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You're On Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me)

Mentoring Your Child During the College Years

Realistic and practical advice for parents of college-age kids
Parents whose kids are away at college have a tough tightrope to walk: they naturally want to stay connected to their children, yet they also need to let go. What's more, kids often send mixed messages: they crave space, but they rely on their parents' advice and assistance. Not surprisingly, it's hard to know when it's appropriate to get involved in your child's life and when it's better to back off.
You're On Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me) helps parents identify the boundaries between necessary involvement and respect for their child's independence. Marjorie Savage, who as a parent herself empathizes with moms and dads, but who as a student services professional understands kids, offers advice on wide-ranging issues, including:
• How to cope with your family's mood changes in the months before move-in day on campus
• Why students complain about the food but still manage to gain fifteen pounds their first year
• How to teach basic financial responsibility, including the handling of credit cards and academic expenses
• When parental intervention is critical
With anecdotes and suggestions from experienced parents and college staffs nationwide, the strategies and tips provided throughout will help you to create a loving, supportive partnership responsive to the needs of both you and your children.

Chapter One: A Summer of Change

Making the Most of the Months Before College Begins

Every year, as a new group of high school graduates and their parents watch the calendar pages turn toward September, emotions begin to churn. Mothers and fathers who were filled with pride when the college acceptance letters arrived a few months ago will soon find themselves wondering, "How can this kid possibly succeed in college? He can't even get out of bed in the morning by himself."

Students who are convinced that they belong at the college of their dreams are equally convinced a day later that they will never fit in: "I think the school made a mistake when they accepted me. I was probably the last person they picked, and I'm going to be the stupidest person on campus. Besides, I don't have the right clothes. No one will like me. It's just not going to work."

For these students and their parents, the issue is clear: Everything is changing. The excitement and anticipation that peaked in late spring turns to chaos during the "senior summer." Recent graduates are rejecting curfews and failing to show up for family meals, defending their freedom by explaining, "In a couple of months, you won't ever know what I'm doing."

Meanwhile, parents are failing in their efforts to maintain peace in the family. Bickering among brothers or sisters reaches new heights. One parent or the other is locked in conflict with the child. Parents listen to their child's unending complaints about the community and the small-mindedness of the neighbors, and they begin to long for the day when they can finally take this miserable, unhappy kid to college. A minute later, they berate themselves for such thoughts, saying, "I know I'll miss her!"

What's a parent to do? Advice flows in from every direction, but each suggestion seems to conflict with at least one other:

"Give them space." "No, set clear boundaries."

"Make sure you talk about the critical issues." "Don't try to review a lifetime of lessons in one short summer."

"Tell them you'll miss them." "Don't lay a guilt trip on them about leaving."

The whole family has been planning for college for years, but now parents can't keep from wondering if it's what they all really want. When changes are pending, emotional flare-ups are a natural reaction. The challenges are to identify the real issues as they occur and to recognize what each of the various members of the family is feeling.

Making Decisions: Whose Responsibility Is It?

Any eighteen-year-old will react fiercely to parents who ask to see his mail or who want to read the e-mail message that just arrived. Any parent, however, who is facing the prospect of paying for college needs to know that all the paperwork is filled out correctly and on time. So whose job is it to make sure the college mail is opened, the forms are completed, and each of the tasks on the to-do list is checked off? With all the information that arrives each week from various campus offices, who is sorting through the mail and keeping track of deadlines and details? And ultimately, who has the final say in the decisions these mailings require?

From your student's standpoint, these forms will affect the most basic aspects of college life: Will she live in a single room, a double, or a suite? How many meals each week will he eat in the dining center? Should he move into an all-freshmen hall or one with upperclassmen? Students think their parents are encroaching on their personal space when they check the mailings and tell their children how to fill out the forms.

From the parents' perspective, these decisions will affect the family finances, in some cases for years to come. As the parent, maybe you see some pitfalls in selecting an all-freshmen dorm or in choosing a hall with no quiet hours, and you want to help your child avoid the potential problems. Parents feel more urgency about meeting deadlines and more caution about answering the questions completely and thoroughly. They want to make certain everything is done "right," and they want to know how these decisions will affect their child and the family.

