Orientation 101 for Parents and Freshmen: Letting Go

Georgetown University freshman Samhir Vasdev, with his mother Sunita and father Surin, hooks up his webcam to show his brother his new dorm room.
Georgetown University freshman Samhir Vasdev, with his mother Sunita and father Surin, hooks up his webcam to show his brother his new dorm room. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

All last week, before Samhir Vasdev left for college, his mom kept asking about the new webcam: "Is it working? Is it working?"

And when he moved into his freshman dorm room at Georgetown University this weekend, his parents didn't want to leave until they saw it hooked up. "It's tough," Sunita Vasdev said, looking at the cinder-block walls while her son set up family photos on his desk. "I hope he'll be okay."

She and her husband are staying in the District for another week before flying back to Oregon. Just to be sure.

Forget the quick goodbye hug after unloading the car. As campuses in and around Washington fill with new students this weekend and next, parents, it seems, are finding it harder than ever to let go.

"Certainly, we're seeing a lot more separation anxiety, the kind that used to be at the doorstep of nursery school, not college," said Bill Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services at Johns Hopkins University.

Parents have been so involved in their children's lives through high school that it's difficult for them to just cut off that connection, said James Boyle, president of College Parents of America, an advocacy group based in Arlington County.

Leaving a freshman at college has traditionally been a milestone for families. But now, some school officials say, it's a symbol of a cultural and generational change. Many of the same people who rebelled against their parents have spent the past 18 years volunteering at their children's schools and making it to every lacrosse game. And in recent years, technology has made it easier to stay in near-constant touch.

"The drop-off has kind of evolved like weddings have," Boyle said. Now there are seminars and activities for parents on campus, and they often book hotel rooms nearby during the orientation process. "It's a weekend-long event."

Many schools have adapted their orientation sessions to accommodate parents -- and some have included hints for them to back off.

On one hand, the close relationships are sweet. Students often describe their parents as their best friends, said Penny Rue, who is leaving her job as dean of students at the University of Virginia. "That's quite a change," she said, from five or 10 years ago, and completely different from the don't-trust-anyone-older-than-30 generation. "This can be a gut-wrenching loss."

And because of the high level of mutual trust, students are more likely to talk through problems with their parents, said Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs at Georgetown.

Eighteen-year-old Mychal Harrison gave his mom a hug and said he will text-message her every morning and call home every night from Georgetown. His parents are planning to drive from Atlanta every weekend for his football games.

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