Broken Homes?

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Photo: The Saint

The academic family is something that is so uniquely St Andrews in how it comes together. As it functions entirely outside of University control, it depends only on direct student-to-student interaction. As always, the competition to have a good academic family can be intense, with both parents and kids being selective in whom they choose. Parents understandably want “cool” kids, people with whom they share similarities, whether it is a similar taste in music or in sports. Kids in turn want to have the best academic family experience they can have. As a way of ensuring this happens, they say yes to five or more parents, attend all the introductory socials and pick the best parental candidate. This method should be successful because if both parties are being equally selective with whom they choose as their kids or parent, then logically, the family as a unit should last long after Raisin.

But more often than not, academic families that survive and thrive after Raisin seem to be in the minority. Because even the most selective of parents and children have only one thing in mind: Raisin weekend. After that, what is the use of staying together? There are no further obligations beyond Raisin that exist for either parent or child, providing that the children have behaved, brought their Tesco Everyday Value bottle of wine for good old Mom and Dad and have received in exchange an (un)forgettable Raisin. Most academic families are really just “Raisin families,” as second-year medic student Joon Bang calls them. He is lucky, though, because his family has survived October. Mr Bang estimates that out of his friend group, most of whom are second-year students and were all adopted last year, most all of their academic families have simply faded away. These families come together and then quickly disperse. Leaving parents and siblings to awkwardly wave hello in Tesco to the people they may have puked in front of (maybe once, maybe more than once.)

But what about those families that stick together past Raisin? What is so different in their attitudes toward the academic family that makes them more likely to last? Fourth-year student Struan Erlenborn wanted his own academic family “to do more than [his] had.” He says: “I liked the family, but we were just never able to get hangout dates to work. We just never met up that much.” His primary goal with adopting was to avoid this common fate. His co-parent, Daihachi Yagi, perhaps had loftier goals, explaining that his metric for success as an academic family was if all of their children wanted to have families of their own.

Both dads’ goals have been met. Their family of nine sees one another “at least once every other week and at a minimum we see each other once a month,” says daughter Katie Hurst. She describes their family as having “a different bond” than most. “You have friends at university and you have people you feel you can go to, but with academic moms, with academic dads and academic siblings, you actually feel like there’s some sort of familial relationship there and it’s amazing,” she says. Last week, as a competitor in St Andrews Got Talent, Ms Hurst also learned that the academic family, when it is still intact, can serve as “a massive support system.” Both her dads and nearly all of her siblings attended; they “brought a really big banner,” which gave her “a wonderful feeling.” Mr Bang is one of her brothers, and he agrees with her account of their family life. He explains that, while St Andrews can seem lonely at times, the academic family is a great way not only to meet people one might otherwise not have before, but also a good way of combating any potential hard times. “I felt like I could talk about anything with my dads,” he says. “I could always just text them and ask them if I could come over, and they would always say yes.”

But once the patriarchs of their family leave, will the children continue to hangout? Or will they slowly fade away to strangers, telling their friends ‘That girl was my academic sister’ as they pass each other in the street? Ms Hurst, Mr Bang and their sister Karyn Stewart think that they will avoid that awkwardness. Ms Stewart describes their relationship as being similar to “just a group of friends.” She says: “When I talk about my academic family to people from other universities, it’s like, technically we call ourselves a family and feel those familial ties, but I love these people as friends. I’m so glad I met them. I can’t imagine how we all would’ve come together if we hadn’t have been family.” Mr Bang adds that all of the kids came from different countries and halls and participated on different sport teams, but together they are a family.

How were Mr Erlenborn and Mr Yagi able to foster their family relationships to last past Raisin? Of course, there are the dinners hosted by parents and the potlucks to which the kids contributed. But they also go out of their way to hold other events such as movie nights when everyone cuddles up and watches a film together (The Room is a family favorite). Raisin and Raisin revenge have also been essential bonding experiences. Perhaps most important, though, are the spontaneous calls to action, such as when the entire family went out for a walk along the Fife coastal path after the summer holiday simply to catch up. Mr Bang found it reassuring that everyone wanted to hang out immediately upon returning to St Andrews, especially since he had worried over the summer if their family connection would survive the months apart. “I was wondering what was going to happen with our family, wondering if we would see each other as frequently as we had,” he says. “But then as soon as we got back, we received the test to make time for a walkabout on the coastal path, [and] it was really nice.”

Considering this family’s experience and how great their bond seems, why don’t more families follow suit? Most students will agree that it is not because they did not like their own parents (or children), but rather because of a lack of effort or overwhelming differences between the various family members. One third-year says that his decision to let his own academic family fizzle out after Raisin was because “it’s hard to want to make something work when everyone is so disinterested.” Additionally, fostering such close familial relationships takes time. It is the unspoken duty of parents to host at least one dinner before Raisin so that everyone at least has some idea of who they will be getting drunk with soon enough. Having the money and wherewithal beyond that to provide for kids can be overwhelming, especially if you are not keen on the commitment. Adopting with someone else who had similar aspirations for his academic family is what Mr Erlenborn credits as the reason for their success. He says that the ability to split the cost of having kids played a huge part, especially considering how many kids they have. Otherwise, he doubts he would have adopted so many.

So it seems that there are only two paths for nascent academic families to take, either that of a “Raisin family” or that of the Erlenborn-Yagi clan. The latter option definitely takes more work but, with any luck, will outlast students’ university careers and continue on for generations to come.

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