Wednesday, July 04, 2007

In Praise of Parents

New student orientation days have been happening at American University over the past several weeks. Accepted students descend our campus for two days of familiarization and bonding with their prospective classmates. Increasingly, this is also a time when universities must sell themselves, once again. Students are now sending deposits, which may be $500 or more, to more than one institution and attending more than one orientation before reaching a final decision. Given that a university education may cost upwards of $150,000, $500 or so seems a small sum to spend on being sure. The dreaded “melt” (students who accept and pay a deposit but do not appear) has become a worrisome addition to the admission officer’s lexicon.

All of this is so different than when I was an undergraduate. My parents gave me the car keys and, with a friend, I visited two institutions. Of course I already knew a lot about my first choice, Dartmouth, which both my father and maternal step-grandfather had attended. There were no events for prospective students, no orientation, no ‘welcome week.’

What interests me most about this process is the key role parents have assumed. By the time orientation arrives, most have already shepherded their sons and daughters through the arduous college tour process, often visiting ten or more institutions, from one coast to another and in between. They have sweated out the SAT’s, perhaps enrolling their prospect in a prep course. They may have hired an admissions consultant: the good ones expect to be retained at the beginning of student’s sophomore year of high school, or even earlier. They have watched the mailbox anxiously for fat envelopes (acceptance!) or thin ones (rejection). They have agonized over the final choice and, in the midst of celebration, begun worrying about how to pay the bills.

One might think that when orientation days arrive, their duties would be ended, but that is not the case. Universities now have a separate parents program and students are often accompanied by both parents for the two days. Some parents, I believe, even stay over in a residence hall, gaining a first-hand experience of residential living, including communal bathrooms (same gender only at AU).

For me, seeing students with their parents is one of the high points of being a faculty member and living on campus. It is so interesting to look for similarities and differences that define a young person, mother and father. What I think of most is the commitment and sacrifice, on the part of most parents, that the arrival of a student at AU represents. And the task is not yet complete. The parents whom I have greeted will be back again – for ‘moving in,” “parents weekend” and again and again and again, until graduation.

Students may not appreciate all of this now. They are preoccupied with adapting to a new environment, meeting new challenges, and negotiating the difficult transition from child to independent adult.

But taking time out to praise parents is something we should all do more often.


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