Chelsea off to college: A day of hope, tears

  Mimi Hall


  USA Today


  Page 17A

  (Copyright 1997)


  WASHINGTON -- Family friends have called to lend an ear. Publishers have

  sent books on how to cope with parent-child separation. Even some of the

  prickly reporters who cover the White House have offered gentle warnings to

  President Clinton that he should brace himself for what will be a very difficult



  It's a poignant family ritual that's repeated tens of thousands of times at college

  campuses nationwide every fall. And today at Stanford University in Palo Alto,

  Calif., it's the Clinton family's turn.


  Late Thursday, the first family of three boarded Air Force One outside

  Washington for an emotional cross-country trip.


  Today, proud parents Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton wake up in Palo Alto to a

  day they've looked forward to and dreaded at the same time. They'll leave their

  only child, 17-year-old Chelsea Victoria Clinton, at college.


  "I am dreading the moment Bill and I have to say goodbye to Chelsea," Hillary

  Clinton wrote in her syndicated newspaper column this week. "I know how great

  I should feel at her achievement and how excited I should be about the wonderful

  experiences that await her. But those are my mature moments. Most of the time,

  I'm wondering why I ever let her skip third grade."


  It may be painful for her parents, but students at the "the Harvard of the West"

  say Chelsea made the right choice in choosing a college 3,000 miles from home.


  "It's great for her," says Nicole Perez, 25, a second-year Stanford law student.

  "This is pretty far from Washington. College is a time to get to know yourself

  and relax. The farther she can get away from her parents, the better."


  Living so far from home "is going to be a big change for her," says Joel Hensley,

  27, a graduate student studying physics. "She's led such an insulated life. She'll

  definitely grow and develop into an adult around here."


  At Stanford's 8,800-acre, palm tree-studded campus, Chelsea will share a dorm

  room with a roommate she's already met. White House aides are mum about

  what she'll study, but Chelsea wants to be a pediatric cardiologist, so pre-med

  courses are a good bet. And chances are she'll continue taking ballet classes, a

  passion for her during her high-school years.


  Hensley and other Stanford students are wondering and waiting to see what else

  Chelsea will do at "The Farm," nicknamed because the campus was built in the

  late 1880s on farmland donated by former California governor Leland Stanford.


  "I keep wondering if she'll join a frat and get wasted at parties," Hensley says.

  "Or will she get into the co-op scene and become a vegan? Shave her head? Or,

  still, she may fall into the coffee-house pseudo-artistic scene and get tons of



  Not likely.


  Chelsea is a vegetarian and she almost surely will take advantage of the school's

  vegetarian meal plan. And like many girls her age, she does seem to like the

  latest in trendy teenage clothes: clunky sandals, short skirts and flared pants.


  But by all accounts she's responsible, poised, serious about her studies and very

  conscious of her image.


  This is a girl who doesn't even have her ears pierced.


  Still, those who know her say that for a young woman who's lived in the

  governor's mansion in Little Rock and then the White House, going to live on her

  own in college is sure to be a liberating experience.


  "She's as ready as any kid's ever been" to get to college, says long-time family

  friend Diane Blair.


  Of course, she'll never be completely on her own.


  What her life will be like


  As the president's daughter, Chelsea will continue to be protected by the Secret



  Agents trailed her around Washington while she was a student at the private

  Sidwell Friends School and she'll still have to endure them at sun-splashed

  Stanford. They'll be along when she goes to class, when she goes on dates,

  everywhere. A room in her dorm has been set aside for their use.


  Richard Swartz, 23, a graduate student studying physics, has "a few reservations

  about these `Men in Black' roaming around here." He needn't. The agents trailing

  Chelsea will be young, casually dressed and determined to be unobtrusive.


  And the effort to give Chelsea as "normal" a college experience as possible

  extends to the college administration and even to the student newspaper.


  "Our policy is not to talk about any students," says Terry Shepard, director of

  university communications. "It's a private university and private property and

  we'll do what's necessary to protect our students from outside interference."


  Editors of the Stanford Daily already have pledged to do what the national media

  in Washington largely have done for the past five years: leave Chelsea alone.

  The newspaper will cover Chelsea's first day on campus, like any other major

  news story. But after that, Chelsea "will be treated by us as a student, a regular

  student," not a celebrity, says editor Carolyn Sleeth.


  Still, Hillary Clinton can't help but worry. In her column, she writes that she's

  grateful to the national media for sparing Chelsea "unwelcome and intrusive

  press attention" during the past 41/2 years in Washington. But she worries.


  "Bill and I trust Chelsea to be off on her own," the first lady writes, "but we will

  no longer be able to shield her as we have tried to do while she was at home with

  us." In the column, she issues an emotional plea to the press:


  "I remember well my own college years: the good, the bad and the ridiculous.

  The dates that didn't work out . . . the long walks through city streets or across

  campus that ended in a tender moment with a handsome new boyfriend. I can't

  imagine having any of those private experiences, all part of finding myself, being

  interrupted by the bright lights of cameras -- and not because of anything I was

  or did but because of my parents' occupations. I hope Chelsea's college years will

  be her own."


  Today's parting


  To the best of their ability with a horde of reporters trailing them, the Clintons

  plan as "normal" a goodbye to Chelsea as possible.


  They'll join her and the school's 1,600 other freshmen and their parents for an

  orientation that includes a box lunch and speeches from the university's president

  and others. Once orientation is over, in what's sure to be a private moment this

  evening, they'll have to say goodbye.


  But there's little any anxious parent can do to prepare for the wrenching moment

  when it's time to hug a child goodbye and drive away. And, in that regard,

  presidents and first ladies are no exception.


  "Those are parent moments that live forever," Blair says. "You get through it and

  go on, but you know it's never going to be the same again." Especially for the



  Chelsea is an only child, so there's been no one ahead of her to prepare the

  Clintons for her leaving. Now, there will be no one left at home with them after

  she's gone.


  Friends say the separation also is made more difficult because the Clintons have

  formed an extraordinary bond with Chelsea, a bond made closer by the stresses

  and strains caused of public life. Her parents have worked hard to shield Chelsea

  from the spotlight, but there's no escaping the fact she's never quite known the

  "normal" life most of her Stanford classmates will have experienced.


  Her father, after all, was first elected governor of Arkansas in 1978. And he's

  been either governor of that state or president for all but two years of the

  following two decades. For all of Chelsea's life, the three Clintons have had only

  themselves to turn to for privacy.


  The president acknowledged his sense of loss on Wednesday, telling reporters

  that he'd spent his morning making sure Chelsea's belongings were all packed up

  in the right boxes. "There's nothing I can do about it now," he said.


  The president and Hillary Clinton, Blair says, "are acutely aware of how

  intensely they will miss her."


  Both Clintons will use e-mail to keep in touch with Chelsea. They've reportedly

  made every effort to ensure they don't miss any available moment with their



  The president, according to a newspaper report the White House isn't denying,

  went so far as to reschedule next spring's Summit of the Americas with 34 heads

  of state so it wouldn't conflict with Chelsea's spring break in March.


  In political circles, there's a joke that says Chelsea chose Stanford so she could

  be closer to her dad, known for his frequent trips to the celebrity-studded,

  vote-rich West.


  But the sad truth for Bill and Hillary Clinton is that their little girl couldn't be

  further away from home.


  Contributing: Jonathan T. Lovitt on the Stanford campus

  GRAPHIC,color,Elys A. McLean, USA TODAY (Map); PHOTO,color,Ken

  Cedeno,AP; PHOTO,color,H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY ; PHOTO,color,Amy

  Sancetta,AP; PHOTO,color,Charles Krupa,AP