When I headed off to get my undergraduate degree, many parents set foot on campus just once – on graduation day. They got few, if any, missives from their kids or the university.
"When I went to college, my parents dropped me off, and that was it," says John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. I got on an airplane by myself – and immediately met two classmates who were also flying solo.
That was then. Today mothers and fathers help their kids move in and then enthusiastically keep in touch with them and their school.
Universities are embracing these parents. They're sending them e-newsletters. They're hosting discussion boards. They're setting up parent advisory councils, parent orientations, and parent weekends. And they're even offering live, on-scene video footage. (The University of Minnesota parent e-newsletter links to a live shot of the central campus, where jugglers hold afternoon practices.)
Parents as partners
The new belief is that involved moms and dads can help keep kids enrolled and engaged in school – and can donate expertise, time, and money. "We call our parents our partners," says Amy Walker, coordinator of parent and family programs at Gonzaga University.
They are "part of our community," says Elizabeth Daly, director of the new student and parent program at Northwestern University, where about two-thirds of moms and dads attend parent orientation. At the University of Alabama, 80 percent of them go. At some schools, parents even get to sit on classes during family weekends. (At MIT, they can pick from 90 courses, including Electromagnetism.)
To answer mothers' and fathers' questions, schools even set up special email accounts (such as email@example.com) and train volunteers who give the parent perspective at events. (MIT calls them "parent connectors.")
The internet makes everything easier. On the University of Alabama's parent discussion board, mothers and fathers ask questions such as, "My sophomore wants to move off campus. Is that a good idea?" says Andy Norwood, whose son is in his second year at the school. Parents even give each other advice on tough questions, such as, "My daughter has let me know she doesn't go to class very often. She thinks she can do it without it. What do you think?" (The University of Alabama even gives parents tips on how to bring up "hot topics.")
Parental influence through the ages
Historically, mothers and fathers played a role on college campuses. Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota, says moms' and dads' clubs date back to the early 20th century. Miami University of Ohio had one in 1917. A few years later, a Texas A&M mom mobilized her friends to head to College Station with a picnic in tow. She felt the young men at the school suffered from "the lack of women's influence or parental influence," says Savage. "It was not at all unusual for colleges in the '30s, '40s, and even '50s to have mothers' weekends, usually in the spring with a tea for the moms, and fathers' weekends in the fall with a football game."
But many parent gatherings ended with the Vietnam War. "In the late '90s, the message of letting go started to disappear," says Savage. "Parents were getting the message, 'You need to know who their friends are, who their teachers are.'"
Today parent programs start immediately after students get their "yes" letter from admissions and get going in full force in the fall. While students head off to register for classes, moms and dads go to their own orientations and hear from university presidents and award-winning faculty. Parents also go to special sessions on study abroad and on career services.
Post-orientation, they keep up through e-newsletters. At the University of Kentucky, Cat Chat goes to more than 12,500 parents. Often these mailings encourage parents to give their kids a nudge. "They can deliver messages in ways that we can't," says Savage. "When we talk about alcohol to them, we don't know the student's history. We do treat them as partners in this."
Back to school – at 50
Parents may have graduated three decades ago, but in a way, they're back in college. "We consider them part of the Stanford family," says Maude Brezinski, director of the Stanford Parents' Program. "When you're a Stanford parent, we treat you like an alum." One example: Like graduates, parents hear about faculty speakers coming to town. "It's a neat way to intellectually engage," says Brezinski.
Universities also offer online courses for moms and dads. At the University of Minnesota, for example, the parent program and the department of family social science worked together to put together a class on alcohol use. The school even got its president to talk to parents about mental health. And it made a power point about mom and dad's role in career planning. One slide notes: "We frequently hear students say, "I want to change my major, but my parents will be so disappointed." Ouch.
So what do you and your kids think? Should parents be seen and heard on campus?
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