Shortly after Holly Birkeland returned from taking her oldest son, Alek, to college at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, she, her husband, and their two younger children were visiting the Minnesota State Fair, an annual family tradition. "We called Alek on our cell phone from the Fair to tell him all about it," says Birkeland. "He said he'd just been on a hike and seen a mountain lion."
Sending your first child to college might feel a little like throwing him or her to the lions, but in truth, it's more like allowing them to make their own way and have new, independent experiences. Along the way, there are adjustments all family members will make: Your student might be out of sight more than ever before, but he or she definitely won't be out of mind.
Birkeland, who lives in Minnetonka, says Alek's absence definitely created a different dynamic in the household. "After how hectic his senior year in high school was, with all the decisions to make about college and all the social activities, what I really noticed at first was how quiet it was," she says. When Alek left in 2003, Birkeland's son Hans was in eighth grade and daughter Berit in fifth. "They seemed to adjust well to his being gone," she says. One of the biggest surprises came when Alek returned for Thanksgiving break. "The three of them stayed up really late, just talking on their own," she says. "That's something they had never really done before."
The Birkeland family's experience is fairly typical, according to Marjorie Savage, Parent Program director at the University of Minnesota and author of the book, You're On Your Own (But I'm Here if You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years. "During our parent orientations each year, we always explain that the dynamics of the family really do change when a child leaves for college," she says. The younger the siblings are when an older brother or sister leaves, the more likely they are to genuinely miss him or her. "In their eyes, the oldest sibling is like a king," Savage says.
Relationships among siblings may be redefined when one goes away to school. Siblings still at home can help the college student maintain links to high school life. Birkeland says it was Alek who taught his
sister, Berit, how to do instant messaging, and they used it frequently when he was in New Mexico.
No matter where your child goes away to college-even if it's just a few miles away-most parents can expect increased communication, especially during those first few weeks of school. "We surveyed
parents in 2004 and found that only 5 percent said they were in touch with their student less than once a week," says Savage. "Over 20 percent said they were in touch on a daily basis."
Along with communication can come homesickness, but as much as students-and occasionally parents-might want it, Savage says it's not advisable for students to come home often, especially during the first semester. "They need to stay on campus and make connections," she explains, saying that frequents trips home might tempt them to hang out too much with younger high school friends or to remain in the "comfort zone" that home so readily provides.
That's not to say your college student shouldn't see you occasionally. "Students love to have their parents come and take them out for a meal or meet their friends," says Savage. "They like to show their
families around. They can demonstrate they are becoming more independent." Most colleges hold family events or parents' weekends, which provide another opportunity for parents to experience a little taste of their student's campus life.
While the first few weeks of college might have a few rough spots for both students and parents, Savage says it's all worth it. "There is nothing quite so amazing as watching your child navigate through this new phase of their lives," she says.
You're On Your Own
(But I'm Here if You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years
by Marjorie Savage
Simon and Schuster
$13.00, paperback, ISBN: 0-7432-2912-6