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Empty Nest 101: College orientation for parents

Call it Empty Nesting 101: Colleges around the country are holding orientations for families of incoming freshmen. But these are not simple "Meet the Dean" receptions held the day before school starts. These are elaborate two- and three-day events, often held on midsummer weekdays, requiring parents to take time off from work and pay $70 or $80 in addition to lodging, food and travel expenses.

They're packed with workshops, tours and speeches on subjects ranging from letting go to campus safety. Reed College in Portland, Ore., even invites parents to read "The Odyssey" and attend a lecture and discussion similar to what their kids will experience in a freshman humanities course.

You might think parents facing massive tuition bills would balk at more demands on their budget and time. But many colleges report that well over half their freshmen have family in attendance at these events, and lots of parents think the orientations are the greatest thing since "What To Expect When You're Expecting."

"What I've heard across the country from parents is that these events are marked on their calendar with a big red heart," said Natalie Caine, who counsels parents through her business, Empty Nest Support Services in Los Angeles. "They'll pay the airfare, they'll go into debt to attend parent orientation if they have to. They're worriers. They say, 'I need to go. I need to see what it's like. '"

Kristine Goodwin, associate dean for student life at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., says the orientations try to show parents that the school is on their side: "Don't we both want to prepare the student for independent living?"

Holy Cross also warns parents that kids may call home in the first few weeks saying they're unhappy. "They don't have emotional support yet," Goodwin said. "Your job is not to overreact. Don't panic! They're just venting."

At Northern Michigan University in Marquette, parents get to hear exactly what those desperate calls sound like. The school plays tapes during the parent orientation of upperclassmen recreating actual calls they made home. One girl tells mom and dad she'll be spending Thanksgiving with her new boyfriend instead of her family. In another call, a boy confesses that he's not doing well in school, and P.S., he's in trouble for alcohol violations. A third call is from a student who's homesick and lonely.

"The girl's voice in the homesick tape makes many parents cry every time we do it," said Christine Greer, dean of students at NMU. The tapes were made some years ago, but "the issues haven't changed - independence, breaking rules, not doing well in classes, homesickness. They are still things that parents worry about, and students deal with, every year."

Parents only hear the kid's side of the call; they're then asked to imagine their own reactions before being told what really happened: The parents of the girl with the boyfriend let her go to his house for Thanksgiving, and she ended up marrying him. The boy in trouble became a police officer. And the lonely girl became a resident adviser and a teacher; she's now married with three kids.

Steven Hill of Salt Lake City, whose son will be attending NMU this year, said he and his wife Shawn thought the presentations were outstanding. "You can imagine how hard it is for Shawn to see her baby grow up and move so far away from home to go to school," said Hill. "But the orientation was the best thing we could have done for our son and our family. My wife for now is liking the idea that her son chose to go away to college and she feels that he will be in a place that has taken every step to ensure his success."

Some parents say they feel OK about skipping the orientations. Lisa Richards' daughter attended an orientation at Tulane University in New Orleans this summer, but mom stayed home. "We had just been to Tulane the third week of April," said Richards. "We spent two days there and a lot of my questions had already been answered."

Other parents think the events could be more to the point. "A lot of this letting go business - they could condense that before lunch, and then after lunch do the practical stuff," as Morgan Roth put it. Roth loves American University, where her daughter will be a student in the fall, but she thought much of the material in the parent orientation could have been covered in a webinar, and she wished they'd included a session on how to understand the tuition bill instead of one on student nutrition.

Still, the number of family members attending these events at Cleveland State University has tripled in the last five years. At Northeastern University in Boston, "at least 85 percent if not 90 percent of students have parents that also attend our programs," said spokeswoman Katherine Cadwell.

At Indiana State University at Terre Haute, orientations have included "as many as nine family members, including grandparents," said spokesman John Beacon. "We don't mind at all and we enjoy having the whole family participate. We recognize there are lots of helicopter parents. Rather than try to limit their involvement, we embrace it."


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