For all caring parents, equipping their child with the independence and skills necessary to survive and thrive after high school is a goal 18 years in the making. But when the moment finally comes, some parents can feel confused as to what exactly happens next. Now what? What can I expect during this transition? Fortunately, there are people who do know all about that first year of college. Christian college residence life staff members watch hundreds of freshmen pass through their dorms each year.
To help take the surprises out of that first year of college, residence life experts shared their advice with Christian College Guide about six things parents can expect to encounter during their child's freshman yearand how best to prepare themselves.
Expect to Let Go
Residence life experts acknowledge that sending a child to college is a big transition. Yet they recommend that parents view it as yet another step on the life-long parenting task of "letting go" and allowing children to make their own decisions.
"It's a lesson that's far from new, but remains the central challenge for most parents," said Shane Peters, assistant dean of student services at Pennsylvania's Waynesburg University. Most parents Peters has met in his 12 years of residence life experience understand what they must do: give their child the freedom to make his or her own life choices. However, what parents find challenging is knowing how to do it.
"Parents wrestle the most with the balance of letting go yet being involved with their student," said Kristi Keeton, associate dean for residential life at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas. "You want to give enough direction so they have not been cast off without an anchor, but at the same time you want them to be able to make intelligent choices on their own."
Each year Peters observes about 400 Waynesburg freshmen navigate the freedom and responsibility of college life.
Most students learn by "trial and error," he said. The challenge for parents is to remain supportive yet resist the temptation to become "helicopter parents," who "hover" over every decision in an attempt to protect their child from risk or failure.
"When we talk to parents at orientation about avoiding the trap of becoming a helicopter parent, they give affirmative nods because it makes senseno parent wants to stunt the growth and maturity of their child by doing everything for them," said Peters."But while it's easy to acknowledge that 'in your head,' it's another matter to put it into practice."
Charlie Moore, director of residence life at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California, tells the story of a parent who was experiencing a great deal of anxiety over her daughter's unhappiness with her roommates. The mother got on a plane, flew to the college and moved in with her daughter and her roommates for a full week in order to mediate her daughter's roommate situation for her.
"This example may seem extreme, but I've found it to be far more common in smaller doses," said Moore reflecting on his 20 years of residence life experience. "Parents often struggle to determine when to let their child figure things out on their own and when to intercede on their behalf."
Residence life experts recognize the dilemma parents face. Their advice: When in doubt, stay out.
"Let your student work out their issues and problems on their own," said Keeton. Students will learn valuable lessons from navigating their own challenges. Roommate problems can be a great learning ground for future relationships, she said. Problems with a professor can prepare them for future issues with their boss.
"Students need to learn to make mistakes, so when they fall on their face, they can get back up," said Sherry Ingram, director of housing and residence education at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. "I know that sounds harsh, but these are lessons they need to learn."
Expect a New Person
College life is full of uncertainties for first-year students, yet it can often be an exciting time to discover deeper meaning and purpose, said Peters. The question is whether parents will find this time of discovery exciting as wellor just plain worrisome.
Ingram receives 450 new freshmen into her residence halls each year. She knows that most will begin to question their interests, beliefs and values from high school. And many will make changes.
She encourages parents to view these changes in their childwhether political affiliation and interests or more deep-seated changes to identity and beliefsas part of a necessary process of development. "The things they may have been taught are going to be questioned," said Ingram. "This is natural. They are just trying to find their place in this world and where they belong."
Parents shouldn't worry too much about what their child might decide. Instead they should have confidence in their parenting skills. "Most of the time a student's values and beliefs will be molded into what was taught to them by their parents," said Ingram, drawing from her eight years of residence life experience.
Another helpful strategy is to learn as much as possible about the new relationships in your child's life. "One thing that can surprise parents is that there is a whole new group of people influencing their child's life they might not know very much about," said Keeton.
"Get to know the people your student is hanging out with," said Ingram. "This will help relieve some of those fears of 'What is my child doing while they are away from me?'" She also recommends attending parent orientation in order to meet other parents, students, faculty, staff and administrators.
Expect a Change in Career Interest
As new college students change their identity, they will also likely change their career interestsand thus their major. This is normal and not cause for concern.
Pat Miller, associate dean of students at Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, Missouri, said the average college student will change his or her major three times. "Don't panic. Just keep talking to them," she said. "Do not place your will on them; let them find God's will."
