Orientation 101 for Parents and Freshmen: Letting Go

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.

On the other hand, all that closeness can be a little . . . much.

School officials are no longer surprised by parents who try to register their children for classes, argue about a grade or look up a future roommate on Facebook and demand a switch.

"I've heard four or five times this summer: 'I'm not a helicopter parent!' " said Tiffany Sanchez, director of new student programs at American University. She laughed. "Sure you're not."

Students pull parents in, too -- calling dad for advice from an academic advising session in the dean's office no longer surprises school officials.

At the admissions office at Hopkins, it's not unusual for parents to tell staff members, "We are taking the SAT next week," or "We are here for our 3 p.m. interview."

"It's the era of we," Conley said.

Every year, Sanchez said, at least one parent asks her, "Who's going to make sure he's attending class? Who's going to make sure he's getting out of bed?"

Sometimes the resident advisers have to tell parents, "You must go now," Conley said.

There are still those parents who are relieved -- giddy, even -- when they drive away, and students who rarely call home.

But at Georgetown, where the main entrance this weekend was decorated with blue and white balloons and student volunteers helped push giant orange carts loaded with personal belongings into the dorms, most people echoed Barb Siegel. "It's the worst thing in the world," she said, wiping her forehead in the heat Friday night as she helped her daughter Stacy figure out the bunk bed. "I have to find a new life."

The family is so close, she said, that when their oldest child, also a daughter, went to college, her husband couldn't go into her bedroom for at least a year. It was too hard.

So schools have been adapting. At Hopkins, there are workshops for staff members. Conley wrote a guide for parents describing the campus resources that are available to students. U-Va. produced a 94-page parents' handbook. At American last year, officials created a brochure for parents about orientation, albeit with choice words: Rather then explaining how to sign up for classes, it says "your child will register" on a given date -- hinting that students, not parents, are responsible.

Olson, at Georgetown, said campus officials work hard to make sure parents have all the information they need. At orientation, he emphasizes that college is a transition, a time to let go.

They also make a point of naming one event the parents' "goodbye lunch." (Most get it.)

A generation ago, parents drove away and heard from their kids once a week, maybe, from the hall phone.

"Now a goodbye really means, 'Talk to you in a few hours,' " said Boyle, the College Parents of America president.

While Samhir Vasdev hooked up his laptop Friday night, his mom said she had been dreading this all spring and summer. He was excited, though -- he had made friends with his soccer-loving roommate, set up the bunk beds and propped up an Oregon license plate with "hello" in Swahili. After 18 years in a small town, where his best friends are people he met in first grade, he was ready to meet everyone on his hall.

"My mom's going to call me every, like, two minutes," he said, laughing. He turned on the webcam, and he and his parents gathered around the screen, talking to his brother on the West Coast.

"We're really happy for him," said Surin Vasdev, Samhir's father. "We're sad for ourselves."

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