In most households, college is a time of parent-child separation. In the Edstrom household in Elk Grove, college was a time of coming together.
Lad Edstrom, 54, and his only child, Jillian Edstrom, 21, will stand in line together at Sacramento State's spring commencement this week.
Father and daughter will pick up bachelor's degrees in geography and, with family and friends, celebrate the end of an unusual odyssey. As area colleges celebrate commencements and high school graduates prepare to leave the family nest, the Edstroms' story offers lessons in the fundamentals of learning, studying and growing together.
"It's an experience very few people get to go through," said Jillian Edstrom. Accepted into graduate school at Oregon State, she hopes to become a geography professor.
Her dad was a respiratory therapist with a degree in communications who returned to college in 2004, searching for something different after 21 years of seeing death and dying. With the encouragement of his wife, Patti, a registered nurse, Lad enrolled at Cosumnes River College with the idea of pursuing something that would let him work outdoors.
By the time 2007 rolled around, Jillian had graduated from Elk Grove High and was enrolled at California State University, Sacramento, with an undeclared major. Lad, who was indulging a lifelong interest in earth sciences, encouraged his daughter to take a geographic information system class at Cosumnes. One class into geography and the two were hooked. Father and daughter found they enjoyed the material - and they also enjoyed sharing classes.
"It's given us time together that not many parents and kids get," Lad said.
Scott Crosier, a Cosumnes geography professor, has had the chance to observe them: "They're really good friends with each other - which is something you don't see every day with parents and teenage children."
Lad ended up joining Jillian at CSUS in 2008, and father and daughter went on to share another four classes, a geography major, and four years of life as classmates, colleagues and, sometimes, competitors. Both Edstroms are receiving good grades, but Jillian is graduating with honors.
"She takes more notes than me," acknowledged Lad. "Even in the same class on the same test, she almost always did better than me."
Jillian, a true millennium child, found herself more technically adept than her dad and had to learn a little patience.
"We had to learn to work with each other," she said. "I can find myself getting snappier than I would with another student."
Lad found he wasn't as organized as his daughter and had to learn to trust her academic acumen - especially when it comes to computer technology.
"I had to drop the parent role and think 'I'm not going to tell her what to do; she has something to teach me,' " he said.
"So much of what we do now with geographic information systems and cartography is digital," said Robin Datel, who chairs the Geography Department at CSUS. "Anyone who grows up with a mouse in their hand is at an advantage."
Datel said she hasn't taught the Edstroms together but noted that the two have been fairly low-key about their family ties. "There are probably quite a few people who don't know they are father and daughter," she said.
"As we had a few classes under our belts and we both got to know the instructors, we would laugh and cut up in class," said Lad. "We were like these naughty siblings."
Both Edstroms say they felt comfortable dealing with each other as classmates, partly because there is such a wide age range of students on campus.
"He gets to meet some of my friends," said Jillian. "I say, 'This is my dad, and he's going to school, too.' I've never been teased about it. People will say 'That's interesting,' but it's never been a big deal to my friends."
"They just look like my peers to me," said Lad. "I think I have a young spirit."
Although Jillian lived at home and sometimes car-pooled to school with her dad, she joined a sorority on campus and had college peer experiences on her own. This summer, just as she's done in other summers, Jillian will live at Bearskin Meadow Camp in the Sequoia National Forest where she will again be a counselor, camp storekeeper and role model to teens who, like her, have diabetes.
Come fall, the father-daughter study duo will officially split up, with Jillian headed to Corvallis, Ore., for graduate school while Lad Edstrom looks for a job with his new degree.
"She has to live her own life," said Lad, as he contemplates his daughter's impending departure - and prepares to celebrate a father-daughter graduation. "It's a great memory and a great piece of our life to have shared together."