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International Students and Scholars

Parents' Advice

Edited from: Orientation Director's Manual

Published by: The National Orientation Director's Association

Your student, along with two million others, is about to enter a time at once exciting and frightening, a period of joy, pain, discovery, and disappointment. These students are beginning four years of their lives. They'll leave as much different persons than they began.

And, like it or not, you're entering this period with your son or daughter. You'll experience the same happiness and defeats as they--second hand, but just as vividly.

If you don't believe me, ask my mom. She watched and waited and worried through four years of ups and downs and mediocrity. She patiently accepted my progressions and my regressions. She tried, and sometimes failed, to understand my way of thinking and doing and being.

And, maybe because of her, or in spite of her, I left college after four years a much different person than I'd begun--a much happier person.

So, my advice is: watch and wait and worry and accept and understand. Of course, no one can insure that you'll completely survive your child's first year at college, but there are some guidelines that might help you make it with a minimum loss of sanity and a maximum strengthening of your new relationship. The following "rules" are:

  • Purposely subjective;
  • Written by a just-graduated student who, therefore, thinks she knows everything about college and therefore doesn't;
  • Based mostly on careful observations of mistakes and/or breakthroughs made by the author's parents and the parents of her friends.

At most, they'll prepare you to deal effectively with some predictable first year conflicts. At least, they'll make you think about your reactions to them, and that can't hurt.


Don't Ask Them if They're Homesick

The power of suggestion can be a dangerous thing. (A friend once told me, "The idea of being homesick didn't even occur to me, what with all the new things that were going on, until my mom called one of the first weekends and asked, "Are you homesick?" Then it hit me.")

The first few days/weeks of school are activity-packed and friend-jammed and the challenge of meeting new people and adjusting to new situations takes a majority of a new student's time and concentration.

So, unless they're reminded of it, by a well-meaning parent, they'll probably be safe to escape the loneliness and frustration of homesickness. And, even if they don't tell you during those first few weeks, they do miss you.


Write (Even if They Don't Write Back)

Although new students are typically eager to experience all the "away-from-home independence" they can in those first few weeks, most are still anxious for family ties and the security those ties bring. This surge of independence may be misinterpreted by sensitive parents as rejection, but most first year students (although 99% won't ever admit it) would give anything for some news from home and family, however mundane it may seem to you.

There's nothing more depressing than a week of empty mailboxes. (Warning: don't expect a reply to every letter you write. The "you-write-one, then they-write-one" sequence isn't always followed by college students, so get set for some unanswered correspondence).


Ask Questions (But Not Too Many)

New college students are "cool" (or so they think) and have a tendency to resent interference with their new lifestyle, but most still desire the security of knowing that someone is still interested in them. Parental curiosity can be obnoxious and alienating or relief-giving and supporting, depending on the attitudes of the persons involved.

"I-have-a-right-to-know"-tinged questions with ulterior motives or nagging should be avoided. However, honest inquiries and other "between friends" communication and discussion will do much to further the parent-new student relationship.


Accept Change (But Not Too Much)

Your students will change (either drastically within the first months, slowly over four years or somewhere in between). It's natural, inevitable and it can be inspiring and beautiful.

Often, it's a pain in the neck. College, and the experience associated with it, can affect changes in social, vocational and personal behavior and choices.

Remember that your new student will be basically the same person that went away to school. A pre-med student may discover that biology is not her "thing" or a high school radical may become a college egghead.

Don't expect too much, too soon. Maturation is not an instantaneous or overnight process and you might well discover your new student returning home with some of the habits and hang-ups, however unsophisticated, that you thought he/she had "grown out of." Be patient.


Don't Worry (Too Much) About Manic Depressive Phone Calls or Letters

Parenting can be a thankless job, especially during the college years. It's a lot of give and only a little take. Often when trouble becomes too much for a new student to handle (a flunked test, ended relationship, and shrunken T-shirt all in one day) the only place to turn, write, or dial is home.

Often, unfortunately, this is the only time that the urge to communicate is felt so strongly, so you never get to hear about the "Aî"paper, the new friends, or the personal triumph. In these "crisis" times your student can unload trouble to tears and, after the crisis, return to routine, relieved and delighted, while you inherit the burden of worry.

Be patient with those "nothing-is-going-right-I-hate-this-place" phone calls or letters. You are providing a real service as an advice dispenser, sympathetic ear or punching bag. Granted, it's a service that makes you feel lousy, but it works wonders for a frustrated student.


Visit (But Not Too Often)

Visits by parents (especially when accompanied by shopping sprees and/or dinners out) are another part of the first-year events that new students are reluctant to admit liking, but would appreciate greatly. And, pretended disdain of those visits is just another part of the first year syndrome.

These visits give the student a chance to introduce some of the important people in both of his/her now-important worlds (home and school) to each other. Additionally, it's a way for parents to become familiar with (and, hopefully, more understanding of) their student's new activities, commitments, and friends.

Spur-of-the-moment "surprises" are usually not appreciated. (Preemption of a planned weekend of studying or other activities can have disastrous results.) It's usually best to wait for a Family Weekend to see your student and the school; that way, you may even get to see a clean room.


Do Not Tell Your Student "These Are the Best Years of Your Life"

The first year (and the other three as well) can be full of indecision, insecurities, disappointments, and most of all, mistakes. It's also full of discovery, inspiration, good times, and people. It took a while (and the help of some good friends) for me to realize that I was normal and that my afternoon movie/paperback novel perceptions of what college was about were inaccurate. It took a while for me to accept that being unhappy, afraid, confused, disliking people, and making mistakes (in other words, accepting myself) were all part of the show, all part of this new reality, all part of growing up.

It took a while longer for my parents to accept it. Any parent who believes that all college students get good grades, know what they want to major in, always have activity-packed weekends, thousands of close friends, and lead carefree, worry-free lives is wrong.

So are the parents that think college-educated means mistake-proof. Parents that perpetrate and insist upon the "best years" stereotype are working against the child's already difficult self-development. Those that accept and understand the highs and lows of the student's reality are providing the support and encouragement where it's needed most.


Trust Them

Finding oneself is a difficult enough process without feeling that the people whose opinions you respect most are second-guessing you. One of the most important things that my mom ever wrote me in my four years at college was this: "I love you and want for you all the things that make you the happiest; and I guess you, not I , are the one who knows best what those things are." She wrote that during my senior year. If you're smart, you'll believe it, mean it, and say it now.