Your kid left for college a couple of weeks ago. You and your spouse have popped the Champagne cork and are now enjoying being empty nesters. Everything is wonderful. Then your student calls you in the middle of the night. All of a sudden things aren’t that wonderful. Roommate problems. Nothing to do on the weekend. Got a D on the first test. What to do?
First, what not do.
A big part of the college experience is for your student to learn how to become an independent and responsible adult and the first year of college is a safe place for this process to begin. All students will face difficulties, and part of growing up is learning how to deal with them.
Don’t become a helicopter parent, always hovering over your child, ready to swoop in if there is a problem. Of course, be loving and supportive. But for the most part, let your child deal with these difficulties themselves. When I was a college president I often got calls from parents about fixing their daughter’s broken refrigerator, or about disciplining a professor who gave their son a bad grade (“He got all A’s in high school!”) and even once requesting me to make sure their child got out of bed in time to take an exam. Not my job, nor yours!
So here are the kinds of phone calls you might get from your student and the advice college personnel—deans, faculty, coaches, health care professionals and a college president—would give.
8 Classic Middle-of-the-Night Calls from College Freshmen
1.“Mom and Dad, I can’t stand my roommate”
According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute’s 2014 Your First Year College Survey: Institutional Profile Report, 50% of roommate situations are problematic. But part of growing up is for your child to learn how to live with someone they might not initially get along with. This is a skill they will use for the rest of their lives.
But sometimes roommate situations become unbearable. When this happens, Sheri Hineman, Assistant Director of the Office of Student Financial Aid at Morningside College in Iowa, advises that your student (not you) should contact someone like her to help resolve the problem for which there is almost always a solution. If things are not resolved at this level, your child should work up the chain of command next going to the Dean of Students. Parents should only intervene if the situation is very serious (like a roommate dealing drugs) and is not being properly addressed.
2. “I’m depressed.”
Depression is a serious problem on college campuses and if your student calls up saying they are depressed, you should encourage them to go to the college’s health center. Virtually all colleges and universities employ a psychologist or have one on retainer.
Craig Anderson, a clinical psychologist at Randolph-Macon College, points out that counseling offices really want to help students who are depressed and should be able to see them immediately. If, for some reason, your student can’t get an appointment (counseling offices are sometimes under staffed) and if the situation is really serious, don’t wait and, instead, arrange for your student to see a health care professional near campus.
3. “Coach isn’t playing me.”
Everyone sits on the bench in the beginning, so first year students shouldn’t expect to be starters. However, if for no apparent reason they’re always sitting on the bench, even during practice, Andy Jenkins, men’s soccer coach at Vassar College, advises that first year students should first talk to the team captain and then to the coach. Of course, at the end of the day the coach must be able to determine who is to play. Parents cannot control this. Intramural athletics and club sports are always options if your child isn’t getting field time.
4. “There’s nothing to do on campus. Can I come home for the weekend?”
It is not healthy when your child is coming home every weekend. The usual excuse is that there is nothing to do on campus. Shari Benson, Assistant Director of Residence Life at Morningside College, suggests that there is usually plenty to do on campus and that, if first-year students are always going home, they will never establish friendships. Playing sports, getting involved with clubs, and enjoying a college’s social life are important aspects of the college experience.
5. “I’m running out of money.”
First-year students never seem to have enough money and, sometimes, for good reason. Colleges and universities are expensive and many parents are doing everything they can just to pay for tuition, room, and board let alone providing extra funds for miscellaneous things like movie tickets or mocha frappuccino’s at Starbucks. So what about encouraging your child to take on a campus job to pay for these extras—or even helping out with tuition?
Natalie Story, Associate Director, Office of Student Financial Aid at Washington College in rural Maryland, points out that not only do first-year students who work tend to complete their college education, but studies show that students who work 20 hour or less per week actually do better academically than students who don’t work at all. Having a college job on their resume will also help them get a job after graduation.
6. “I’m flunking calculus”
When first-year students are not doing well academically, it’s may be because they are not seeing their advisor or because they are partying too much. Joanne Long, former Dean of Freshmen at Vassar College, makes a point of encouraging first year students to see their advisor more than once a semester, to talk to their professors when they don’t understand a lecture, and to enjoy the social aspects of being a college student, but to make academics a priority.
7. “I don’t know what to major in.”
This is normal. Indeed it’s expected. In my experience, most first-year students don’t have a clue what to major in, or, if they do, it’s often what their parents want them to major in. Through general education and distribution requirements, the American college experience is designed to give first and second year students an opportunity to discover for themselves what their interests are.
Maybe they came to college thinking they would major in accounting but, in sophomore year, discover they really love political science or physics. The important thing is that students don’t need to declare a major until the end of sophomore year.
8. “I can’t get my assignments done on time.”
There are several reasons for this problem. One is managing time, perhaps the single biggest challenge first-year students face. Nicole Anderson, Assistant Director of the Career Services at Tufts University, encourages first-year students who are having problems to visit the career or academic center where there are people who can help them out with time management issues.
Another reason is that some students struggle with a learning disability. If you child can’t keep up with college assignments because they are ADHD or have dyslexia, they should check in with the disability services office and get accommodation.
Finally, writing is often a big challenge for first-year students. Most colleges have a writing or academic center that will help students who can’t get their writing assignments completed on time or who are just facing challenges with writing. Encourage your student to use these resources.
Not all parents get calls like these in the middle of the night. Indeed some parents don’t hear from their children at all creating a quite different concern. Such were the parents who had not received a text or phone call since they dropped their daughter off at orientation two weeks before. Here is the email they finally received:
Dear Mom and Dad,
This letter may come as a pretty big shock to you. I think you better sit down to read it. I’m very sorry I haven’t written or called, and I hope you haven’t been worrying about me. Actually, my leg is much better now . . . you know, the leg I broke when I jumped out the window during the dormitory fire, after the campus riots. But this fellow who works in the garage across the street from our dorm was so nice; he let me move right into his apartment with him. And now I think I’m in love. And don’t worry, we’ve decided not to get married until after the baby is born next year. Will that be all right with you, Mommy and Daddy?
P.S. I didn’t really break my leg, and there was no dormitory fire or campus riot. I’m not in love . . . yet. And I’m not going to have a baby. But I’m flunking math and getting a D in history, and I just thought you ought to know how much worse things could be.
Dr. Roger Martin is a retired college president and former Harvard dean. His book Off to College: A Guide for Parents (Chicago Guides to Academic Life)was published last August by the University of Chicago Press. He writes extensively about the transition from high school to college on his Facebook page, Off to College 101.