College Freshmen and Parents Prepare to Let Go

The Moorestown High School Counseling Department held its fifth annual College Transition Night program in June 2008. The featured speakers this year were Jan Friedman-Krupnick, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Rider University, and Lisa Walko, School Nurse at Moorestown High School. A frequent speaker in past years has been Francine Block, an independent consultant with American College Counseling Services in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The tips and suggestions offered here represent the combined experience and expertise of these regional experts on the school-to-college transition. This is the second in a three part series on preparing for the transition to college life. The first article dealt with the practical issues of what to take to college and what will be needed for the college dorm. The second addressed some of the personal finance concerns that need to be considered. This final article will focuses on the emotional issues associated with the process of “Letting Go.”

While there are many practical issues to be considered as freshmen prepare to enter college, few compare in importance to the emotional side of having a student go off to college, especially if the student is the first child to do so. The stress associated with separation can be considerable. The experts urge parents to sit down ahead of time and decide on a plan for keeping in touch during those first weeks and months. E-mail is OK, but you will want to hear a real voice at least once a week. Set a time for weekly calls…Sunday evening is a popular time.

Parents should tell their students that they miss them, but don’t expect them to miss you quite as much, at least not at first. Those first few weeks at college will present a whirlwind of activities from academic to social. So, students will not have as much time to think about their parents as parents will have to think about their college student. Think about things parents can do to make the student feel at home at college. “Care packages” with everything from the latest CD to the student’s favorite cookies are sure to be a hit.

Because of their practical needs, students may call as often as three times a day in the beginning, but that will fade over the following weeks. Unless the student is unusually healthy, it will be the sick calls at 2:00 a.m. which will trouble parents the most. This may be the first time that the student is ill away from home, without a parent nearby to stroke her forehead, take his temperature, and attend to his or her needs. The student will probably have to be reminded that there is an infirmary on campus and that he or she should go there for help. According to Francine Block, UPS will ship chicken soup if you make it.

By the way, if the college freshman is over 18, the infirmary will not notify parents without the student’s permission. Ask about having your freshman sign off right from the beginning. You will want to do the same in relation to academic grade reports.

Having a college freshman away for the first time (especially the first child to leave the nest) can be traumatic for parents and family members. Block advises parents, “If you cannot pass your college freshman’s bedroom without tearing up, close the door.” Whether they admit it or not, siblings will also miss their brother or sister who is away at college. Find a way to help them send their own care package to their older brother or sister at college. One of the things parents should not do is give away the freshman’s bedroom to a younger sibling. Such arrangements might be negotiated in future years, but not while the college freshman is away from home for the first time.

It is not too soon to think about Thanksgiving, which may be the new college freshman’s first trip home. We have all heard the nightmare stories on the news media about airport delays and crowded train and bus stations. Start thinking about making reservations now. Aim for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after as travel days and try for reservations that are changeable, if possible.

Thanksgiving, or whenever the first trip home occurs, will be fraught with high expectations. Be prepared for the freshman who comes home, drops the laundry bag in the living room, gives everyone a hug, and is off to reunite with friends. Set the rules early. After all, this is still your home. But remember, your college freshman will be on a different time clock than the rest of your family.

Prior to each of those Sunday telephone calls, brace yourself for a lot of new and different topics to be discussed. Parents can expect lots of discussions about college majors. Don’t be shocked. Few students stay with the major they planned to study when in high school. Be a good listener and do what you can to be helpful. If the student is an athlete, be prepared to hear how tough the coach is and how demanding the time requirements are. Try to be flexible and supportive. Some experts report that as many as 75% of college athletes do not continue beyond the freshman season. Encourage intramural sports as an alternative if grades begin to suffer.

Some of the topics that parents and college freshmen should talk about may not come up easily in those weekly telephone conversations. Before delivering your college freshman to his or her dormitory, set aside some time for a frank talk about the social side of college life. Difficult topics such as date rape, unplanned and unprotected sex, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases need to be addressed. It goes without saying that the other topic which needs consideration is alcohol and other substance abuse including binge drinking. It has been reported that more than a thousand students a year die on college campuses, many in situations involving excessive drinking. Talk with your kids about staying safe.

In the end, most of your conversations are more likely to focus on day-to-day topics impacting college success. Your college student will be excited to tell you about the road trip planned to the campus of a friend to see the big game, when you know there is a major paper due on Monday. Time management is likely to be your college freshman’s greatest challenge. Buy your freshman a big calendar and a red marker and urge him or her to note midterms, finals, dates when papers are due. Organization and study skills are the toughest parts of college for most kids. Achieving success in college involves a lot of hard work but, with a little help, your freshman will rise to the challenge.

Congratulations to our recent high school graduates and best wishes for lots of success in college. Best wishes also to the parents and siblings who will remain behind. What an exciting time for all.