It's August. For many families, it's time to participate in a celebrated American ritual: moving a son or daughter to college. While thousands of parents and children bid each other farewell after moving belongings into a dorm room, each experience is acutely personal.
Every child has a different and unique relationship with a parent. For some students, their impending advance toward an adult, independent life is not an especially introspective moment. For many of these first-year students, it's something akin to a long sleepover, summer camp, or travel abroad. A few students arrive on campus from boarding schools where residence life rituals are long since learned and well understood. But for most students, inching through the summer toward "move in" day is a cause for excitement, trepidation, and uncertainty.
When students arrive on campus as "first years," it's always best for them to think through a plan of how to organize their college years. The best piece of advice for them perhaps is to "know yourself." College students come with different levels of maturity and a variety of perspectives. In this new environment, no one really cares about your grade point average, athletic prowess, or that legendary moment in summer band camp. What most first-year students look for is someone like themselves, who shares their interests, and who can make them laugh or at least feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar setting.
Even the most experienced students feel some level of homesickness.
The great thing about college is that you are on your own and treated - more or less - as an adult. That's also the worst thing about college life.
Now, only you can explain your successes and failures. And like it or not -- you own them.
Most colleges have time-tested student life programs that address some of the worst first moments that students face. Many student life programs do an exceptional job at "move in" day, where helpful upper-class students work together with often remarkable precision to welcome the students to residence life. Parents are often astounded that the move-in process takes so little time, operating something like a well-greased machine. Let the acculturation begin.
What families should also see in the best of these programs is the subtext. Permeating the heavy lifting and helpful answers is a deep reservoir of optimism from faculty, staff, and students that goes well beyond the smiles and welcomes. It's a special moment full of opportunity and promise.
Move-in is like walking across a suspension bridge high above the river. Don't look down, keep walking, and enjoy the feeling of fresh new land under your feet on the other side.
At this point, the only option left for the parents is to enjoy the college-provided lunch. Lunch is meant by the college to be a last supper of sorts for parents - eat it and then walk away. You will leave a mostly adult child in capable campus hands. Don't muck it up by overstaying your welcome. And don't make the assumption that you know best. Your expertise ended effectively when you drove through the campus gates.
Parents have a choice to make once they reach home. They can re-emerge from the college selection process as "helicopter parents," continuing to hover over their children, interpreting the uncertainties and insecurities that they hear, and determined to fight for their child's rights and needs. It's admirable and entirely misguided.
It's better not to miss the seminal moment that "move in" day offers to fine-tune the adult in your child.
This is also where technology can inhibit your first-year college student. God did not invent the cell phone - nor Facebook, Snap Chat, Twitter, and texting - to provide you with a web-based umbilical cord by which you can keep connected with your child minute-by-minute. If you are going to develop a lasting adult relationship, you need the space and time to settle into the new arrangement. Set pre-arranged times and days for conversation, unless an emergency arises.
Finally, be aware that money doesn't solve everything. Hopefully, you were wise enough to place expectations on how your child can help support a four-year college experience as part of a family commitment. Watch the unexpected expenditures and monitor open-line credit and debit accounts, especially if these lessons have yet to be learned by your first-year. And, be aware that some expenses will be legitimate.
In four years, hopefully your child will be sharing a barely affordable undersized apartment in Hoboken with college friends. It's always best to teach reality before it happens.
For parents, it's normal to feel sad at some point when you recognize that the move-in experience is also a move-away moment. That awaited acceptance letter that arrived last spring changed your life forever, too.