What to Expect with the Move to College
April 01, 2010
Moving to college is often a tough process for parents and children. While this transition involves many people, it should always emphasize the child's development and decision-making skills, and thus should not include parents attending advising sessions, choosing a major, selecting courses or applying for an on-campus job, as several student service administrators have witnessed.
"The parent's role is to be one of a supporter," says Dr. Levester Johnson, vice president for student affairs at Butler University. The role, he adds, is to "help students be very reflective in their decision making, to ask questions, challenge them and be supportive of them and encourage them to take on their own responsibility."
A move to college signals a major milestone for children and parents, and one that comes with opportunities, challenges, anxiety and excitement. However, the best advice college administrators can give parents is to begin treating the child as an adult—making his or her own decisions and mistakes.
"First and foremost, parents need to remember they are both going through a transition process. Their communication patterns are going to be different and access to information is going to change," says Dan Stoker, executive director for student services at the University of Indianapolis.
As a student is usually a legal adult by the time he or she enters college, parents must remember that their relationship with their child—personally, emotionally, and legally—will change. College is a time for coming-of-age, for intellectual and self discovery, for pursuing passions and learning life lessons. In this, says Stoker, "Parents need to be a part of the process, but they don't need to be the process. We want students to start taking ownership and being accountable for themselves. That has to transition from parents being solely responsible to students starting to take some responsibility."
In playing the role of supporter, there are several key tools parents can use to help the first year of college run smoothly. These include excellent communication skills, knowledge of campus resources and unending support.
First and foremost, clear and easy communication is crucial for productive and open parent-child relationships.
"We're coming through an age of parents and family members being everything from best friends to parents being very involved in scheduling students' lives," Johnson says. "It's very important for parents and students to understand, with all this new-found freedom, how to stay in touch with one another."
Students tend to be very busy, attending class, studying, socializing and working, so finding time for meaningful conversations can be challenging. But, family members are not restricted to traditional phone calls for communication. Social media sites such as Facebook.com and MySpace.com, or portable electronics with features like text messaging or sending photos can make it easier to stay in touch and in ways more familiar to tech-savvy teens.
"They may not admit it, but they miss you," says Paula Meyer, parent advisor at Indiana State University. "They love to get mail and hear about family. The ties to home are very, very valuable." You'd be surprised how much a card, a phone call, a care package or visit can mean to college student. They'll be homesick—whether they admit it or not.
In addition, Meyer urges parents to trust their student from afar. "Know that you have brought them up well and, in most cases, they reflect your values and what you have taught them. But trusting your student will save a lot of pain and heartache later," she says.
Visiting campus is another easy option to help strengthen those ties. Occasions such as parent's weekend or a homecoming football game provide organized activities for parents and children to enjoy together. But, parents must acknowledge the student's independence and keep visits short and friendly.
When visiting campus, parents may be struck the myriad of choices available for their child regarding dating, partying, drinking, going Greek, or joining social clubs or intramural sport teams. Parents may be tempted to launch into a lecture about safety, but, Meyer suggests taking a softer approach.
"It can be brought up as easy as asking them what they do on campus, outside of going to class," she says, "and just offering the reassuring comments of trusting their judgment, but wanting them to be safe."
While parents may have managed their child's schedule in high school, college is a time for the student to make his or her own choices and learn time and opportunity management. Parents can still provide support by recommending opportunities or resources on campus, but should not dictate what the child does. For example, if the student needs social, physical, academic or career advice, most colleges or universities offer counseling, tutoring, or medical aid to students. In addition, academic advisors, resident assistants or even professors can provide a friendly ear or guidance during a student's academic career.
"If the student starts to struggle with a class, they can offer suggestions or recommendations of what do, how to deal with it and where to go," says Stoker, "as long as they're not the first one picking up the phone to solve the problem themselves."
Further, Johnson suggests a focus on student autonomy.
"I think the rule is to get involved, but not too involved. Think about encouraging the student to be very intentional about where their interests and passions are and not overdue it," Johnson says. "Beyond that, it is very important to find [their] niche." Johnson also notes that parents can encourage the student to take advantage of faculty office hours and network for any professional contacts that may be helpful in starting a career.
Another major change on the road to adulthood is a shift in parents' access to information about their student. Not only is the student living a life parents cannot monitor at all times, but academic information is not always available to parents per the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). For institutions receiving federal money, this act mandates that student academic records are only released to parents with prior written consent from the student. For parents who pay tuition and, in exchange, want to receive grade reports each semester, this could pose a problem.
"I get a lot of inquiries from parents who want to see grades and financial aid information," says Meyer. "That's a conversation they need to have with their student. All that goes back to keeping the lines of communication open, communicating early and often."
A final way for parents to be involved in campus life is to inquire about or join a parent program offered by the institution. For example, Butler University offers an e-mail newsletter to inform parents of campus events, or parents can sign up for an emergency notification listserv. In addition, mothers and fathers can join the parents association or serve on the parent council to assist with efforts to connect Butler University to student hometowns. Similarly, Indiana State University offers a newsletter, several parent and family weekend events, and gift baskets packaged and delivered by campus dining services. Also, no matter what university your child attends, parents are advised to check out the school Web site and take advantage of any services that might make their college experience easier, fulfilling or more fun.
Finally, Meyer advises, college is about testing boundaries, broadening areas of interest and expertise, overcoming obstacles and taking a few falls along the way.
"Your student is becoming more independent and there may be some bumps in the road with them gaining their independence," Meyer says. "Know that your son or daughter is gaining the experience they need to use in adulthood."
Keri Schwab is a freelance writer and a doctoral student in the Dept. of Parks, Recreation, & Tourism at the University of Utah. She has experience working with youth and adults in a variety of educational settings including home-based early intervention, community afterschool programs and undergraduate college courses.