Navigating The Risky Waters of College Life

Written by fatherfrank  |  04. August 2006

It is hard to believe that the summer is half over. Many of us are asking where did the lazy days of summer really go? We are already being bombarded with all kinds of ads for the fall and the new school year.
Many families are preparing for their first child to go away to college. Many first time college students are gearing up for freshman orientation and ultimately leaving for college at the end of August.
Students will be leaving home for the first time from all over the country. For some, it will be the first time they have been away from home for an extended period of time.
How do parents prepare their college coeds for this potentially life-altering experience? First, they need to relax. The summer months before freshman year have the potential to be very stressful. For us as parents, it is often very anxiety producing thinking of one's firstborn child going off to college. Separation anxiety can sometimes set in. Our tendency to be overprotective can erupt. We start to worry about every little thing and make every circumstance bigger than life itself. Sometimes we act like our children are going to Guam for life instead of a few hundred miles upstate for three months to get an education.
Meanwhile, our children are counting the seconds to liberation and to freedom land. They can't wait to leave the nest, move into that dorm and be free, until they get there. Many college students cannot wait to go away to school so they can spread their wings a little and fly.
The first few months of the fall freshman semester can be a positive adventure or a disaster, where the new college coed can fly like an eagle or crash and burn.
If the truth be told, for many good students the first semester of freshman year is a little of both. For the first few months away from home, everyone has to develop the skills to navigate the new landscape, with all of its' peaks and valleys. The first year in college is never without its' challenges.
As a parent, you need to know everything there is to know about the college your son or daughter is attending. If there is a parent's orientation, try to make it. More often than not, it is always informative. Learn about dorm life and about the do's and don'ts of campus living. Ask to see the student handbook and the student code of conduct. Read these documents from cover to cover and ask questions.
A lot of colleges have wonderful documents that affirm your values and underscore your concerns as parents. However, many schools are also very soft on enforcing what they espouse regarding student life.
For example, most colleges and universities have a dry campus policy when it comes to the use of alcohol. Unfortunately, few schools really enforce the dry campus policy. They don't allow any of their eating establishments to sell alcohol nor do they allow any student organizations to sponsor social events with alcohol. Staying on top of dorm life and underage drinking in dorm rooms is an overwhelming task. My observation is that many campuses with dorms pay lip service to the policy but do little or nothing to enforce it.
Some colleges and universities will distract you from this concern by saying how they have free bus service to and from the campus to the local college town to allegedly cut down on students drinking and driving. However, they never address student underage drinking. If given the opportunity, raise this issue and press them for an honest assessment. Ask them how they will deal with students who are non-compliant in this regard.
Freshman year is a year of a lot of changes. Many first year students are not only adjusting to college academic life, but are also adjusting to newfound freedoms and living with people they are not related to. Many make that transition with little stress or conflict.
However, a growing number of freshmen find their first year a disaster in motion. They go away to college academically ill prepared to cope with their course work. The unbridled freedom and lack of accountability is a recipe for disaster.
During the first six to eight weeks, although they are counseled not to do so, they stay up and party into the early hours of morning. Too often, these novice college freshmen lose control over managing their class work and their day to day lives.
They don't intend to lose focus, but with their newfound freedom, it becomes easy to miss class, go late to class and miss assignments that are due. Since it is college, they figure they can make it up, cut a deal and stay afloat. If the truth be told, some do manage to navigate these risky waters without drowning. Others sink quickly and are home for good by Christmas.
For the concerned parent of first semester freshmen, life is further complicated because you are usually not in the loop until it is too late. Most colleges across the country will release no information to concerned parents unless their son or daughter indicates in writing that it is okay. Therefore, all grades and other school information are sent directly to the student. If the student is on academic probation or has been dismissed, there is a good chance you won't know about it until after the fact.
If you try getting any information, you have little or no chance of any official school person speaking to you. Your detective skills will really be challenged.
We need to really review the freshman year experience. Too many freshmen blow that first semester. It does not have to be that way. Unfortunately, I think we set them up for disaster.
Maybe if colleges worked harder at creating a different climate and at enforcing the student code of conduct, that would help. Also maybe if freshman advisors did more than just academically advise their students, possibly meet with them every six weeks to review how they are doing, that would help. Most students would probably respond in a positive way to this kind of accountability.
Another possibility that could help, especially in our smaller schools, would be to assign upper classmen as mentors to each new freshman for the first semester. Be clear on what the mentor should do and have the mentors meet regularly to discuss how they could better assist new freshmen in their transition to college life and their newfound freedoms.
How do you protect your first year college student from possible disaster without coming on too strong or being overprotective?
First, you have the dreaded August conversation about going away and acting responsible and accountable. You remind your son or daughter that with every choice they make there is a consequence.
It is probably wise to be clear on academic expectations and what will happen if your student does not make the grade after the first semester.
A financial budget is also probably wise. Being the "money pit" is not prudent or ultimately helpful.
Finally, you want your first year college student to enjoy his/her college experience to the fullest. As a parent, you don't want to die of anxiety, but you also don't want to shackle your young adult with ridiculous expectations. Finding the balance is our challenge.

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