Ingram said almost all students enter college with one major, yet after taking the core classes needed to graduate, they decide that they like another discipline better. Many find that the classes for their original major are hard or not what they expected. Many colleges acknowledge this by not requiring students to declare a major until they are in their junior year.
If a student talks about changing their major, Peters recommends that parents direct them to campus resources that help the student sort through possibilities and career implications.
"It's often hard to not react immediately, but students sometimes just need to verbally process their reasons for considering a change," said Peters."As a parent who hates to see his or her child struggle through difficult decisions, it is natural to want to step in and resolve concerns." But parents can promote responsibility in their students by allowing them to navigate their career choices on their own.
Expect a Different Relationship
As students change identities and possibly life direction, residence life experts advise parents to be prepared for changes in the relationship between them.
"We tell students their most difficult summer can be after their freshman year when they go home and their parents still expect them to be the same person they were before," said Keeton. "It isn't just about living under their parents' rules. Instead, they have usually matured and want a different relationship than just parent to child."
College provides an opportunity for students to develop a sense of belonging within a new community. "It will create some heartache for parents the first time their student comes home on a holiday break and talks about going back 'home' to school," said Peters. But it is important for students to identify campus as their new "home." This is their new community, he said.
Don't be alarmed if your child doesn't want to come home every weekend. Instead allow your student to make friends, explore what the school offers and experience campus living. "Students miss out on so much when they become suitcase students on the weekend," said Ingram. "Parents should encourage their child to get involved and take full advantage of what their campus has to offer."
After all, the residence life experts said, your student will learn a great deal in their classes, but they also have much to learn from activities outside the classroom as well. In fact, Peters said parents should encourage students to be participants in their college experience and not just consumers of it. Decisions about academic and extracurricular involvements should reflect the contribution students want to make to their campus and to the world.
Yet this involvement should not come at the expense of a students' grades. Make sure your student also understands the importance of earning a good grade point average the first semester of their freshman year. "It is so hard to pull up a low GPA, but not as hard to keep a high GPA," said Ingram. "Learning does take place outside of the classroom through the activities students will join, but they need to keep in mind that their ultimate goal is to get a degree."
Be aware that all this campus involvementwhich all of the interviewed experts agreed was a good thingmay limit your contact with your child. "Parents are more prone to feel like they get just snippets of information, where once they had whole chapters regarding their children's experiences," said Moore. "I think parents experience a lot of anxiety around the unknowns of their son's or daughter's lives."
The solution our experts advocated is to clearly define expectations for how and how much you will stay in touch with your child. "Families should set boundaries and make compromises before their student leaves for college so they are not left with this empty feeling," said Ingram. She recommends that parents establish a regular time to talk to their children by phone to check in on them. "This way parents won't get worried if they haven't heard from their child in a while," she said.
Learn to send text messages or use Facebook to stay connected. "And though paper mail is antiquatedand they may never write backstudents love finding a letter in the P.O. box," said Miller. "A care package now and then doesn't hurt either."
Expect to Still Be Needed
While your student will want and need his or her independence during the college journey, he or she also still needs your help, advice and support in the transition. That starts, residence life experts say, with parents helping their students form realistic expectations of what college lifewith all of its joys and challengeswill be like.
"Try to set realistic expectations with your student," said Keeton. "This can be one of the best experiences of their lives, but that doesn't mean it will all be perfect. Some classes may not thrill them, their residence hall may not be perfect, and the food will not seem like home. But all of it can be a great learning experience."
Peters recommends that parents familiarize themselves with campus resources so they can help direct their child to the appropriate personnel when questions or concerns arise. The college's website and summer orientation programs are often good sources of information.
Teaching students to use the resources at their disposal will improve their integration into their new community. "You want your son or daughter to develop confidence while recognizing they are not expected to have all the answers," said Peters. "Much of the college experience is about learning to ask the right questions."
Miller said parents can also help prepare students for the details of life, such as cooking and laundry. Bring items to get them started, such as quarters and detergent for laundry, hygiene items and snacks. If students have what they need for a few months, they will feel more secure and can focus on other aspects of the transition, she said.
And don't worry about displaying emotions to residence life staff. "I have had moms fall in my arms and weep," said Miller. "I'll probably tear up with you, but then I will reassure you and remind you to trust God and allow us the wonderful privilege of taking your student to this next stage of life."
Jeremy Weber is a Chicago journalist and a graduate of Wheaton College, Illinois.