When Jeremy opened the application from the college housing office, he didn't think twice about what kind of room he wanted. He wanted a single. Like many college students today, he had always had his own bedroom. After reading the housing application instructions, he quickly filled out the form and gave the papers to his mother so that she could write out a check for the deposit fee. The first thing she noticed, though, was that his single-room selection would cost several hundred dollars more than a double. A triple or a four-person suite would be even more economical.

"Jeremy, you marked down that you want a single room. You didn't even talk to us about this. You don't seem to understand how much it's going to cost for you to go to college. You can't just pile up expenses without consulting us. I think you should consider one of these other choices," his mother said.

Jeremy had plenty of reasons why he would be better off living in a single. He would study better if he were by himself, he said. He needed quiet to concentrate on his homework. He needed his sleep. What if his roommate turned out to be one of those people who wanted to party all the time? What if his roommate wanted to watch television or listen to music until all hours of the night?

In fact, there were other factors at play for both Jeremy and his mother. In addition to the financial impact of the decision, Jeremy's mother was worried that her son might not make friends easily. He had never been particularly outgoing, and his two good friends from high school were enrolling in different colleges. She was afraid that he would be lonely, and it would be much more difficult to meet people if he lived in a single room. At the same time, Jeremy had his own unspoken concern. He had never mentioned it to his parents, but on an overnight band trip the previous year, he was teased unmercifully about his snoring. He didn't want roommates complaining all year that his snoring was keeping them awake.

When they talked through the issues, Jeremy and his mother acknowledged that there were personal and financial complications of this seemingly simple decision. They set the form aside for a few days and agreed to give it some more thought. Jeremy's mother made a call to the nurse at their clinic, who suggested that nasal strips from the drugstore might reduce the snoring. In a moment of enlightenment, Jeremy agreed to a four-person, two-bedroom suite on the grounds that he would have good odds of being matched with at least one other snorer. At any rate, in a quad, he had a one-in-three chance of finding a roommate who was a heavy sleeper. And, as it turned out, Jeremy's roommate was a sound sleeper who went to bed earlier than Jeremy. There were never any complaints about snoring.

Not all paperwork decisions end quite so well, though. Many students, caught up with the closing events of high school or the first lazy days of summer, set the mail aside, figuring they'll get to it later. As the papers pile up, critical responses filter to the bottom of the stack and deadlines are missed.

One afternoon, Melanie was talking with a coworker who mentioned that his daughter was scheduled for orientation the following week. Melanie's son was going to the same college, but he hadn't said anything about orientation. That evening, Melanie asked her son about his orientation schedule, and he said he was sure he had "some brochure or letter about that" in his room. She went with her son to look for the schedule and discovered a small mountain of envelopes and forms from the college.

"What is all this? I didn't even know you were getting these things -- letters about financial aid, orientation, testing dates. Have you responded to any of this?" she asked.

College mail is addressed to the student. Parents don't always see what arrives, and the only way you will know what needs to be done is if your student tells you. Because federal law recognizes college students as adults, the information goes to the student, no matter who will be paying the bills. From a parent's viewpoint, this might seem absurd; from a developmental view, it makes sense. Students are facing a significant transition as they prepare for college, and they need to begin assuming responsibility.

For Melanie's son, the situation was not as hopeless as she feared -- there was a late orientation session he could register for -- but he needed to learn some organizational skills. He had an idea of what information had arrived. He just had not yet developed a system for managing records. In a single evening, his mother helped him sort through the pile of mail, using a highlighter to mark dates and a calendar to note deadlines, and he learned a quick and simple lesson on how to keep his paperwork organized.

With each passing week, your child's anxiety and doubts will intensify. All the forms and letters that are pouring in can seem daunting to a prospective freshman. Every piece of mail is asking for some kind of decision. Some of those decisions are simple, but students might not be certain whether it makes sense to order season football tickets, sign up for fraternity rush, or buy a bus pass that's good for the whole year. Students want to make the choices themselves, but they believe it's critical to make only the right choices. Any mistakes feel like clear proof that they're inept.

