battled since birth.

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And when they could no longer avoid it, they teased each other about how to say goodbye, joking that they should just shake hands and tell each other to keep a stiff upper lip.

But of course, that didn’t happen.

Because when it came time to cut the apron strings--when it was time for Kristin to be on her own, leaving behind the safety of her home and the shelter of Thousand Oaks High--the tears began to flow.

Donna Price clutched her only child, bursting into deep sobs and delivering a massive hug, as if holding on tight could heal the heartache of separation.

“You’ll be OK,” Kristin whispered to her mother, trying hard to hold it together in this sudden reversal of roles. “You go home and hug my stuffed animals for me.”

As the school year swings into full gear, hundreds of Ventura County students are embarking on this brave new journey, launching college careers and moving away from home for the first time.

It is a time of raw emotion for them and their parents, a time of tremendous hope and terrible heartache. It is a time of letting go, where children are cut loose to find their own way and parents are left to minister from long distance.

And it is a time of turbulent transition, one that provides a deep, often bruising separation between the cloistered world of high school and the free-wheeling universe of college.

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Some will find themselves struggling just to keep pace with schoolwork, a sobering experience coming off successful high school careers. Others will battle homesickness and loneliness, stunned to find themselves suddenly cut adrift from family and friends.

“If you think of the transitions in life, I think leaving high school and going away to college certainly ranks up there among the major life changes,” said Harold Pruett, UCLA’s director of student psychological services.

“Not only are they leaving home,” Pruett said, “but they are also facing a more diverse environment. And they’re being confronted with values and other things that might be different [from] what they’re used to.”

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Although educators do not keep a precise tally on how many Ventura County students leave home each year for college, they estimate that as many as 1,000 of last year’s graduating seniors are embarking on that journey this time of year.

Royal High School graduate Brian So started his journey last week at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, hopping a red-eye flight from LAX as his parents bade goodbye with tears in their eyes.

“That was very hard for me; it tore me up,” said the 18-year-old valedictorian of his Simi Valley high school.

The eldest son of South Korean immigrants, So is a straight-A student who hopes to become a doctor. For his trip back East, he packed a laptop computer, photos of family and close friends and a letter from his father saying how proud he was of his son.

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“I realize that I have to make something of my life, that my parents will not be around to nurture me anymore,” he said. “I know that I’ve crossed the Rubicon; this is the point of no return.”

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While many students already have made the break, others such as Fillmore High School graduate Johanna Romero are counting down the days to departure.

She is headed to UC Santa Barbara, and recently went through a two-week orientation at the seaside campus to help her get used to college life and living away from home.

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She leaves for school in two weeks but hasn’t even started to pack.

“I just know that it’s going to be really hard, that it’s not going to be anything like high school,” said Romero, 18. “I’ll be all right; I’ll make it. And it’s only an hour away, so my mom can pick me up whenever she wants me to come home.”

Preparing to drive an hour in the opposition direction is Buena High School graduate Becky Butler, who is among 3,700 freshmen scheduled to start at UCLA later this month.

In the next two weeks she will pack up her teddy bears and wall posters, leaving her mother and stepfather with an empty nest.

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She is plenty nervous. A self-professed “neat freak,” she worries about how she will take to dorm life. She doesn’t have a clue as to who will be her roommates, and that worries her too.

“At the beginning of the summer it seemed like it was so far away, and now it’s so close,” she said. “I’m really attached to my friends and family, and I think it’s going to be really hard to leave the people I love.”

Sue Butler, Becky’s mom, said she’s confident her daughter will do well.

But she confides it’s a major life change all the way around. Becky will be the last of three daughters to leave the house, and that’s a lot to take all at one time.

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“I’m one of those people who cries at Kodak commercials, so I feel confident I will cry and she will too,” Sue Butler said. “But I also think that there’s an obligation for parents to make sure, to some extent, they keep a stiff upper lip. The last thing I want is for Becky to worry about me.”

Of course, some things can’t be helped. Donna Price figured she was ready to walk away from Kristin on move-in day at USC. She knew she would be sad, but she didn’t figure the separation would tap such a deep well of emotion.

“I didn’t expect to lose it, let me tell you that,” Price said. “I thought I was really ready, but obviously I wasn’t. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

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All day long, she had been such a trooper. The Prices were up early that day, knowing that thousands of other new and returning USC students would be swarming the campus in that late-August rush to move in and get settled.

In the beginning, it was like trying to get on a ride at Disneyland. There were lines everywhere, and Kristin immediately got into the longest one to pick up her keys and USC identification.

The apartment complex she moved into is run by the university, and a security guard sat in the lobby looking bored.

“I’ll take that as a good sign,” Donna Price said. “It says this school is concerned about my child’s safety.”

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Helped out by Kristin’s high school friend, Brian Gross, the family quickly unloaded the van they had rented for the occasion. Among the heaviest items was a piece of equipment Kristin needs to help clear her lungs as a result of her cystic fibrosis.

When Kristin was first diagnosed at age 2, the life expectancy was 10 years. Today, as a result of advances in treatment, the mean survival age is about 30.

Still, with every infection and every illness, the potential exists for the disease to run out of control.

Among other fears, Jeff and Donna Price worry that Kristin might drive herself too hard and neglect her health, now that she’s away from home.

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Reflecting on moving day, Donna Price said she is sure those concerns contributed to her emotional reaction when saying goodbye.

“You wonder whether she’s getting the right amount of sleep, whether she’s eating all the right things,” Price said. “But there was a point in her life and my life where we didn’t know whether we would see this day. To have gotten to this point, with the future looking so good, has allowed me to dream for her.”

VOICES “I just know that it’s going to be really hard, that it’s not going to be anything like high school. . . . I’ll be all right; I’ll make it. And it’s only an hour away, so my mom can pick me up whenever she wants me to come home.”

--Johanna Romero,

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a Fillmore High School graduate who will be leaving home to attend UC Santa Barbara

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“At the beginning of the summer it seemed like it was so far away, and now it’s so close. I’m really attached to my friends and family, and I think it’s going to be really hard to leave the people I love.”

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--Becky Butler,

a graduate of Ventura’s Buena High School who will soon attend UCLA

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“That was very hard for me; it tore me up. . . . I realize that I have to make something of my life, that my parents will not be around to nurture me anymore. . . . I know that I’ve crossed the Rubicon; this is the point of no return.”

--Brian So,

Simi Valley’s Royal High School valedictorian who attends Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore


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