Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What I Learned at Orientation

What I Learned at Orientation

I just spent a few days at child #1’s college orientation, desperately trying to fit in with the cool kids (the other parents) so that I wouldn’t have to eat alone in the dining hall.  But this whole post begs a question:  for those of you who went away to college, did you have an orientation?  Was it three days in July or two hours before class started in late August?  Did your parents attend?  Did they even want to?

I joke with my daughter that yes, my parents did drive me to Orientation and upon our arrival on campus, slowed the car down just enough so that I could grab my belongings out of the trunk—encased in black plastic garbage bags—and head into the dorm to figure out where my room was, who my roommate was and if this was even the right school.  Yes, they waved lovingly as they drove off in search of the local steak house where they would have the last meal they would ever eat in a restaurant, at least until they got the four of us through college.

Orientation today is different, part summer camp, part boot camp.  I think it’s great for kids who have chosen a college based only on one formal tour and perhaps a drive through at a different time; there really is no way to get a feel for what it will be like to go to college and live away from home unless you do an intense dry run in which you stay in the dorms and are thrown together with a diverse group of people who you may never have met in your regular life but with whom you will now be living and learning, and hopefully playing a little bit.  (But just a little bit.  College does not come cheap these days.)  Husband and I chose not to stay in the dorms as some other parents did, as we are close enough—and far enough away—to have commuted back and forth to Orientation.  Did we learn anything we didn’t already know?  Maybe not.  But we made some good friends in the other parents, one of whom I will be having dinner with in a few weeks, and we had a chance to be voyeurs and see our kids in their new environment with their new classmates and friends.

Although it is presumably for the students, there is a strong parent component running through the program and while husband and I chose not to participate in a lot of it (parent lip-synching anyone? Can you think of a quicker way for your child to die an immediate social death?) we did stay for the important stuff, like residence life and the financial talk.  We only caught glimpses of child #1 as she processed from one activity to the other and in those few moments, we ascertained that she had 1) made friends and 2) seemed to be enjoying herself.  As far as I was concerned, Orientation was a success.

When I posted about this on Facebook, I got a variety of responses ranging from “My parents wouldn’t leave my dorm room for hours on move-in day!” to “Your parents dropped you off?  Mine sent me on the bus” which is a testament to the diversity in styles that existed in the old days when I and my friends went to school.  These days, it would seem, parents want to be involved from morning until night if some of the talks we heard were any indication.  Many of them centered around tips for dealing with separation—not child from parents but parent from child! Times have certainly changed; rather than parents longing for the day when they will be empty nesters—and we still have five years to achieve that goal—they now long for the time when their kids were still small and living at home.  I don’t know; I guess I fall somewhere in between.  I remember college being as one of the most rewarding and enriching times of my life; every wonderful thing that has happened to me can be traced back to my time there.  It was a time when the world really opened up to me and I started to figure out my place in it.  I hope the same is true for my confident, smart, and successful daughter, who clearly doesn’t have as far to go as I did at her age but will more than likely do great things.

And that’s something I already knew before I went to Orientation.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Love this, Maggie! You did a good job as a parent and so you can now enjoy the measure of confidence that comes with that knowledge.

    Your daughter will do great. And you'll be there to hear all about those wonderful seeds that will be planted every time she comes home. And, that, my friend, is perhaps the best part of all!

  2. Well, Mags, as usual you speak sanely and lean to what I see is the truth!

    Speaking with the perspective of someone who went away to college; doesn’t have kids; is also not totally stupid or ignorant of the world of the parent/child: like most things in our society, I think the bloom in orientation services is all about the parents. Schools for all age groups of student have just exploded with stuff for parents to make them feel “comfy” and “right” in their decisions and situations. And, we wonder how and why the “helicopter mom and dad” were born!

    One of my sisters and a good friend drove me down to campus. They stayed an hour or two to help me unload the little I took with me into my dorm. I went to an orientation meeting that lasted about two hours in those first couple of days. It was good baseline information and some encouragement. We left with some contact info for any further needs or questions and boom, we were on our own. My generation was more independent, or at least encouraged to be. There were some parents, especially those who were also alums, who hung around, but they were not necessary to the whole experience except in their own heads. To be sure, I called home often and shared my thoughts on it all, right from the beginning. But, they were MY thoughts and impressions, and I organized and catalogued and put words and feelings to them.

    Again, I believe we were allowed and encouraged to be self-determining and self-sufficient. That used to be a goal on both the parent and school sides of the triangle. I think that is less true now, though some families strive for it. Lots of parents don’t though—they are a bit too into their kids’ lives. I remember being shocked that at an orientation on a summer study program in France for people who’d been in college two to three years already and were usually 21 and older that two of the 50 or so students there had both their mom and dad sitting in! I thought, and still think, that it was pretty pitiful to be that tethered that far into life. And, if you haven’t done a good job as a parent up until that point, you aren’t going to pull the rabbit out of the hat during any campus orientation, which is what a few of the lacking try and do.