This is your chance to provide guidance while empowering your student to make responsible choices. Let your child know that you are willing to talk about the choices she's making, but give her authority to make most of the decisions. Let her know if you want a voice on issues that affect finances. If you are worried about health and safety, ask your student to keep you posted on these topics. Tell her she may eventually wish that she had chosen differently, but that will not mean she made a mistake. She is making her decisions based on the information available now.

Checklist for Record Management

Parents and their student can be overwhelmed by all the mailings that come from college during the summer before the freshman year. Which ones require responses? What are the deadlines? When are payments due? A few simple tools and organizational skills will make life easier now and will give your child a start in record management for the college years.

Accordion File or File Box, Filing Cabinet, or Fireproof Box

Students will need separate file folders for:

  • Housing records

  • Finances (tuition and fees information, scholarship and financial aid awards, receipts from orientation, billing for residence hall and dining plan, textbook receipts)

  • Health (immunization records, insurance numbers, name and phone number of home clinic or physician, dental information, pharmacy prescriptions, lens prescription)

  • Academic information (academic counselor's name and contact information, registration records, lists of graduation requirements, course requirements)

  • Computer information (helpline numbers, software support information, e-mail addresses)

  • Auto insurance, repair records, and parking information (for commuter students or students who have a car at school)

Highlighter and Calendar or Planner

When a mailing arrives, the student should read it and then determine what action the letter or form is requesting. The student can mark deadlines on the calendar, along with any fees or costs due.

Talk to your child about how detailed the filing system should be; you may agree that information could be separated into more specific categories. Academic information can be further segmented into course planning, career planning, advising records, and transcripts or grade reports. For a first-year student who is unaccustomed to managing records, simpler is better. The more detailed the filing system, the more sections he will have to search when looking for records later -- "Did I file that housing bill under 'Housing,' 'Finances,' or 'Contracts'?" As students gain experience, they should be able to handle increasingly complex record keeping.

Second Thoughts -- What If Your Child Is Just Not Ready for College?

In some cases, those piles of unanswered or unopened college mail are a sign that a student is not ready for the independence of college life. Some students genuinely need another six months, a year, or even longer to reach a level of maturity to handle the responsibilities of independence. Or your student may not know how to tell you he truly doesn't want to go to college.

For these students, as well as for the highly responsible students who want to develop a more thoughtful plan before beginning college, a "gap year" makes sense. Many schools will defer enrollment to allow students to take an extra year between high school and college for work, an internship, or travel. With time to explore interests and draw conclusions about academic and career goals before starting college, students approach their education a year later with more excitement and dedication.

Students begin filling out college applications early in their senior year of high school, and they often make their choices based on the colleges their friends were planning to attend or the school their boyfriend or girlfriend selected. They might choose a college based on a particular career interest. By the next summer, they have a new best friend, their boyfriend is dating someone else, or they have discovered a more compelling career direction. It's too late to apply to another school, but they are rethinking their earlier commitment.

Parents play a critical role in ensuring that students do the right thing at this stage. If it's only a matter of second-guessing or "buyer's remorse," you can assure your child that he does indeed belong at this college. There are good reasons the school sent that acceptance letter. Admissions staff at colleges and universities review applications closely, and they have a good idea of the kind of student who will fit in and succeed at their school. Unless you know that your student has undergone a significant change in interest, motivation, or ability since the applications were filled out, she will most likely be able to succeed at the school that accepted her.

Most recent high school graduates tread a fine but ever-changing line between maturity and irresponsibility. If you see persistent signs that your child is not preparing for school, you need to find out why rather than do the work yourself. It will be a disservice to you and your child if you step in, take care of the paperwork and packing, and send him off when he is not ready or doesn't want to go. As hard as it may be to keep an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old home another year, it can be a better option than sending him off to certain failure.

"Last Time" Syndrome

As you sit at the picnic table in the backyard in mid-July, a wave of nostalgia washes over you. "She'll be leaving soon! This could be the last picnic we have together," you think. A similar nostalgic feeling overcomes you on the way to church, at the mall, watching TV, or curling up with a book on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Some parents try so hard to savor each moment that they end up in a constant state of depression. Others react with frustration at every complaint and miss the good times. This last summer before college is a series of emotional peaks and valleys. Your feelings might be different for your first child, a middle child, or the youngest, but no matter what, there will be trying times.

