New York Times best-selling author Harlan Cohen outlined his five major rules for parents sending their children off to college during his presentation last week at Homestead High School.
Although he was speaking to a crowd of more than 200 parents and students at the Homestead PTSA-sponsored event, he still found ways to engage students individually, asking them to share experiences as part of his presentation. The Illinois resident, whose most popular book is “The Naked Roommate: And the 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College” (Sourcebooks, 2017), also offered personal anecdotes and stories about his family.
The Town Crier sat down with Cohen prior to his Sept. 25 presentation; the Q&A, edited for conciseness and clarity, follows.
Q: What inspired you to write “The Naked Roommate”?
A: I had a miserable first year in college, and I did not want anybody else to have to go through what I went through. I interviewed thousands of students, and they shared tips and stories. It’s great, because all of these students have been through the same stuff, and they can share what they’ve been through and how to get through it.
Q: Where did the idea for the title come from?
A: The original title was “100 Students, 100 Campuses, 100 Tips.” It’s not a very engaging title. When the publisher and I were trying to figure it out, I played this song I wrote called “My Roommate Stu,” which is about a nudist roommate, and they were like, “That’s the title.”
It really represents the question when you encounter new and uncomfortable situations of what do you do? How do you react? It wraps it all up into one fun title.
Q: Because the title didn’t come from personal experience, did you have any particularly funny or awkward roommate moments in college?
A: Sometimes people ask me if I had a naked roommate, and I say, “You know, I think I briefly saw my roommate naked, but I looked away.”
One situation that was a little awkward is one roommate gave me the silent treatment – like, he seriously stopped talking to me. That was actually OK, because he was a good listener. I would keep talking to him, and it worked out fine. I didn’t really let it bother me.
One roommate moved out after a couple weeks. I was sad because I really needed friends and I thought my roommate was going to be my friend, but roommates aren’t friends, they’re people you share space with. Friendship is a bonus.
Q: Were there any situations in college that you wish someone had prepared you for?
A: I think just the general discomfort that comes with change. No one told me that being uncomfortable is normal, and I thought that it was me that was the problem.
But the experience was supposed to be that way, I just didn’t know, so I ended up internalizing many normal life changes. In high school, and in the college search and selection process, there isn’t a lot of sharing that part.
Asking students, “What’s been the most uncomfortable part of your experience and how do you get through it?” is going to tell you a lot about the school. And it’s going to tell you a lot about how you can work through issues if they pop up.
While we’re unique, our problems aren’t. Students are increasingly dealing with anxiety and stress. That message of, “You’re going to be OK, you guys are all going to get there,” is something so key. And that’s a message that I don’t think is communicated enough in high school. It’s just one choice, and if you don’t like it, you can make a different choice.
Q: What should students look for when picking a college?
A: They should know that it’s less about the school and more about the student. A lot of times we’re so focused on a school being the “dream maker,” our dream school. But students are more than 51% of the equation. It’s more about you and less about the school. You can look at school through a different lens and start to think, “What do I want?” as opposed to “Who wants me?” That’s really so empowering.
When it comes to looking for a school, I always use “people, places and patience” as the framework.
Where are the schools where you can find people you can connect with, people who you can see yourself becoming friends with?
Where is the school where there are three places where you can sweat, play, pray, live, learn, lead, love and work? It’s really important to think, where are the places I can do the things that really speak to what’s important to me?
The last part is patience. How can I find a school that, if I do feel a little uncomfortable, I know that I’m going to be able to tolerate that discomfort?
Q: What are some common misconceptions about college?
A: Everybody has this idea of what it’s supposed to be. You need to release yourself of that and create what you want it to be.
Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat, and all of these different ways that we’re getting information, portray an experience that isn’t really the authentic one. You need to abandon that and think about what you want, what’s important to you.
Q: What’s your biggest piece of advice for high school seniors entering college?
A: Really appreciate all of the experiences. Appreciate the great days and appreciate the horrible days. Appreciate that each experience is offering you an invitation to learn something. When you’re open and present to them – and can use the people and places on campus to help get through them – you’ll create the most incredible college experience and life experience.
For more information on Cohen and his books, visit harlancohen.com.