For Parents Delivering Sons/Daughters to College, the Tough Farewell at the Dorm Is the Norm

older woman with younger woman by a car
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As tough as departing can be on a student, parents need to adjust to the new normal as well.

Congratulations, parents! You have successfully guided your student through high school and navigated the rigorous college search process! Now it’s time to send him or her off to college.

It’s hard, I know.

As a higher education professional with 25 years in the field and a parent of a college student myself, I’ve been there and lived to tell the tale.

You will, too.

Your student is at a stage in life where he or she is blossoming into an adult, and as difficult as it may be, it’s important to treat them as such.

Here are my top tips — a set of recommended do’s and don’ts — for helping you and your student make a successful college transition.

It’s important that you understand and know your (legal) limits.

Higher education institutions are bound by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Both acts proactively protect your students’ academic/disciplinary and medical records. Unless you have your student’s written consent, you may not access these records.

  • Don’t: Force your student to sign the release form in the Registrar’s Office.
  • Do: Have the important conversation with your student about expectations on sharing important information. During this conversation, let your student know if you will be assisting with tuition payments so you gain proper access to the billing account.

Trust Your Gut

While faculty and staff have professional experience in educating, guiding, and developing students, these skills do not make them experts on your student.

  • Don’t: Ignore the instinct that you know your student best.
  • Do: Address the potential issue with your student and encourage him or her to take the initiative to seek help.

Be Flexible

Leading up to your student’s departure, emotions may run high, especially amid the flurry of checklists, activities, and other preparations.

Quality family time is beneficial during this time. While some students may be completely on board with family time, others may appear to be interested in spending time with anyone other than yourself.

Regardless of your student’s motivations and demeanor prior to departure:

  • Do: Ensure that your student has completed all requisite institutional forms and assembled any items necessary to begin the semester.
  • Don’t: Forget that the transition is just as important, impactful, and emotional for your student as it is for you.
  • Don’t: Dismiss that it is easier to leave a situation that is tense and uncomfortable rather than one that is comfortable. If your student appears to be difficult during this time, keep in mind that it may be a way of make the departure easier — for them! Remember that, although it is uncomfortable, it is temporary.
  • Do: Take some time to care for yourself. For 18 years your student has become the center of your world, but don’t dismiss your own health during this time. Be kind to yourself, continue doing normal day-to-day tasks like going out with a friend or taking a walk.
  • Do: Set aside time to spend with your student before the start of school. Remind your daughter or son how proud you are, that you will always be there as a support, and that you are excited about this next chapter of life.
  • Do: Schedule some activities to keep yourself occupied once your student begins school. Even if your student chooses to commute, you’ll be surprised with how much less you see them at home. Plan out how you spend the first few weeks to get adjusted.

Be Present

During your student’s high school years, odds were that you engaged with them each day. The dynamic between you and your student will drastically change once they enter college. Whether your student is commuting or living on campus, the amount of time you see and engage with your student will change.

  • Don’t: Make the assumption that you will have the same level and quality of engagement with your student. Especially during the first few weeks, your student will be preoccupied with adjusting to a vastly new environment.
  • Don’t: Get upset when your residential student refers to campus as “home.” Although it may hurt, your student knows that they will always be at home with you.
  • Do: Allow your student to become acclimated to the new environment and remind yourself that you want them to become independent and thrive.
  • Do: Check in with your student. It’s not a crime to leave a voicemail or a text saying that you’re thinking of them and that you’re available if they need anything. Remind them that you are supportive of this journey.
  • Do: Set some expectations with your resident student about communication.
  • Do: Set some expectations for your commuter student regarding curfews/chores/communication. Although you may expect nothing to change, your student will have a different opinion.

Learn about the Institution’s Resources

Every institution wants students to be successful, and they offer a number of resources to assist.

Don’t: Make the assumption that your student will read through all the materials provided. During the first few weeks, your student will be exposed to numerous amounts of information.

  • Do: Locate the institution’s webpage designed for parents/families; sign up for parent/family newsletters, social media sites, and email/text alerts, if available; learn about the services available for common student issues. Having immediate access to this knowledge will help you direct your student to appropriate resources if issues arise.
  • Do: Encourage your student to share important information with you, which may be helpful in completing next steps and helping them to understand certain material.
  • Do: Encourage your student to be engaged in checking their university email frequently.

Support Independence

While you may still want to hold your student’s hand through certain situations, it’s important to encourage independent problem solving.

  • Don’t: Immediately try to problem solve yourself.
  • Do: Engage your student in a conversation about what they have done thus far to solve the problem. If they haven’t taken any initiative, encourage them to do so. If they have taken initiative, but the problem hasn’t been solved, encourage your student to contact the appropriate supervisor or administrator to assist them.

Promote Engagement

An engaged student is one that is more connected to the institution. If your student expresses that “there’s nothing to do here”,

  • Don’t: Encourage your resident student to come home.
  • Do: Suggest that your student to browse the institution’s website for student activities. If there isn’t a club or organization he or she is interested in, many institutions offer students the opportunities to gather like-minded individuals to create their own clubs. If your student is having trouble making connections, encourage them to have a discussion with a staff member about options. Although your student may feel uncomfortable stepping outside a comfort zone, being an engaged will make a large impact on the college experience.

Check out my Students Guide to Successfully Transition from High School to College post for more information.

Josh Stern, M.S.Ed, is Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students, Gwynedd Mercy University.

More from Josh Stern on college advice for parents of students.
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