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In a typical family with three kids, emptying the nest takes a few years. But for Michael and Susie Woodward of Soddy-Daisy, the children flew the coop all at once.

There was a flurry of hugs, a flutter of wings and — poof! — all three daughters were off to college.

You could say it's the downside of having triplets: They insist on turning 18 years old at the same time.

"I don't think you can be prepared emotionally [for an empty nest]," says Susie Woodward, who works for a fire security company. "You spend your whole life preparing for the moment, and then it's over."

The girls — Sarah, Jordan and Laurel — all attend Maryville College, a 1,200-student Presbyterian school in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville.

The Woodwards are a middle-class family — Michael works for Norfolk Southern Railway — so sending three kids off to college simultaneously was always going to to be a heavy lift.

That's where a mother's persistence paid dividends. From the time they were in elementary school until they graduated from Soddy-Daisy High School, Susie Woodward drilled her girls in the importance of academics. Homework was the non-negotiable first order of business every day after school.

Call it "Mom's law."

Susie Woodward explains, "As they were growing up, we always told them: 'Look, it's going to be tough. You're going to have to help us help you. It's not going to be possible for us to pay three kids' college at one time. You are going to work hard, make good grades, and know you are going to BE something when you grow up.'"

In the end, the girls held up their part of the bargain. All three got academic scholarships to Maryville College.

"It's helping that we took the initiative to find scholarships to make it manageable for our family," said Sarah, the "oldest" of the triplets by about a minute. "Pretty much our whole senior year we were applying for scholarships."

The triplets moved to Maryville over the course of about three weeks in August — a staggered start that helped their mom manage her emotions. But even though they are just 95 miles from home, they realize that an empty house is an adjustment for their parents.

"I think it's been hard for both of them," Jordan said.

"I was the first to leave," said Laurel. "Every night my mom would Facetime me or call me."

The fact that the three all ended up in Maryville was unplanned, even a bit serendipitous. Financial aid, campus beauty and the girls' individual interests lined up perfectly to draw all three of the Woodward triplets to the liberal arts campus.

Still, one gets the impression that the triplets — who, incidentally, don't look much alike — guard their independence. While they see one another regularly on the Maryville campus, they don't cling.

In fact, each girl makes it a point to do her own thing.

Laurel is part of the Scots Science Scholars group, an enrichment program that focuses on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). Sarah is involved with the College Bonner Scholars Program, which deploys volunteers to nonprofit groups in the Maryville community. And Jordan will be a pitcher on the Maryville College softball team.

Still, having siblings close by does have its advantages.

"They have the comfort of knowing that there's always a sister two floors down or a dorm building away," said their mom, Susie.

And as for Mom and Dad, knowing their chicks are still together brings joy to the empty nest.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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