Where I work, new student orientation begins in June and continues into July. During the first week of orientation, parents have just finished cleaning up after the high school graduation party, and they have no problem with the notion that their student will be moving away from home in a few months -- September is still too far away to take it all seriously. By early July, though, I start to see parents in tears when they realize that their child will soon be leaving for college: "I promised myself I wasn't going to cry. I'm just not ready for him to grow up!"

And it's not only the mothers who are affected by the transition. A father will gulp back the lump in his throat when he watches his daughter walk away with her orientation group.

A family arrived for orientation one morning in July. The daughter registered under the watchful gaze of her mother and father; then they all crossed the room to the check-in table for parents. When the father couldn't find name badges for himself or his wife, he began berating the student volunteer who was staffing the information desk. "We signed up for this program a month ago! How can you say our names aren't on the list? This is ridiculous! I want to talk to your supervisor. Now!"

The intensity of his reaction was a surprise to the staff as well as to his wife and daughter. His daughter finally remembered that she had rescheduled her orientation date, and she had forgotten to change the registration for her parents. Their names were simply on a list for the next day's program. After the problem was solved and the family moved into the auditorium, the man's wife returned to the registration table to explain that this was their youngest child and their only daughter: "Our boys both went to a college just a few miles from home, so it didn't feel that far away. And my husband has always been very protective of our daughter. I think this is really hard for him."

It is common for parents to become critical about the college or university in the last few weeks before school begins. Patience wears thin as the rosy glow of the image of sending their student to college collides with the stark reality of both the costs they will be facing and their student's approaching independence. Anything about the school that seems less than perfect is cause for alarm. A mother wonders how smart the residence hall director is if he doesn't know how much space there will be under her son's bed. "I have to get him a storage box that will fit under his bed. And you don't even know how high the beds are? Have you ever even been in the dorm rooms?"

The mother who is accusing hall directors of neglecting their duties before her son even moves into the hall is actually worried that she will not be around to make sure her boy is safe. Fathers are asking college administrators if they have run background checks on campus security monitors, when the real fear is that their daughter will be walking alone on campus at night. They advise the college to "close down those irresponsible fraternities," when the concern actually is that their son got drunk at a friend's cabin over the weekend.

The emotions you feel as school approaches are legitimate and real. You deserve rational explanations and full answers to your questions. But try to ask yourself, when you begin to fume, if your frustration is with the school, your student, or the larger situation -- your family is changing, and you are going to have to trust someone else with your very precious child.

"But I Have Plans!"

As the end of summer approaches, parents wonder if they have lost all control. They try to schedule a family weekend before their son leaves for college, but he has something else lined up for each date they suggest. They would like to take him shopping, but he is booked every evening for the next week and a half. They expect him home for supper, but he doesn't show up. He is always "hanging out with friends."

The last few weeks before college, students are not focusing on packing, cleaning their room, or spending time with family. They are spending all their time with their high school classmates, making every effort to cement the friendships they are leaving.

At this moment in your child's life, he has much more in common with his friends than he does with you.

The senior summer holds magical moments for soon-to-be college students. During the day, prospective freshmen are working their separate jobs, being treated like adults. Every evening, and stretching long into the night on weekends, they are out with their friends, picturing all the possibilities the future holds. And they believe in their dreams. She will, indeed, be an international law attorney working in Paris, and ten years from now, she will fly to New York for the opening of her best friend's Broadway play. This is, for many students, the best social period of their lives so far, and while it's easy to imagine a great future in distant and exotic lands, it is impossible to think about leaving these friends from home in just a few weeks.

The significant developmental factor is that these young men and women are now looking outward, toward their peers and away from their family, as part of the maturing process. They have learned how to relate to people who are somewhat different from themselves (although so far, not too different), how to hold a conversation, how to manage their own behaviors. These are all skills that young adults -- and college students -- need in order to succeed. Right now, even though life is easy and comfortable because the faces are familiar, it feels new and exciting because the boundaries are expanding.

