Before they pack up their belongings, sign up for a meal plan and then proceed to order pizza every night, most college-bound students participate in some iteration of a freshman orientation at their chosen university. While these programs differ in format and scope, they fulfill a common purpose: to serve as a bridge between the acceptance letter and move-in day. For many teens, it might be the first time they are referred to as a “college student.”
For you as a parent, perhaps, it’s the first time you will be called a “parent of a college student.” As such, the orientations are just as much for parents as they are for your children.
I have participated in a freshman orientation every summer for the last 10 years in my roles at two universities. Absorbing the emotions from attendees, I feel equally anxious and excited for the students. And the parents. While it’s not quite drop-off intensity yet, for many families, this is when it gets real. Your child is doing this. You are doing this. College is happening.
It is easy (and normal) to feel overwhelmed about three minutes into the welcome presentation. Here are five ways parents can enjoy and maximize the freshman orientation experience.
How Parents Can Make the Most of Their Teen’s Freshman Orientation
1. You don’t have to remember everything.
When I am presenting about my program, I always notice the parents trying to write down everything I’m saying (the savvy college student knows you just take a picture of the PowerPoint slide with your phone — c’mon mom and dad!) Know that most of this information will be repeated (ad nauseam to your son or daughter) when they need it most. There are probably about two things you really need to remember during orientation to be prepared for the fall.
Keep in mind the old marketing adage of the “rule of seven” that contends an audience needs to hear a message seven times before it sticks. So think of orientation as your first (and probably second or third) time to hear some important information on the way to you and your child actually remembering it.
2. Stay strong.
I spend my days with college students, but at home, I have two-year-old twins to answer to. We recently transitioned from a nanny to daycare, and I was repeatedly given the same advice: Be confident when you say goodbye so they know they are safe. Save the crying for the car (believe me, I did.)
Your child might not admit or show it, but however overwhelmed you are feeling, your they are feeling it tenfold. Every student I speak to at orientation tells me so. They are scanning the auditorium — brimming with their future professors, advisors, best friends, significant others and ex-significant others — and trying to picture themselves in their new environment. It’s exciting, no doubt, but a lot to process.
If you crumble under the pressure of information overload, their own anxiety will rise. Be present for their concerns (if they choose to share them) and remind them about tip No. 1 above. If you want to read every page of the course catalog when you are alone in your car, feel free.
3. Let your child ask questions.
I strive to answer parent questions and allay any concerns they have. I want you to leave orientation feeling like your teen will have the support he/she needs once they are on campus. But I have to admit that I cringe a little inside when a parent starts the question with, “My son/daughter was wondering…”
If it’s actually your query, no need to pin it on your child. You are entitled to your own questions and curiosities. But if it’s something they whispered to you during a presentation, encourage them to speak up. Let me get to know your son or daughter. Let me be impressed by their inquisitiveness or understand a particular worry. All of this will help your teen form the foundations of meaningful college relationships with faculty and staff.
4. Talk to other parents.
Many schools will offer parent sessions concurrently with student sessions. Resist the temptation to follow your child (or get a coffee) and attend the parent presentation, especially if this is your first orientation. The information shared is usually a mix of the practical (financial aid, payment deadlines, security) and the emotional (support services, Q&A, reassurances.)
These sessions are an excellent opportunity to meet other parents and learn from the experiences of those who have already gone through this. This is also a great time to ask all of your questions without your child rolling their eyes at you. If you are overwhelmed, tell us. We want to help.
5. Fill out an evaluation.
Okay, so this is more for us than you, but your feedback is essential to making future orientations tailored to what parents and students need to know as they prepare for this major transition. When the survey pops up in your inbox, take the time to air your praises or grievances.
The summer between the last day of high school and the first day of college can feel like one long goodbye to the past. Freshman orientation is a dry run of sorts — this time you leave campus you with your child, next time you leave with the stuff that didn’t fit in their dorm room and a lump in your throat. Try to relax, take it in and enjoy the glimpse into your child’s future.
Caryn Berardi has worked in higher education for 10 years as both as a career counselor and currently as an associate director for an undergraduate honors program. Her role enables her to engage directly with students (and parents) and help them succeed academically, professionally and personally. Her writing has been seen on The Huffington Post, Kveller, Scary Mommy and Modern Loss. When she’s not working or chasing her twin toddler boys (usually in opposite directions), she can be found musing on her blog or Twitter.
Photo Credit: Illinois Springfield