MS and Senior Year Stress: Helping Your Child Leave High School for College

By: Jeri Burtchell

My son came into this world two months premature, had the wrinkled skin of a little old man, and his head fit snuggly in my tightly cupped palm. I just prayed he would live to come home, too scared for our future to think about “prepaid college plans” or anything.

Seventeen years later, my preemie who once weighed 3 pounds is officially a senior. We weathered many challenges along the way, between my MS and his complications from being born too soon. But we’ve made it to this point and I couldn’t be more proud — or terrified.

He has his sights set on college and I’m kicking myself for never starting a prepaid college fund. Besides money, there’s a lot of planning involved, it turns out.

Starting with the senior photo shoot it seems like the wheels have been in motion and I’m falling off the back end of the wagon trying to keep up. There is so much to do!

He enrolled in two Advanced Placement (AP) courses that would look great on his transcripts. We followed that up with a trip to the guidance office where I thought we’d have a single session and be all set.

I think the moment I began fearing a possible MS relapse was at the end of that initial–and completely overwhelming–meeting. She let us know we were playing catch-up at this point. Who knew that college planning begins in the womb?

That prepaid college fund? Probably would have been a good idea. After all, how much can I realistically expect to save between now and next fall? The counselor nixed my idea of spending every dime I get on Lotto tickets in hopes of affording tuition. She said that’s not the best plan.

No, the best plan involves lots of research and determination on my part evidently. My son is bogged down with AP homework so I’m scouring the internet for scholarship opportunities. Thanks to MS for the insomnia I suffer, I have plenty of free time between 1 and 5 AM to read websites and figure out if they are scams or legitimate awards worth applying for.

There really is a scholarship opportunity for left-handers, for example, as well as for seniors who opt to construct their prom attire completely from Duct Tape. Aside from the unusual ones, however, did you know your children can qualify for scholarships if their parent has MS? My son even can even apply for one related to his asthma.

So what can I share with you to help pave the way for your talented child to be able to go to college? Here is my list of things it would have been helpful to know prior to senior year. Hopefully this will relieve some of the relapse-provoking stress, and prepare you for the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.

● Take Honors or AP courses as early and often as you can, striving for academic excellence. (My mantra his entire life was “If you ever expect to go to college you’re going to need a scholarship because I can’t pay for it,”–and we’re learning how right I was.)
● Go to College Night at the high school starting in Freshman year, and learn something each time you go. There are goals you can be achieving along the way, helping your roll out your plan.
● Make a short list of the colleges you’d like to attend and focus on finding out all of the requirements and deadlines for applying. You’ll want to keep track of:
○ Application deadline for the following fall. (I was shocked to see a lot of schools want my son’s submission by November 1 of this year!)
○ SAT, ACT, and GPA minimum requirements
○ In-state vs out-of-state tuitions and housing
● Your guidance counselor may be able to give you fee waiver passes to retake the SAT and/or ACT tests. The retakes do not cancel out previous test scores so don’t worry that you’ll do worse. Your best scores count!
● Search everywhere for scholarships to apply for. Even if it’s small, they can add up fast. Wells Fargo website has a database you can search for scholarships. You have to sign up and fill out a profile and they research the possibilities for you.

In all of your planning, parents, don’t forget about yourself. Your child, like mine, is probably a big help around the house and has been acting as a caregiver to some extent. You may not even realize how great a role they’ve been playing until your nest is empty, unless you have others still at home.

Be sure to create your own plan for how you will connect with your child while they are away, who will take over their caregiver or household responsibilities, and make the transition as smooth as possible.

This should be a time of joy and celebration (I keep reminding myself) so do all you can to prevent the stress that comes with it from sending you spiraling into a relapse. Keep cool, start early, stay focus, and have a plan.

And on the last day of school, toss your own hat in the air–you’ve earned it! Congrats!

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

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As a national nonprofit organization, the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America is a leading resource for the entire MS community, improving lives today through vital services and support. MSAA provides free programs and services, such as: a toll-free Helpline; award-winning publications including a magazine, The Motivator; website featuring educational videos and research updates; S.E.A.R.C.H.™ program to assist the MS community with learning about different treatment choices; a mobile phone app, My MS Manager™; a resource database, My MS Resource Locator; equipment distribution ranging from grab bars to wheelchairs; cooling accessories for heat-sensitive individuals; educational events and activities; MRI funding and insurance advocacy; and more. For additional information, please visit http://www.mymsaa.org or call (800) 532-7667.

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