Engaging Parents or How I Wish My Own Parents Were Treated When I First Went to College

Anna Gonzalez, Ph.D., Dean of Students, Lewis and Clark College

October 3, 2017

A few weeks ago, our campus hosted hundreds of family members who were dropping off their student to their new home. For two days, we had a combination of socials and educational sessions intended to help transition parents into their role of having a child in college.  As the chief student affairs officer of my college, I experience new student orientation with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is one of the happiest days of the year for me because of the enthusiastic and warm welcome our new student and their families receive from our returning community members.  However, it also evokes a bit of sadness for me as I recall the experience my family had when they dropped me off as a first-time, first-generation U.S. college student to my new school.

Twenty-five years ago, my family left their own parent orientation program feeling less ready about me going to college and terrified that they just lost their daughter.  They thought that if I did return home, I would come back to them as a stranger. Years later, when my parents eventually figured out what I did for a living, they told me to make sure that my college doesn’t take away their children from their families. And as I read a letter sent to me by a parent last week thanking me and my team for the way in which we organized our new parent orientation program, I realized listening to my own parents helped me become someone who leads a division that treats parents as parents and not as pariahs.

Here are a few tips:

  • Develop opportunities for parents to get involved. This can be through a parents club or council, hosting a regional event for new student recruitment or yield activities, or volunteering to share with new or prospective parents how to navigate the college environment.
  • One size does not fit all. Depending on their past experiences with collegiate life, parents will need different resources and modes of communication.
  • Help parents understand that there are a number of support systems for their child to utilize in college and encourage them to be a partner with us by encouraging their child to seek out and utilize those resources. Rather than attempting to fix it by initially calling the school, work with their child to find out how to be self-advocates in the situation.
  • Communicate with parents through newsletters and even social media. And in your communication, encourage them to share with their student important deadlines for such things as internship and fellowship applications, housing lottery information, and other things you want students to pay attention to.
  • Finally, just like their student, each parent has their own experience. Based on this, they may react differently to our programs and offerings. Some may differ with us on their opinion on how we believe we are best treating their student.  During those moments, I found it best to listen to them first. At times, during these conversations and in the act of listening, I learned something new and even found ways to improve upon what we are doing.

Effectively transitioning parents into their new role will enrich our students’ educational experiences.  The letter I received last week encapsulates the feeling I want every parent to feel about their transition and speaks to the great Student Life team we have at L&C.  “You and your staff prepared us as parents that all would be ok, and to accept the hard reality that the only adjusting that likely needs to happen is with us.”

Here’s to a wonderful academic year and successful partnership opportunities with the parents and family members of our students.

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