By Robin Noble
One of the biggest differences between college today and college just 20 or so years ago is the expansion of parent-focused programs.
Now parents have a whole department dedicated to engaging just them. Generally housed within the student affairs office (but sometimes alumni/development), the parent programs office gives parents a direct, non-bureaucratic line to the university for answers and resources, as well as fun and social engagement.
It’s absolutely worthwhile to participate, and you’ll find opportunities along the entire spectrum.
Bringing your student to school a generation back meant battling for parking near the dorm and skedaddling once his things had been hauled upstairs. While parking woes may be a perpetual rite, expanded parent programs can make a student’s send-off much less stark.
By all means, go to the parent luncheon or BBQ. Take the family campus tour. Go see the speaker or performance if one is offered. Most of these activities will be apart from what your student is doing by design, allowing him some space to settle in while you connect with the university as a parent. Reuniting for your goodbyes, you will feel a little more connected to the whole experience. It may not take the emotional sting out of drop-off, but feeling less estranged and more tied in has tremendous advantages.
Many university communities start making connections well before move-in day. Alums love to get together and will often organize fun freshmen meet-up or send-off gatherings at their own homes, inviting students and their families into the fold. New freshmen get to meet one another, parents can mingle, and alums reconnect. A local community can be especially valuable when students go away for college, and not just for social reasons. Practical considerations like airport commuting are easier and more fun to manage with local support.
Have questions you’d like answered by an insider? Have them ready. At some schools, experienced parents of upperclassmen will make “welcome” phone calls to freshmen parents a few weeks before classes get underway. If you don’t get a welcome call, ring the parent programs office and ask to connect with another parent. The office can facilitate these conversations for you.
The rah-rah aspects of Parent and Family Weekend are still in full force at most schools, and they add up to a lot of fun and quality engagement. Plan early. Nearby hotels often sell out for this very popular event. Talk with your student about what you’d like to participate in and how that aligns with his schedule. The parent programming office will have suggestions on how to balance both.
If your student has problems on campus, the parent programs office is a good place to go for answers and resources.
“Parents typically hear about student problems before anyone on campus knows what’s going on,” says author and parent programming expert Marjorie Savage.
Ms. Savage is the author of the bestselling You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years. The book grew out of 20 years working with college parents, including her time as the director of parent programming at the University of Minnesota, where she served as the liaison between the school and the parents of its 29,000 undergraduates.
“Parents help the institution by referring students to resources for assistance, by reinforcing the messages we want students to act on, and by delivering our messages to students when they are most likely to need specific information,” she says.
In some of the more innovative programs, universities are reaching out to parent populations with specific needs: parents of first-in-family students, parents whose first language is not English, low-income families and international families.
“The purpose is to promote success among students who are most at-risk,” Ms. Savage says. “While I have not seen data to indicate that goals are being achieved, it’s reasonable to expect that families appreciate and respond to these efforts.”
Another parent-programming innovation is the expansion of social networks to include parents. Universities are creating parent networks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
“These sites have become significant social communities for parents, which can be either positive or problematic when parents use the community to vent about negative experiences,” Ms. Savage says.
Through parent programs, universities are finding parents enthusiastic about service opportunities. Not long past their PTA days, parents can be hungry for meaningful volunteer work.
“As institutions focus on service learning for students, involving parents is an intriguing way to show families the value of what colleges are asking students to learn,” Ms. Savage says.
Many schools, like the University of Denver, have active parent councils, which work to engage families, encourage parent awareness of campus life, and generate ideas for family programming among other objectives. During its regular meeting, the DU parent council hears presentations from university administrators, learning more about campus life, long range planning and student activities.
All of this engagement is good for parents, but it’s even better for students.
“When parents and family members know the resources on campus, understand the student experience, and have a positive impression of the institution, college life is easier on the student,” Ms. Savage says. “It can be hard for students to translate and explain how a complex institution works. To the extent that the university can educate parents on these matters and normalize typical student development, the experience will be better for the student.”
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