The back to school frenzy is in full swing, and many parents of kids going off to college are consumed with concerns about what to buy for the dorms, financial aid forms, choice of classes, etc. One need only talk with parents of new college students to feel the worry over what computers to purchase, what Internet speed to get, what linens to buy to fit odd-length beds, what curtains, rods and hooks will work best, what shower caddies kids will reliably take to the bathroom, what medicines to send if and when they get sick, what snacks and gifts to send to reduce homesickness. The nesting instinct is strong; we want to be sure our children are properly, comfortably, and safely settled into their new homes.
These are noble, worthwhile pursuits. I remember my father not wanting to leave Madison, Wisconsin, when he and my mom dropped me off for college, until they had taken me for my first trip to the grocery store and the drugstore. He wanted to be sure they got me fully stocked up on the basic necessities as well as my favorite things. It’s loving, sweet, and very generous.
But, in all the frantic rushing around and back and forth trips to purchase and return at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, JC Penney, and the grocery store, some crucial conversations seem to go missing. As a college professor, I find myself witnessing the effects of this absence firsthand. Here are the things you might consider talking about with your son or daughter before s/he goes off to college to really help bolster the chance that college will be a safe and comfortable home. There’s still no guarantee with any prescribed list but at least showing genuine openness to initiating and having these conversations is a step in the right direction. What astounds me is how these topics are not routinely discussed in high schools.
1) The body and self-care: Most college students I talk to—men and women—struggle with body image. On the first day of school, when I ask them to complete a questionnaire about themselves as learners and people, I ask what qualities they like most about themselves and what they would like to change. Nearly every student I have had wants to look different than they do; I have female students who invariably wish to be thinner and male students who want to be taller and more muscular, and if they consider themselves heavy, they want to be leaner. There is seldom any celebration of their bodies. Too many share with me a history or current struggle with eating disorders and other forms of self-injurious behavior.
There are the students who share with me their mental health struggles. Some wish to be off medication because they dislike the side effects while others wish to see a therapist or to be on medication to see if they might ever feel better. Unfortunately, some of these students express that the major impediment to this is their reluctance to tell their parents because they still rely on their parents’ health insurance. Still, others have concerns that revealing their despair to their parents will result in being pulled out of school. Having frank discussions about health insurance and how to seek good quality care would go a long way for new and returning college students.
2) Sexual readiness: College is a formative time when students further come into themselves, intellectually, creatively, socially, spiritually, politically, emotionally, and yes, sexually. Related to issues of the body and self-care is the need for STD prevention and contraception. Regardless of your own views on premarital sex or on your own child becoming sexually active, the chances are likely that your child has already experimented sexually in some ways and will continue to do so more fully and deeply in college, so they should be prepared in ways that they are not engaging in high-risk behaviors.
3) Sexual violence: Speaking of high-risk behaviors, we owe it to our sons and daughters to have honest conversations about sexual violence and dating violence. Research repeatedly demonstrates that first year women students, especially, are at the highest risk of sexual assault. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that much of this occurs within the first few weeks and months of school starting, so some young women are entering their first weeks of classes, already disoriented from violation, so soon after campus orientation. This is not to suggest that males are never victims of sexual violence; they can be. It’s just that young women are more often victims of this, and those that come to college already having been sexually victimized in their families of origin and/or in their communities, run the greatest risk of multiple victimization.
As someone who regularly teaches about domestic and sexual violence, I empathize with the problems of relentless victim blaming and don’t want to perpetuate it. At the same time, there are things that young college aged women do that make themselves much more vulnerable, for example, attending and leaving parties alone, drinking from cups they have not kept an eye on, cultivating a hyper sexualized appearance in person and/or on social media, and getting inebriated, such that they are too incapacitated to make wise and careful choices.
And, this does not mean that being stone sober is a complete safeguard against sexual assault. When I was a first year student at Wisconsin, I often did my work in the basement study hall of the dorm. In early fall, I got to talking to a young man and after awhile, he suggested we return to his room to make coffee to bring back to study more. I believed him, that we would make coffee, share more stories and laugh some more. I was surprised—and very scared—when he threw me on the lower bunk bed and tried to rip off my clothes. I now understand that his strategies and tactics in the study hall were predatory, preying off his perceptions of my naiveté as a new freshman. Thankfully, I managed with all the strength I had in my legs, to push him off me and to run down nine flights of stairs. But, of course, like most women, I never told anyone, not my friends and not my parents, until I started to share the experience with my students.
4) Alcohol and other drugs: Men and women students have more often than not tried some sort of alcohol and drugs prior to college but college is a time when there is more freedom and opportunity to experiment further. As parents go on a frantic mission to stock up their kids’ bags and boxes with anything and everything they might need at Walgreens or CVS, it is a worthwhile idea to talk to kids about not mixing these drugs with alcohol and recreational drugs. A large number of students are on psychotropic drugs for anxiety, depression, panic attacks, ADD, ADHD, etc. Too many students share these drugs with friends or sell them to peers and mix their own substances with others’ drugs. The results can be nothing short of tragic.
5) Consider friends carefully: One way to help your child decrease his/her vulnerability and isolation in school is to encourage him/her to forge community with classmates who help to hold a high standard for him/her, to spend time with peers who are active campus citizens, engaged in internships and jobs in the community, etc.
6) Find mentors: An implicit and explicit mission of the college experience is to assist and support students as they individuate from their families of origin. Students generally do better in school both academically and socially, and experience greater success when they graduate and launch into the world, when they have identified and nurtured relationships with faculty and staff who become mentors to them. These are connections that have the potential to lead to job opportunities and to other sources of enrichment.
Encourage your students to seek out their favorite professors, or the ones they are most curious about, in office hours. Help your students understand that access to professors in college is somewhat different than in high school and that office hours are more like office visits with the doctor. Students need to know that professors are responsible for conducting research and writing and that they are generally available in office hours and by appointments. And that it is best for them to find out how a professor handles office hours and if s/he encourages appointments or has scheduled drop-in times, to be prompt but also patient if other students are there for their own emergencies and issues, and to let a professor know how much time s/he anticipates they might need.
One of the most gratifying aspects of being a professor are the lifelong relationships that students have fostered with me for years, and long after they graduate. In many ways, the mentoring becomes mutual, and in charting new paths for how to live their lives, innovatively and creatively, they have helped me to re-think how to live my own, how to re-enter the classroom every fall with an open mind and heart, and to listen closely to their perspectives on the very topics I have laid out here, that have made such an indelible mark on their lives.