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College orientation has parents anxious

With the start of college still five weeks out, Laura Meadows already was feeling the pangs of departure. Her only son, Dustin, was eager to begin his studies in accounting at Niagara University. Laura Meadows dabbed her eyes just thinking about it, as she sat inside the university’s gymnasium. “Next month will be even harder,” she said, mustering a smile to hold back tears.

Meadows recently drove 12 hours with her son and husband, Randy, from Danville, Va., near the North Carolina border, for freshmen orientation on this scenic campus along the Niagara Gorge. Drugs, alcohol, sex, money – all of the typical worries of parents sending their children to college surfaced during the two-day session.

And yet, in the weeks before the start of the fall semester, what most often keeps parents of incoming freshmen awake at night are the thoughts of letting go. “It’s scary to know he’s going to be that far away,” Laura Meadows said.

Parents always have struggled with leaving their kids behind for the first time at a far-flung campus. But college administrators say the emotional transition has become fraught with new complexities as parent-child relationships have evolved. The current generation of parents of college-age children has been more entangled than ever in the lives of their children, and in particular the education of their children. And while the intense involvement may have helped children succeed in elementary and high school, college is a whole different ball game. Well-meaning parents often end up hindering their kids’ academic progress by meddling too much, college administrators say.

To help them adjust, more colleges and universities across the country are asking parents to join their sons and daughters at orientation, but in separate “parents only” sessions that run at parallel times on campus. The sessions for parents cover everything from food to financial aid, and, most importantly – how crucial it is for them to let their children take control of their own educations. It’s all part of the increasing emphasis many colleges and universities are putting on orientation.

University at Buffalo administrators like to use the analogy of a tandem bike to explain what’s happening as a son or daughter transitions to college. Through elementary, middle and high school, parents were seated at the front of the bike, steering it toward one path or another, braking to avoid obstacles and determining how fast or show they should go. As the child grows older, he or she contributes more and more pedal power from the back seat.

“The point of orientation sort of represents the switching of seats. Ultimately the student is in the driver’s seat at this point,” said Matthew Weigand, UB’s director of orientation, transition and parent programs.

“Our message is the students should be in charge. We want them to make their own decisions.”

Parents have seemed eager to participate, even as many of them express trepidation about what was to come. “This is going to be the first time being away from each other,” said Crystal Hathaway of Syracuse, whose daughter, Jameshia Williams, will be studying criminal justice at Niagara University. “It’s right around the corner. I’ve been tearing up, but I’m trying to hold it together. She’s more ready than I am.”

Leslie Mursuli of Lockport was grateful her daughter, Kelsey, decided to stay close to home by choosing Niagara. Kelsey had been considering the University of Kentucky, more than 400 miles away, and located in the heart of urban Lexington.

“Of course it’s cool if you’re 18. It’s terrifying if you’re a parent,” said Mursuli. “I’m OK with her going away to school, but closer is better.” No matter how close the college, though, concerns linger. Mursuli worries that she “did a little bit too much” for her daughter over the years and that Kelsey might not be ready for the responsibility that comes with the independence of living away from home.

“It’s a little scary today, I can’t lie,” she said. “Eighteen is young, I think, to go out on your own.”

Andrew Hoke looks comfortably at home in Bert’s dining hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus, gobbling a soft-shelled taco smothered in sour cream. He’s wearing a UB sweatshirt and shorts and has bright blue eyes and fair skin that’s pink from the previous afternoon in the sun.

Hoke graduated in June from tiny Webutuck High School in Amenia, valedictorian of a class of 39 students, a hundredth of the size of the incoming freshman class at UB. He says he’s ready to prove himself beyond the confines of his small hometown. Hoke credits his mother and father for pushing him to succeed academically back at home. He knows he’ll be on his own at UB. “It’s like a clean slate. Where I come from, everyone knows everything about you,” he says.

Hoke will be the first child in the family to leave home, and he smiles when asked how his parents are handling his pending departure. He describes them as “a little clingy” and recounts a story about them dropping him off at UB for orientation. They decided to skip parent orientation and head to Niagara Falls instead, says Hoke. But then they didn’t go anywhere. “They were sticking around, looking around. I was like, ‘OK, guys, time to leave,’ ” says Hoke, who will be studying biomedical engineering.

After they departed, Hoke’s cellphone began buzzing regularly. “I’ve been getting a lot of texts: ‘How’s it going? How’s the food? Are the teachers nice?’ ” he says. “Kind of what I feared.” Hoke sees a potential advantage, though, in watching this unfold during orientation. “Maybe I’ll get lucky,” he says, “and they’ll get it out of the system now.”

Of course, not all parents are as anxious about watching their sons and daughters fly the coop – or they’re just good at masking it. “Who’s going to take care of our cellphones and electronic devices?” Margie Suga of Manhasset said with a laugh. “That’s our biggest concern.” And yet, moments later, Suga confided that she was comfortable with her son, Brian, being so far away at UB because it really wasn’t so far – just a 90-minute flight. “He can get home quick. That’s key,” she said.

Under a lunch-hour July sun, UB student orientation leaders Ruby Anderson and Josiah Kachelmeyer organize two dozen incoming freshmen in a circle on the lawn outside Jacobs Management Center on UB’s North Campus in Amherst. The new students sit crossed-legged and nibble at turkey and cheddar and grilled vegetable wraps, while Anderson and Kachelmeyer introduce a silly ice-breaker game, “Two Truths and A Lie.” The lawn game was just the beginning of a running conversation over two days, but it highlighted how crucial students have become in helping incoming freshmen transition from high school to college.

Years ago, student orientation leaders largely served as tour guides, ushering incoming freshmen around campus to pick up student IDs, register for classes and hear from administrators about policies and procedures. Now, the student leaders are the primary face of the college or university. They plan social activities and other events. They’re trained to ease conversations with incoming freshmen on some of the thorniest issues on campus, including alcohol and drug use, social media use and what constitutes consent during sex.

Under growing pressure to make sure students graduate within four years, many colleges and universities are paying closer attention to orientation’s role in getting students off to a good start. And technology has helped institutions refine their orientation programs. Course registration, for example, used to mean hours of waiting in line during orientation. Incoming freshmen now register online prior to orientation. “We can focus on what it takes to be successful at UB,” said Weigand of UB.

Niagara overhauled its orientation program about four years ago in an effort to better connect with students and their parents. The university dispensed with operational tasks such as testing students for math and writing skills, in favor of activities that help students learn more about each other, as well as university faculty and staff.

“The research shows that the student’s ability to be successful directly correlates to their ability to connect to the institution,” said Kevin Hearn, vice president at Niagara. It’s difficult for the university to make that vital connection if parents stand in the way by doing too much for their kids, he added.

In a gentlemanly Southern drawl, Randy Meadows jokes that he’s going to miss “hollerin’ ” at his son. He knows the adjustment won’t be easy.

“I think what we’ll find ourselves doing is going in his room and sitting and looking around,” he says.

Laura Meadows will miss hearing her son say, “Momma, fix me something to eat.” Gradually, they’ll get used to not having him around.

“To give them wings,” she said, “you’ve got to let them go.”