As an incoming freshman at Westfield State University, Javier had two worries this summer: Would he make friends at university? And could he get that 27-inch-wide computer monitor? With my oldest son leaving for college, my summer worries were more harried: tuition payment plans, budgets and bus schedules. When yet-another-envelope arrived in June addressed “to the parents of Javier,” I wasn’t sure whether this latest form from his new school perplexed or annoyed me more.
The letter invited me to register for a “New Parent Orientation.” Now, for parents who have yet to endure the fast-metastasizing grimness that originates with the April acceptance letter, spreads throughout the summer as you sign away your life’s savings, then culminates in September as you empty your nest to the universe, let me explain. By the time I received said “invitation,” I had visited the campus in the spring of Javier’s junior year, brought him out again for students’ day last March, and returned a third time to talk to professors. Had I somehow flunked Filling Out Forms 101? Or had they spotted me playing “Angry Birds” during the dean’s welcome last spring?
What’s worse, the “parent orientation” wasn’t a simple September drive-by while your newly minted freshman unloaded his worldly possessions from the back of the station wagon. No, the Westfield version was a day and a half in the middle of summer. As in, “you will have the opportunity to stay overnight in one of our student dorms.” “Opportunity,” I thought, “to spend a July weekend in an un-air-conditioned cinderblock room that, until a week before, had housed a bunch of rowdy undergraduates.” I could almost smell the sweat and rancid pizza.
As with so many of these parenting “opportunities,” my immediate impulse was to recall what my own parents did. Married at 19 and still married 49 years later, they had me beat on the Ozzie-and-Harriet index. Theirs was a pretty good history, filled with a lot of good decisions.
WWDMD? What Would Dad-and-Mom Do? My parents raised us in Florida, and neither they nor I had visited the Harvard campus before they dropped me off that September back in ‘86. They flew up with me that weekend — with the only parent orientation happening when the nice Statie on the side of the Mass Pike explained that you didn’t get to Harvard Yard from the Cambridge Howard Johnson’s via Framingham.
So I called some friends with college-age kids. “Yes, in addition to the pleasure of writing that tuition check to BU, we had a lovely two-day primer on the college and Ashley’s soon-to-start freshman experience.” My friend John took the cake: “Yes, Boston College had a three-day orientation. One-and-a-half days? You’re getting off easy.”
In the end, I caved. Rolling into the parking lot late, I caught the last half of a parents-only session called “Student Confidential.” Or, everything a nosy parent wanted to know about the secret life of kids at college. For an hour, I listened to student panelists — the shiny, campus-tour-guide types — field questions like, “What is your favorite dish in the dining hall?” and “Is the library a good place for freshmen to study?” Were these chuckleheads enrolling their kids, or themselves?
The day wore on. Toward the end of the academic dean’s one-and-a-half-hour overview of the 34 undergraduate majors, something began to click. The questions kept coming because a large percentage of parents hadn’t had the four-year on-campus experience they were now giving their kids. Indeed, as Westfield State President Evan Dobelle explained, a full quarter of college freshmen at the school reported that neither parent had gone to college at all.
God knows raising a child in this age of Abercrombie & Fitch, “Grand Theft Auto” and Aurora, Colo., isn’t for the faint of heart. For the parent of a rising college freshman, staring at September means wondering how the structures you’ve put in place at home will survive against a tough and confusing world. The value of this “parent orientation” wasn’t for better surveilling your freshman. It was to expose us to the new parameters of our relationships with our no-longer-children.
As the day came to a close, administrators brought the several hundred parents outside to form two lines, one on either side of an impressive walkway that led into the auditorium. After a few minutes, we saw our soon-to-be-freshmen marching slowly toward us, then past us into the auditorium. Someone started clapping and the crowd broke into applause.
This last bit of pomp-and-circumstance was more than show. Like all ceremonies, its ritual intended to communicate something essential to the participants. The parents saw their kids walk past them into university. The kids saw their parents watching them walk past, graduating from kids-at-home to a newer, more independent existence.
And 25 years after my parents’ Cambridge drive-by handoff to the Fellows of Harvard College, I saw how the new expectations of parents and these structured orientations made this moment possible: a ceremony saluting the shift in our roles as upbringers-in-chief to a new, less-enmeshed relationship with our children. I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that came over me as Javier walked past. It was a closure I never saw coming.