Your expectations that your child will take time away from friends in order to have dinner with you, to go to the mall with the family, or to pack a few boxes seem to your child like a tremendous affront. Home and family don't have that tinge of thrill that comes with being out in the world. After all, you've always been there for your child, and she fully expects that you always will be.

During these last few weeks at home, your child isn't quite sure what to think about you. When you tell your son what to do, he is resentful that you still treat him like a child; if you leave him alone to make his own decisions, he feels as though you're abandoning him. If you remind your daughter about packing, you're nagging; if you don't offer to look for boxes, you obviously don't care about her or respect her educational plans.

Your child is midway between childhood and adulthood, and every step forward is made with the assumption that things are still solid at home but with the fear that they are not. Thinking about leaving home is both exciting and frightening, but young adults don't dare express their concerns about the upcoming changes. Instead they just become angry or aloof.

The turmoil will be visited upon both parents and siblings. The biggest problems seem to crop up between the student and whichever parent he or she most closely resembles. It's hard to imagine major confrontations as a compliment, but if you and your daughter are arguing constantly, and you're wondering how you could have become such a dreadful parent, this is probably a sign that she is much like you. And that thought annoys her endlessly.

Younger brothers or sisters begin to see great possibilities for themselves as they watch the freshman prepare for college. They're imagining their own transition to college someday, which seems pretty exciting from the vantage point of a fourteen- or sixteen-year-old. At the same time, they're seeing some personal potential in their sibling's departure. "Do I get to move into her bedroom now?" "If she gets a new computer, I should get one too." "He's going to college, so I get his car!"

Just when your soon-to-be college student feels that all the lights should be shining brightly on him, his little sister is demanding all the attention, it feels as if Dad wants him around only to mow the lawn, and Mom is enthusiastically buying him laundry detergent, deodorant, and new underwear. To the departing child, this all adds to a slowly festering suspicion: "Everyone is a little too happy that I'm leaving."

Last-Minute Advice

All across the country, as long July days fade into sweltering August nights, parents of college-bound freshmen lie awake perspiring with dread as much as with heat: "Can he balance a checkbook?" "What will she do if she gets sick?" "I don't think she understands how much trouble she can get into for underage drinking."

You have only a few more weeks to pass along all the advice your child needs to know. How will you cover it all, and what happens if you forget to mention something important?

High school graduates, however, rarely listen patiently as their parents deliver warnings about campus safety or lectures on how the family's health insurance works.

There are things your student needs to know for the purely practical demands of coping with life in a new situation. There are things your student's college wants you to discuss with your child. There are even a few things your child would appreciate hearing from you. The trick is to figure out when you're offering useful information as opposed to unwanted advice or an index of admonishments. All students should know how to:

  • Do their own laundry. This skill includes, at minimum, sorting delicates for hand washing; removing tissues, dollar bills, and other paper from pockets; separating reds, purples, and maroons from light colors; measuring laundry detergent; knowing what not to wash (most notably sports jackets, ties, and anything that is labeled "Dry Clean Only"); and keeping wool sweaters away from hot water and dryers. If possible, continue the laundry lesson with additional suggestions for separating jeans and dark clothes from light colors; using fabric softener; loosely loading clothes into washer and dryer, rather than stuffing a whole week's worth of laundry into a single load; and removing clothes from the dryer soon after the machine stops. (Shopping tips: Most students do very well with a wardrobe of T-shirts, sweatshirts, jeans, and easy-care pants and shorts.)

  • Balance a checkbook and manage a debit card or credit card. Ideally, your child should have been learning about checkbooks, debit cards, or credit cards during the last years of high school. By the time college classes begin in the fall, he or she should understand the importance of recording debit and check deposits and withdrawals and the mechanics of reconciling a bank statement. Please talk to your student about the potential hazards of credit card debt and explain about late-payment penalties, interest charges, and annual fees. More information about finances can be found in chapter 5.