    Here’s the kicker and one thing I think is very important to admit: we actually had and still have very little risk to our university students when we send them to campus. Honestly: generally well educated, well cushioned, well supported people of the age of 18 or so going to—clutch your pearls—a big, pretty enclave of people very like them and people who are paid to keep them that way. Explain to me the big risk? Sure, trouble can occur, kids can get exposed to bad people and events, and definitely part of growing up and becoming yourself is those and all the other hardships you have to weather—the ones YOU, the kid/person/student have to weather. But this isn’t the same as giving your teenager 50 bucks and a lucky rabbit’s foot and dropping them off at a busy intersection in a foreign city where they don’t know the language.

    They all know the vocab and the lay of the land. They can, and do, manage to live their own lives and usually with a lot of success, fun, and happiness.

  3. Maggie, you're right about the development of strong parental involvement in kids' programs at all ages. It can get a little ridiculous.

    However, there are reasons for some of it that may not be apparent on the surface. I know. When I ran a university women's center, I used to participate in the freshman orientations. Parents will gravitate to the tables for important departments, such as financial aid, registrars, campus safety, women's center, etc. Often the students will pass them by or ignore the info they offer, focused on the fun, sexy stuff. These are the departments that deal with and have procedures to help students when they run into problems and difficulties, and if parents know about them, they will be able to remind their student when they run into trouble of some kind that there's a place on campus that helps with that.

    And Vicky, I have to differ with you a little. There is definitely risk when kids go off to college. There wasn't a lot in the old days, true, but now it's almost like sending them off to the city alone. It depends on the campus and what kind of campus safety measures they have. Check out the campus safety statistics for yours. Under federal law (the Clery Act), they have to make them public (though many still try to fudge that).

    Campuses are prime sites for sexual assault (often connected with binge drinking) and not just of female students. Often, after freshman year, students can live off-campus, and then many of the crimes that occur aren't listed on the campus safety stats because they happened at their apartments, even though they began on campus. (For example, most of Ted Bundy's kills aren't listed as campus murders, but he picked out and picked up most of his victims on various campuses.)

    Not meaning to be alarmist. The majority of students (or pretty nearly) won't become victims of any kind of crime during their stay at a university, but the bland, safe-and-sound days of the Mickey Rooney-Ronnie Reagan campus are long gone.

  4. I went to college in the early 70s, my parents dropped me off. My mother was a student on campus and she dropped something off for me at orientation (the health lecture) which was a shock to her but other than that, my parents went on with their lives.

    I work at a college now and orientation is one of our big deals. And it is now very much a family affair, with the entire family dropping the child off and moving them in. The orientation folks do programming for parents and the students with the goal of gently cutting the cord. In higher ed, there are a couple of technical terms..."helicopter parents" the ones that hover (make helicopter noises), and "lawnmower parents, the ones that mow right over you.

    It's a mixed blessing. It's nice to have families excited but hard to treat the student as an adult when their parents try to fight every battle. One of my least favorite phone calls begin, "I let my daughter fight her own battles....but....."

  5. Oh, I'm aware, Ms. Rodriguez--it is a not-so-much-brave-as-it-is-more-bold-in-some-bad-ways-world out there in the 21st century and it pays to pay attention to that truth.

    But, that's everywhere because it is the world we live in, and we've got at least two truths to face:

    1--It is best and smartest to be informed and proactive and all that jazz for your own safety and the safety of those for whom you care . . . and . . .

    2--Preparation still fails sometimes and even though bad things can and do happen regardless of setting or circumstances, I'll stand by my view that the average US college campus is still not the worst neighborhood in town where you can put that prep to a test.

    Everyone needs to be vigilant, of course, but part of my view is that most college ready adults (and, they ARE adults, startling though it is) have that bit of wisdom inside them, too.

    And, it's debatable just how much of the sometimes overwhelming dog and pony show that is freshman orientation meets the goal of good preparation instead of being just filler to please those who have to send their beloved kids away with a very hefty tuition check attached. Some of the key and helpful info about which you spoke might be best (also?) delivered via other methods and at other times.

  6. I never went through this at all. I married at 18 and didn't go to college until my youngest was in kindergarten and then it was part time. Took me forever to get an AA degree. Daughters all got married young too, some took college courses along the way, all got interesting jobs. #1 An Administrative Assistant in the School District Office. #2 Bookkeeper and now the Administrative Assistant to the pastor of her church. #3 School Bus Driver for years and now a pastor's wife. Oldest son did all sorts of interesting jobs from being a janitor in a small hospital where he even helped deliver a baby, bus driver for a traveling camp for developmentally disabled kids and adults (he helped and cooked too), bus driver for a sheltered workshop, fork lift operator for WalMart distribution center. Other son has worked mostly in construction.

    These jobs are important too.

  7. Oh, Marilyn you are so right--ANY and all good, honest work is important to our whole way of living and national soul. I often joke with friends that it is a dirty, little secret that sometimes college only amounts to a way-station for people to get a little older, a little more mature, while learning a bit, so that employers aren't either forced to hire fresh-out-of-high-school dopes and/or hire 18 year olds AND do all the necessary education and training! Bottom line is that both preparing for a job and doing a job is a real education, and both are great options. It just depends on each person's interest and circumstances, etc. Someone who works hard as a dishwasher has it all over a lazy college student, and vice versa--the keys are in the level of work getting done.

    And, how many of us started studying to do one thing and ended up doing something totally different down our roads? I myself have had about a handful of actual "careers" in my life and that doesn't seem rare.