On my first day of college in 1985, my father drove me to the dorm, helped me unload my suitcase, shook my hand in a properly adult fashion, and drove away.
I remember distinctly that moment, standing there, looking around the dorms, by myself for the first time in my life and thinking, “OK, what next?”
So I did the best thing I could think of – went back to my dorm room, sat on my new bed and ate jelly beans I had brought from home in an old coffee tin.
A day or two later, we newly minted First Year students (no “freshmen” at the University of Virginia) turned out at orientation. It consisted of a whole bunch of clubs with booths outside the gym and a whole bunch of boxes inside the gym where you dropped off your tuition check. That was it – no speeches, no presentations.
Welcome to college, kid; you’re on your own.
Times, as they say, have changed. Dramatically, as it turns out.
My older son doesn’t start classes for more than a month, but already we’ve had two major college events – “Decision Day” back in the spring, where the university put on a day-long show touting its many virtues to convince wavering students to commit, and a full-on two-day orientation this past weekend.
It was a family affair but the students were immediately whisked away, where they were broken into small groups and put through all the essentials of college life. They slept overnight in the dorms, ate in the dining hall, listened to sample lectures, met with faculty and staff from their departments, took placement exams, and signed up for classes under the watchful eye of highly trained advising staff. We caught only fleeting glimpses of them for a full 36 hours.
It was, my son reports, great fun and very informative.
For parents (and a few younger siblings who had been dragged along), the event was somewhat different. After registration, we were led to a lecture hall where we were corralled for most of the next two days, with a tightly scheduled series of presentations on everything we might conceivably need to know, from the history of the university to how our students would manage to do their laundry.
Much of it was interesting and useful, but it was an overwhelming firehose of information. About a quarter of the way through Day One, I looked at the bleakly comprehensive schedule ahead of us and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
As I was beginning to lose hope of surviving through to 5:30 p.m. the next day, however, it dawned on me what was going on.
The perky young orientation staff was desperately trying to keep us busy in order to keep us away from our kids.
It became obvious fairly quickly from the questions our fellow parents were asking that at least some of them had an almost pathological interest in every detail of life their students would experience. There was great angst and murmurs of anger whenever university staff pointed out that our kids are adults now and therefore it is up to each student whether to share grades and other personal information with parents (No more report cards sent home, in other words).
As the parents muttered darkly I realized that many of my fellow parents would happily have followed their kids around every minute of both days of the orientation. We needed to be kept at bay.
I’ll admit I am having a harder time than I expected with sending my kids off into the world, and yet at the same time I am excited for them as they grow. Once they hit college, the story isn’t about us, the parents, anymore, but about them – the kids.
Letting go is hard but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
And after the orientation, I asked my son about how he’d like us to handle move-in day just before classes start. He said he’d be happy if we drove him to the dorm, helped him unload his suitcase, shook his hand in a properly adult fashion, and drove away.