  • Iron a shirt, replace a button, repair a ripped seam. Be pitiless about insisting your student take care of his or her wardrobe during the summer. You will probably never get a thank you, but at least your child will have the ability to maintain a decent appearance.

  • Prepare or obtain basic food. A missed meal means students must occasionally find food to get through the night. Residence hall staff are often dismayed at their students' inability to read the instructions on popcorn packages -- or to clean up the orange residue in the microwave when the bag burns. Make sure your child has, at least once in his or her life, called in an order for pizza and paid the driver the appropriate sum plus a reasonable tip. Some first-year students become quite indignant when they find out they are being charged sales tax and maybe a delivery fee.

  • Trust their instincts when they feel uneasy or unsafe. Most parents remember to tell their daughter to avoid walking across campus alone at night. Young men need the same message. Also talk to your student about date rape and acquaintance rape. Students enter into new friendships with great trust and confidence, and they often ignore or downplay suggestive and threatening behaviors. More information on this topic is presented in chapter 6.

  • Make responsible decisions regarding alcohol and drugs. The opportunity for partying will be far greater at college than ever before. Remind your student of your expectations, and encourage him or her to be careful. Alcohol and drugs are discussed more fully in chapter 6.

  • How to change a tire, where to go for an oil change, how to operate a car wash (if they will have a car at school or if they are commuting to school). If your student spends more time worrying about or reacting to any of these issues than on studying, he or she should probably not have a car at school. Students should also know what to do if there is an accident and how to respond if they are stopped by the police.

    Throughout that last summer at home, you will think of things you want your child to know before she leaves. Your tendency might be to call her into the kitchen as a topic pops into your mind while you're fixing dinner or reading the newspaper. Your daughter, however, won't be in any mood to pull herself away from the computer to submit to what sounds to her like another lecture. Some parents have suggested they have more success when they set an appointment with their student and explain why the subject is important:

    "When I do the taxes next winter, I'm going to need some information from you about some of your college expenses. I'd like to spend an hour or so with you on Saturday to figure out how you can track those expenses in your checkbook this year. Can we plan to work on it right after lunch on Saturday, say at around one o'clock?"

    "I notice you're getting a lot of credit card applications in the mail. I get those all the time, too. I'd like to talk to you about the fine print on some of those applications so that you can see what the actual costs are."

    Parents Who Do Too Much

    It is exciting for you, as a parent, to imagine this new life your child is about to begin at college. Perhaps you envision your daughter living in a residence hall, and you picture her friends flocking into her room because it is so warm and inviting. You want her to have nice things, and soon you find yourself shopping for a bright comforter and small appliances in coordinated colors. The next thing you know, you're on the phone calling the housing staff to find out if the doors in her room are wooden or magnetic so that you can buy the right kind of message board.

    As much fun as it can be to think about your child's life at college, this is not the time to take charge of every detail. Instead of picking out matching sheets, towels, and lampshades, encourage your student to make a call or send an e-mail to her new roommate to talk about what they each will bring. Discussions between roommates about how to decorate the room can be among the most useful steps in learning about one another.

    Every year, in every residence hall, there is a student who arrives a few hours after his roommate and finds the walls already plastered with posters, a futon and inflatable chair taking up two-thirds of the floor space, a CD player loaded with six disks set to play at random for the next three hours, and a bicycle suspended from a hook on the ceiling. The only unadorned space in the room is a single unmade top bunk and the surface of one dresser. The latecomer gets the instant message that he is an intruder in his own room. If he doesn't like the bike hanging in front of his closet or if his bookshelf isn't going to fit, he won't even be able to talk about it until the music stops.

    By planning and setting up the room together, new roommates pick up useful clues about one another's personality, values, background, and financial resources. A shopping trip is often the students' first shared outing. Your role, as a parent, is to encourage your student to use these decisions as a way to meet roommates, share ideas, and find ways to compromise.

    Although you cannot get your child ready for college, you can help by breaking down the task. Instead of telling your daughter to start packing, suggest that she find a carton and pack linens (or toiletries or computer supplies). Focusing on a single category at a time makes the job more manageable. She can also make her own packing list by thinking through her daily routine. What will she need as she showers and gets ready for class in the morning? What will she want to have on her desk when she's studying? On a cold, rainy day, what extra clothes will she need?

