Jane Clementi, Opinion contributor
College should be a place of openness to new ideas. But my gay son Tyler was the victim of a horrible act of cyberbullying and he died by suicide.
Whether it’s your oldest or your youngest, sending your child off to college is monumental. This transitional time is a whirlwind of emotions for everyone. Most students experience much enthusiasm and excitement as they embark on this new adventure of self-discovery and freedom.
But sometimes students have high expectations and might feel pressure for their college experience to live up to a standard set by pop culture portrayals. While many will have an overall smooth and exciting transition to college life, some will feel isolated and secluded in their new environment. Perhaps some freshmen may even feel out of place and anxious because they don’t look like or act like anyone else. Others will feel lonely and sad without daily contact with their family and the close circle of friends they had acquired over the years.
At times, college can be immensely stressful, and students might even encounter feelings of depression and helplessness. Before they leave, parents and mentors can help by not over-glamorizing college so when growing pains happen, they will feel normal.
Bullying and cruelty on campus
We also know that bullying doesn’t stop when high school ends. We know that it continues into college and adult life, and that it can be just as destructive and harmful regardless of the age of those impacted. Sadly, many students don’t seek help. They might feel they lack a trusted person in their new space to share what they are feeling. This can result in tragic consequences.
My son Tyler was a smart, talented and creative young man. In August of 2010, Tyler began studying at Rutgers University. He had recently come out and was excited to learn, grow and have the freedom to live openly as a gay man. Even though a college campus should be a place of openness to new ideas, discrimination and cruelty still happen there. Within weeks, Tyler became a victim of a horrible act of cyberbullying and humiliation. Several days after he was cyberbullied, Tyler died by suicide.
College should have been a stepping stone to Tyler’s future and a place where he could realize and celebrate his identity. But instead of a bright future, Tyler’s story had an abrupt ending because of the cruelty of others. Unfortunately, even at a safe and inclusive school known for its diverse student body, not all students arrive on campus with a mindset of respect, kindness and simple consideration of human dignity that each and every one of us should be afforded. It takes students time to acclimate and acquire the culture of their new environment.
Before your child leaves for college
Since Tyler’s death, I have worked to ensure that other people don’t have to experience what happened to my son. I founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation with the goal of standing up to bullying and promoting kindness. We have programs like #Day1, which is a toolkit to prevent bullying before it even starts, and the Upstander pledge, where individuals pledge to stand up to bullying wherever and whenever they see it. Sometimes, having someone there for you is all it takes to feel safe.
Be sure your child knows what resources they can access for help before they leave for school.
While you discuss which comforter to buy for their dorm room, and chat about what classes they will take or clubs they may want to join, also take a moment to have an honest and difficult conversation about what not-so-glamorous experiences they may encounter. Discuss with them what to do if they feel isolated or depressed. Ensure them that these are all very real and powerful emotions that need to be talked about and not ignored.
Many colleges offer mental health services. Encourage your child to make an appointment and utilize this available support. Help minimize the stigma and fear many still have of seeking professional help. From relationships, friendships, grades, partying and figuring out their role in the world, there are lots of situations that can be made easier by speaking to someone in confidence — and that’s normal and OK.
Transitions can be difficult, but your love for your children and desire to keep them safe and protected is unchanging. Having those difficult conversations now could save their life later.
Jane Clementi is the founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces and faith communities.