Off to college

I remember the day like it was yesterday, the day my first-born started his first day of school. It was a bittersweet moment — I had done everything I could to prepare him for this day, so I was confident he had the best shot at success that he could have.

Yet it also was a milestone day — I had to let go of his hand and pass him off to his teacher, who took his hand and guided him into her classroom. I bid him a tearful goodbye, and then stood in the courtyard, hiding behind a post, watching him settle in until the bell rang. I then drove home, tears rolling down my cheeks.

That was then. This is now, as I prepare to send him off to his first year of college.

The bittersweet feelings have returned. In a few weeks, I will be embracing my son, who is now much taller than me. I am confident that I have done everything I could to prepare him for this day. I know he will have the best shot at success that he could have, at one of the best public universities in the country.

I will help him unload all of his personal items from our vehicle and bid him what is sure to be another emotional good-bye. It will be a much longer drive back home. This time, I will not see him again for a month until family weekend.

During orientation, which the University of Florida calls “Preview,” I attended a seminar called “Family Transitions,” moderated by the university’s counseling and wellness center.

I affectionately referred to it as group therapy for parents sending their first-borns off to college. Even looking at the seminar’s title on the program triggered tears.

Recently, a young man at the gym where I work out indicated to me that as a new college student, he was both excited and nervous. As parents we may focus on our own emotions at this time, but it also is an emotionally turbulent time for our sons or daughters, as well as their siblings, and even the family pet.

In the college student’s first days, he may experience a roller coaster of emotions.

There are issues associated with leaving home, such as displacement of traditional support systems, knowledge of a familiar environment, change in friendships, and changes in familiar expectations.

There’s uncertainty about the future. A student’s goals may be idealized and untested in the new environment.

Although students are aware that study demands in college are different, many are unprepared for the amount of, and rate at which, the material will be presented. While many have been successful in high school, receiving an average grade may come as a shock. It takes time to see the bigger picture and the learning process over a semester.

What the student thinks others expect of him is very important. Living up to or failing those goals can be a source of motivation and reward, but also stress and shame.

There’s the “hidden curriculum” of college: how does one navigate the campus, pay bills, balance a checkbook, shop for groceries, find classrooms, ensure he’s in the right course, is on track for his major, approach a professor, ask for help with academics, figure out where to eat, do laundry, manage differences with roommates, and the myriad of tasks that were once taken for granted or provided by others? Can anyone help? Is it even OK to ask for help?

Fitting in socially also is a significant concern — developing friendships, intimacy, and social support is desired but takes time. Where does one go to initiate these important aspects of community life? How does one cope with difficulties in creating a social network?

For some students, making independent decisions can be daunting. How does a student decide how to act and what options to choose? Who will approve or disapprove of those options?

So what can parents do to help make the transition to college go as smoothly as possible for their offspring? The center’s counseling staff acknowledges that there are no easy answers for parents and family members, but there are some general guidelines:

• Listen to your student’s concerns; avoid lecturing or too quickly offering solutions.

• Ask questions to help your student clarify the concerns; avoid giving answers too readily.

• Acknowledge and communicate emotions — affirming that you recognize your student’s feelings — and avoid denying the presence of strong feelings (in yourself or your student).

• Express your thoughts and provide perspective; avoid making demands.

• Help clarify the consequences of behaviors; avoid threatening in ways that stifle communications.

• Be supportive and remind him you love him; avoid taking responsibility away from your student.

• Strive for mutual respect; avoid demanding submission without understanding.

• Let go a little and compromise where possible; avoid giving up completely and exasperation.

• Deal with the problems openly and as calmly as possible; avoid ignoring or exaggerating problems.

• Allow mistakes for both of you; avoid expecting perfection…growth takes time.

Starting college is a highly emotional time for students and their families. The tension can be high. Counselors have seen a range of scenarios, from those parents who’ve had a strained relationship with their students and drop them off at college and spin off in their cars to those who book a hotel for a week and keep checking on the student on a frequent basis.

Siblings may either feel sad or none too happy to try to take over their brother or sister’s room (this is not the time to turn the room into Dad’s man cave, an exercise room, or a tranquility space).

The University of Florida’s dean of students’ office offers several other suggestions for families to help support their student:

• A helicopter parents hovers; a rocket ship parent takes issues straight to the top. Avoid those behaviors, but do be involved and stay informed. Be aware of deadlines, resources, and opportunities.

• Encourage your student to get involved in at least one extracurricular activity; these helps ensure a successful transition. That activity can be connected with the student’s academic or social interest, or can enhance an activity in which he is interested.

• Encourage your student to do research with a professor or study abroad.

• Discuss expectations about substance abuse, money management, wellness, and integrity.

• Communicate frequently, but ask your student what he prefers: phone calls, texts, Skype, or Facebook. Don’t make surprise visits to the campus — ask the student if the time is convenient, as he may need study time.

• Trust your instincts; if you are concerned for your student’s well-being, contact the dean of students.

• The best advice to give your student — everything at the university is a learning experience — including what happens outside the classroom.

That’s also a concept worth embracing for the rest of your family.

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