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The Top 5 Questions Asked by New College Parents

A professor offers advice for college bound families.

It’s already back to school time soon. I’ve been a professor for more than 20 years, and here I share some questions that new parents have as they launch students for what promises to be a life-changing and life-enhancing journey. Hopefully, this advice will provide some reassurance and support, especially for newbie college families.

Ryan Jacobson/Unsplash
Source: Ryan Jacobson/Unsplash

1. Help! Life has turned into a massive to-do and to-buy list for what already feels like Moveinapalooza! How do we do this without completely going crazy?

This is one of those life moments when less is more. In thinking about this post, I reviewed some college webpages and what they say to help students and parents plan for move-in day, and I was struck by the phrasing at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They preface the checklist: “Remember, along with packing the essentials, your student should be sure to bring a sense of self, a sense of purpose, and a sense of humor.” I think that’s spot on. So much is lost in all this buying and returning, and the real priorities are not always conveyed to students.

The other thing to remember is a little counterintuitive. Mama Bear and Papa Bear often want to go to great lengths to set their kids up in a way where their living quarters really feel like a home away from home, anticipating, ordering, and anguishing over every knickknack and creature comfort that will make a room feel more cozy, plush, and fun. I’m here to plead with you to at least consider this: Don’t make the room that comfy. Really. The greatest gift you’ll give your kids is to help them want to emerge from their rooms. Students report spending far too much time holed up in their rooms, lonely, bored, anxious and depressed, scrolling on social media and worse, self-harming. Adults need to do everything possible to help them get out of the room. When a student does not have something, they have to find somewhere that does to either borrow or purchase it, and that gives them a chance to meet someone new.

2. I’m concerned about my kid’s roommate.

This is one of those wait-and-see situations. It’s hard for students to live in tight quarters with someone they’ve just met, and it’s hard to know how their habits will jibe with each other's, but students benefit from negotiating this themselves as much as possible, being respectful, asking questions so they can best advocate for their own needs, making agreements, etc. Sometimes roommates bond over the summer and sometimes they seem to, yet perhaps one vanishes from communication. The best advice to convey to your child is to not bank on this person as their best friend, or even as a friend, and to regard a roommate as a potential bonus friend at best. Or, it’s a friend on training wheels—the person to go do things with until they each form real friendship circles, the person with whom to go to the dining hall for the first few weeks, or to venture off campus or to a seemingly awkward social event the first week.

3. Should my kid get a job?

If a student does not need a job financially, it might be best to not have one at first and instead to use the time to get acclimated to the campus community and involved in the surrounding environment. However, a work-study job can defray costs and provide students with valuable connections. It’s wise for students to get involved in some combination of activities—sports, a campus organization, a social or academic club, volunteering in the community, an internship, or a paid job. For many of us, the more we do, the more we get done, and juggling a few of these things can be a way for students to engage in social connection, project management, time management, collaboration, leadership-building, self-reflection, and goal-setting.

4. Should my kid join a fraternity or sorority?

It’s worth checking out the percentage of students involved in Greek life on campus. When I was in college, I lived right by fraternity row and had the idea—truly a misconception—that most of the campus was Greek. The campus was actually enormous with so many different kinds of students and I came to learn that going Greek was not at all essential. For some students, it’s a way to be involved socially and philanthropically. The decision itself presents an opportunity for your student to do some soul-searching and see what they truly need and want from their own life.

5. I have a hard time believing my kid is going to be ready for college. I mean, look at him/her now. It seems like there’s so much to talk about and no time to do it all, and who knows what kind of contact we will have once they are at college?

Try as best you can to make gentle overtures into college preparatory conversations, helping your student grasp some key vocabulary—words and concepts like the syllabus, office hours, the importance of faculty mentors, etc.

And, explore and talk about what you each expect in terms of communication. Does your student prefer texts, calls, Skype/Facetime, or emails? What do you prefer? Can you find a way to strike a balance with the type of communication and the frequency you each desire and need?

It's always a good idea to have open and honest conversations about health/wellness issues, sexuality, substance use, peer groups, peer pressure, sexual violence, mental health resources, etc.

Due to space limitations, I will be writing a Part 2 of this post, focused on parents' questions about the classroom. Please continue to send me your questions, and I will address them in my next piece, coming soon.

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