    Students do not have to bring everything they own. Hall directors advise, "If your possessions won't fit into a minivan, they probably won't fit into a residence hall room." Some parents have found that it's both affordable and efficient to box and ship their child's belongings rather than haul them across the country: "He was willing to limit himself to four cartons of clothes, books, and supplies and ship them ahead, as long as we agreed to let him bring his computer in the car."

    Most students do not want you to help with the packing, but they will not complain if you offer to put together some specific items -- a get-well kit in case they come down with a cold, a batch of cookies or study rations to get them through the first week, or a tool kit for basic repairs and computer setup. You can also offer to take on a peripheral task, such as washing and folding all your child's laundry this one last time (while emphasizing that you will not accept packages of dirty laundry every week while your student is in college).

    Commuter Concerns

    As high school friends are talking about leaving for college, commuter students begin to question their decision to stay home. Natalie had decided to enroll in a community college as a way to save money. Unfortunately, the two-year college in her town was just three miles from home and within sight of her old high school. By the beginning of August, she was disappointed that she had passed up any other opportunities she might have had, and she was envious of all her friends who were getting ready to leave. She couldn't work up any enthusiasm about college. As they thought about the first day of classes, only two things entered her mind: "Where am I supposed to park?" and "Who am I going to hang out with?"

    She also had a nagging suspicion that college should somehow feel more important to her than it did. Her friends' parents were all taking a couple days off work to go with their children to new-student orientation; her own parents merely left a note before they went to work on the morning of Nat's orientation -- "Hope your day goes well! See you tonight." Her friends were comparing their experiences of opening bank accounts in their college town and talking about first phone calls with new roommates. For Natalie, nothing about college seemed different or exciting. When she came home from orientation, she complained to her mother, "The only time they offer Spanish is in the evening, and it's taught by Mrs. Jenkins from my high school. It's going to be just like last year."

    For students who will be commuting to a university where most freshmen live in the dorms, the feelings of resentment are even stronger. They attend orientation, and everyone is asking "So, where are you from? What hall will you be living in?" The commuter is convinced that it's far more interesting to be the girl from Florida or the guy from Seattle than the kid from six miles away. Admitting that he's living at home -- with his parents -- is essentially saying, "I'm boring to the bone."

    All these emotions are expressed to parents not as frustrations, but as disinterest. Commuter students often act as though college is not particularly important, and it can be hard for parents to work up enthusiasm about the college experience when they see so little excitement from their child.

    The little things you do before school starts can make a great difference, though. If the school has a parent orientation, your attendance will show your child that you value his college experience and his choice of schools. By scheduling a checkup on the car, your child will see that you think his commute is important. By talking about changes in family chores and granting more flexibility for household responsibilities, you will let your student know that you understand and respect the fact that college is more demanding than high school, and that you are proud of your child's academic efforts.

    Quick Tips for Students

    • Review college mailings as they arrive, figure out what response is needed, and reply as soon as you can. And start thinking about what you will want to take with you to school.

    • Tell your parents about decisions that have a significant financial impact. If you must ask your parents to take on any unexpected expenses, give them your reasons for needing or wanting to incur the extra cost. If they can't add any more to their budget, figure out if you can fund the expense yourself.

    • Be certain you can do your laundry, iron a shirt, and replace a missing button. If you will be taking a car to campus, know how to change a tire, when to schedule an oil change, and what to do if you are stopped by the police. Assume these responsibilities during the summer, and you will have less to learn when you get to college.

    • Don't save packing for the last minute. Break the job into smaller tasks, so it won't seem so overwhelming.

    • Be prepared to ask for help, and you'll get it. Every college has faculty and staff who can talk to you about what classes to take, how to get along with roommates -- people to talk to if you're unhappy.

    Copyright © 2003 by Marjorie Barton Savage
Photo Credit: Patrick O'Leary

Marjorie Savage is the Parent Program director at the University of Minnesota, serving as a liaison between the school and the parents of its 28,000 undergraduates. She lives in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.

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