While every residential college manages its move-in day a little differently, some aspects of the experience are predictable: parents feel proud but sad that their high school senior has become a college freshman and will be living away from home. There are tens of tasks to manage, plenty of new people to meet, and even some tense family moments to handle before the final hug goodbye. “Overwhelming” is the word that many freshmen and their parents use to describe the day the student moves into his or her residence hall. After working at several different colleges and watching the frenzy of move-in day unfold, I’d like to share some college parent advice for that big day – the first one.
College Parent Advice: Do your homework. If you know in advance that you have some business to handle while still on campus – a trip to the bookstore, a visit to financial aid, a stop at the box office – look at campus maps ahead of time and have a sense of where you’re going. Read through materials you’ve received from the school and check out the school’s website. You probably did some research when your son or daughter was applying and deciding on a school, but now you’ll be reading with a different eye and you’ll notice different things than you did before. The more you know ahead of time, the more comfortable you’ll feel upon arrival.
College Parent Advice: Let your student lead the way (or empower them, if they’re shy and hesitant). When you are checking into the residence hall, for example, let your son or daughter do the talking while you stand by to help out if necessary. You won’t be there to handle conflicts at 2am, take exams, or approach professors when the student needs extra help – so the sooner that the child takes ownership of even mundane aspects of the college experience, the better. Let it start from the moment you arrive at the campus gates.
College Parent Advice: Attend a “parent orientation” session if one is offered. This is an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the nuts and bolts of student services. Without students present, parents can ask the questions without embarrassing their kids. Meanwhile, it also provides a break from the madness of moving in.
College Parent Advice: Take advantage of the “people resources.” At most colleges, there’s no shortage of student volunteers and administrators roaming about to answer questions. I recommend asking questions of the upperclass students (resident advisors, orientation leaders, etc.) as well as university staff. Typically, you’ll get some good insider information from the students while getting the institutional line from the full-time employees.
College Parent Advice: While many families like to have a nice dinner out at a restaurant after moving in, make sure this doesn’t conflict with the orientation/move-in schedule. It’s possible that the student’s floor or an orientation group will be slated to eat together at the dining hall, and you shouldn’t deny your freshman those initial social moments. Even if their first friends don’t become best buddies, those immediate connections are what get the student through the first week or two of school. If the idea of a celebratory dinner is important, consider having it the night before!
College Parent Advice: Don’t spend forever setting up the room. After they live there for a few days/weeks, the roommates will make adjustments and probably rearrange furniture, undoing whatever painstaking setup you attempted. Get things functional without worrying about a permanent place for every belonging.
College Parent Advice: Know the residence life policies. For example, don’t bring alcohol to the residence hall for your under-21 student. Most parents would never dream of it, but I once had to ask a (remarkably upset) father to take the case of Rolling Rock back to the car, which he did only after I solicited some assistance from campus police. Just about every housing department will send you a list of what’s acceptable and what’s not, and this isn’t limited just to alcohol. Examples: Don’t bring Buster the gerbil when there’s a “no pets” policy. Don’t bring a full-sized refrigerator/freezer when you see it’s not allowed. Don’t move all the furniture out of the room and glue a carpet to the floor. (Yes, I’ve seen -and aborted – all of these parent-led initiatives.)
College Parent Advice: Play nice! The initial meeting of the roommates is sometimes trumped by the first meeting of the parents, who are carefully scoping each other out and making assessments. Engage in friendly conversation with other parents, but remember that it’s not a competition between you as parents or between your children as freshmen. If both of them were accepted, both of them deserve to be there. Don’t talk effusively about “how simply wonderful my Diane is” or “how thrilled we are that Marcus was awarded the XYZ scholarship.” One-upmanship is uncalled for on an already high-emotion day.
College Parent Advice: Reserve judgments about your child’s roommate and/or their parents for the ride home. True story: When I met my freshman roommate’s parents, my family was already gone. His father shook my hand, looked at my “Clinton/Gore ’96” poster and laughed, saying: “Democrat, eh? Well, maybe when you graduate and start paying taxes to this wasteful government, you’ll realize how horribly wrong and misguided you are.” I considered this impolite and unnecessary, but I took it in stride. Too bad I didn’t have a hammer and sickle on the wall instead of a mere Clinton sign; his head might have exploded! At any rate, remember that your child is the one who has to live with the roommate – not you. Student housing professionals can tell you that roommates often get along splendidly, even when the one or both sets of parents disapprove.
College Parent Advice: Don’t take it the wrong way if your child “doesn’t seem like himself” – or if she treats you a little dismissively. The nervousness and excitement all freshmen feel, whether they try to play cool or not, is probably driving their less gracious behavior. Don’t feel slighted if they don’t give you a tearful goodbye or if they get a little short with you. Keep things in perspective and remember that it’s an even higher stress day for them than it is for you.
College Parent Advice: At some point in the day, you do need to let go and say goodbye. Some colleges actually build in a send-off ceremony for parents to signal that it’s indeed time for the freshman class to come together and for parents to head home. Whether there’s an official goodbye event or not, don’t linger just because you fear leaving. Based on my experience as a college hall director, I’ll recommend this: If you find yourself frantically looking around for things to do in the student’s room (i.e. pillows to fluff) so that you don’t have to leave yet, it’s probably time to go. Also, if the roommate’s parents have left several hours ago, that’s another signal you should probably head out too.
College Parent Advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff. If some minor detail is out of place – the bookstore ran out of a textbook, the internet hookup doesn’t work, the student didn’t get a preferred class time – it’s far from the end of the world. Little contingencies like this will come up throughout freshman year (and throughout life, as you know), and your student will learn to solve them. Let go of the notion that everything will be perfect when you pull away.
Good luck, and congratulations.