Health & Medicine

Tips for parents of college freshmen


It's the time of year when thousands of parents around the country are slowly untying the apron strings to send their sons or daughters to college. Here are 10 tips for parents facing this change, from Laurie Hamre, vice president for student affairs at Macalester College in Minnesota.

1: You have made a great choice. Your search process was thorough: you researched, visited campuses and made an informed choice. Trust that your student will make lifelong friends, be challenged intellectually and socially, and be with faculty who love to teach, and advisors and staff who are committed to providing support and guidance.

2. The college, you and your student are in partnership. For the past 18 years or so, you have probably been at the center of your son's or daughter's life, particularly their educational experience. In college, that responsibility transfers to your student. Most communication from the college will be directed at your son or daughter. Most colleges encourage students to keep parents appropriately informed about their lives, but they also encourage parents to honor students' adulthood and privacy while remaining connected.

3. Understand the transition of a first-year student. The college years are a time of growth, change and exploration. It is a time for students to gain the life skills they will need to become successful, independent adults. It is not uncommon for students who were academically or socially successful in high school to experience some self-doubt once they are surrounded by equally competent peers. They might receive "average" grades for the first time and experience this as a crisis. Parental understanding is important; academic struggles might not reflect lack of effort or ability but rather an adjustment to the academic rigor of higher education.

Parents can be an essential source of support, encouragement and advice. However, it is important for you to allow your student room to fail, experience disappointments and question his or her identity and beliefs. These are learning experiences that help students understand the consequences of their actions, prepare them for the "real world" and help them to develop a true sense of self. Also, for the first time, they have only themselves to worry about — no family schedules to synchronize. This can lead to an intense response to normal everyday life. Please don't panic; resist the temptation to rush in to "save" your son or daughter when times get difficult. Show your support and concern, but trust that he or she has the skills and resources to work things out.

4. Stay connected. Students do miss home and family, although they might not tell you so. Calls, letters, e-mail, care packages, asking about their lives, and expressing pride in their accomplishments might be valued even more now that they are away from home. Expect that your student will not respond to all of your contacts, but know that he or she appreciates hearing from you.

5. Ask questions and discuss difficult topics. You still have a tremendous influence on your son or daughter's behavior. In college, your son or daughter will have to make decisions about what time to get up, when to study or exercise, which organizations to join, what to eat and whether to drink alcohol or engage in sexual relationships. You cannot force your student to behave in a particular way, but parents can share their values and beliefs. Give your student the facts on these issues. Create an atmosphere of open communication, and your student will appreciate that you respect him or her as an adult and will be more likely to turn to you for guidance.

6. Know campus resources. Become familiar with life at your student's college. Helping your student to navigate the college is one of the best ways for you to mentor him or her during this transition to adulthood. That way, you can demonstrate that you are interested in your student's life but let him or her solve his or her own problems. Trust that faculty and staff at your student's college have been doing this work for a long time. Referring to on-campus services is one of the best ways to help your student find success.

7. Do not say, "These are the best years of your life." The first year of college can be full of indecision, insecurities, disappointments and, most of all, mistakes. It's also full of discovery, inspiration, good times and exciting people. It might take a while for students to realize that Hollywood-created images of college are wrong. There aren't many images that show that college is about being scared, confused, overwhelmed and making mistakes. Students might feel these things and worry that they are not "normal." Parents can help by understanding that the highs and lows of college life are a crucial part of your son's or daughter's development.

8. Understand the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Students' privacy protections under FERPA are very broad. With limited exceptions, the privacy law protects all students' "education records." Protected student records include grade reports, transcripts and most disciplinary files. This law does not cover counseling or medical records, but other laws do. Talk to your student about sharing grades or other information. Most colleges have a waiver that students can sign allowing officials to share this information.

9. Important learning happens in and outside the classroom. Cultivating leadership skills is an important aspect of many college experiences. Equally important is the concept of engagement in and responsibility to a community. Many colleges give students opportunities to put into practice the information they are learning in the classroom. National studies show that students who challenge themselves by getting involved outside the classroom have higher rates of success in college. Encourage your student to take full advantage of the opportunity to enhance their skills and learning by participating in activities outside the classroom.

10. It's never too early to explore future goals. Your child's college career development office provides support and encouragement to students to apply their educational experience to meet their goals. First- and second-year students will benefit from programs and individual advising related to deciding on a major, developing strategies for skill building, finding summer employment and linking academic experiences with career goals. There are many programs and services that help students determine who they will be once they graduate as well as the many options for what they will be.