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7 Things I Wish I Knew My Student's Freshman Year

Deborah Porter

Photo of the author and her family by Lauren Cowart Photography

When our oldest decided to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (over 600 miles from home), we were excited and proud about this new beginning for her. At that point, our biggest issue was getting all of her belongings into one car and then into one half of a dorm room.

Those four years went by quickly. She filled them with being an RA, tutoring elementary school children, internships, assisting professors, friendships and much more. As her dad and I (along with 30+ family members) stood in the stadium and listened for her name to be called, I realized that there were many things I stressed over, lost sleep around and ran down the proverbial rabbit hole about.

During this time of COVID-19, there are things that parents are both concerned and anxious about. Universities are continually gathering data while keeping parents and students abreast of ever changing information. Administrations are creating new procedures and processes on campuses everywhere to keep students safe, as best they can.

The tips listed in this article can save you sleepless nights and endless Google searches when your child comes to you with a change of heart (or major), an extravagant bill for textbooks (or a spring break trip) or a roommate dilemma.

1. Changing their major is not the end of the world.

This happened with two of our three children and the first thought was, “How much longer is this going to take?!”

Surprisingly, they each still finished in four years because they made the change before completing 60 credit hours. That’s an important point to keep in mind.

There are a few other things your student should consider before changing their major. If they have a scholarship, what are the stipulations of that scholarship? Was is granted based on the declared major? Is it time sensitive (good for four years only)? We made the investment in our children and their undergraduate degree with the understanding they had to finish in four years, no exceptions. Having the option to complete your undergraduate degree debt free proved to be a great motivator for each of them.

Encourage your student to take electives in areas they have an interest. Why? If they are unable to change their major without great impact on the things mentioned above, perhaps they can minor in that newfound “passion.” Or, if they have already taken several classes in that department or school, it may be possible to minor in what their original major was. For example, one of our children applied to the Business School but because of how competitive it was, he didn’t get in. No worries — it was an easy switch to major in statistics because of the core business classes completed.

Here’s the take away: do not stress over it. Knowing at 18 years old exactly what you want to do for a 25-year career is highly unlikely. Encouraging your student to explore other interests with electives is a great way to help them find not only their passion but hone skills that they are already good at.

2. Don’t buy books from the campus bookstore.

Amazon, Chegg, Slugbooks and Half Price Books are sites for discounted university textbooks. It is worth the time to have your student do a little bargain hunting.

Also, consider renting textbooks, especially for classes that are not in their major. We discovered this option when my oldest son was at the University of Virginia and it felt like we struck gold. Your student can also sell new textbooks back to the university but will only get a fraction of what was paid for them.

Final point on books — while my youngest son was a student at Villanova University, one of the student centers had a small library of textbooks available for students to check out and borrow for the semester. This by far was the best option in avoiding overpriced textbooks. Encourage your student to research and ask upperclassmen where to find textbooks at good prices. Read here to learn more about the best places to buy college textbooks online.

3. Get access to your student’s university account information before they leave home.

Margaret Coleman of New York and mother of four reminds us that once our students arrive on campus they are considered adults:

There were graduation fees as well as insuring that all requirements were met academically. Most parents don’t receive notification until the last semester of senior year, which can be way too late. If you don’t have that type of openness with your child, a lot of things will catch you unaware. It helped that with our children we were afforded access to their accounts during undergrad so we could monitor academic and financial information.

In other words, you have no access to your student's university account information unless they grant you permission (at some schools written permission is required), and it is much easier to have them sign and submit that form before leaving your home.

My husband and I considered our willingness to pay for our children's college education as an investment and we needed to see how that investment was performing over time. There are a few schools of thoughts on this. Some parents do not want access to this account at all. Others want access to the tuition bill only, while others reach an agreement with their students that they will have full access including visibility to their student's grades.

A bit of both worlds would include having access for the reasons that Margaret mentioned. And keep in mind, this includes your student's medical information, deadlines for payments, graduation fees and other things you don’t yet know about.

4. No credit cards or excessive loans.

This should be the topic of ongoing conversations that you’re having with your student well before they have a shiny new Frisbee offered to them in exchange for all of their personal information for their very own 20% interest credit card.

The other wolf in sheep's clothing is the lure of student loans in amounts that exceed their educational costs. I cannot tell you how many parents I’ve talked with whose students borrowed $10K or more over the amount needed for school to be able to live it up a little. When those chickens come home to roost, the lived experience never equals the monthly payment.

5. Consider which meal plan they really need.

If your child is a big eater, you may assume they need the max plan. However, most students do not eat three meals a day. It is true that most if not all universities will require some type of meal plan for your freshman student. However, as Farran Powell wrote in U.S. News and World Report, “With the way schools structure dining card plans, students and their families can often lose money on unused meals.”

So before picking the unlimited plan, have your student verify if unused meals transfer to the next semester. Try out a plan for the semester then check how many swipes your student actually used. Warning, you’ll need to take care of #3 to do that.

Be sure to adhere to any deadlines for changing meal plans for the next semester. With some meal plans costing up to $15 per swipe, maybe that bowl of cereal can be enjoyed in their dorm room before heading out to class for a fraction of the cost. Most universities allow you to rent (if you haven’t already purchased) refrigerator/microwave combos.

6. Prepare together for how to have a difficult conversation.

There will be situations where your student will either have to speak up for themselves or confront someone because of behavior, something that was said or a grade they may not agree with. Hopefully, your student has exercised this habit at home and also witnessed you having to do this as well over the years.

But in any event, there will come a time when they have to confront a roommate, talk with a professor, teammate, coach, this list can go on and on. Share with your student how to approach people with a level of respect and openness that others will want to reciprocate as the conversation ensues. Help your student understand how to pick their battles, especially if the conversation has to be had with a roommate.

7. Don’t pull the trigger for weekend home visits too quickly.

Prepare yourself now for a little bit of homesickness that your student is bound to feel. Even the outgoing “never met a stranger” kid may experience it. Downplay their urge to come home for quick boomerang visits on weekends. In Psychology Today, Dr. Dana S. Dunn said this:

The first few weeks of college are a crucial time. Students need to make friends and to learn to make friends during the first few weeks of college. If they head home every weekend 'to do laundry' (a common excuse) they will miss out on campus events, spontaneous gatherings on their dorm hall, and the like. This doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re not around to be invited to social gatherings at the start, later, when you are, you won’t likely be included.

In time, they will find their people. But they need to be there to do it.

In the midst of the emotions, tears and all the feelings that come with having your student leave home, keep the goal in mind. Although these four years will go by quickly, it’s a marathon as opposed to a sprint. Your student is discovering things about themselves that may not have been uncovered while at home.

Additionally, you will begin to uncover things about yourself as a parent. Parenting adults is very different from parenting children. Begin making the transition early. It will allow for a smooth progression into a healthy relationship with your young adult.

Deborah Porter is a Home/Life Balance Coach for dedicated moms who need home management systems and a routine self-care regimen that goes beyond a good mani/pedi. She believes that the woman you were before having kids still matters. Deborah is a regular contributor to Virginia This Morning on WTVR. She and her husband have three adult children. Download her free ebook, "7 Habits of Confident Moms," at or email her, [email protected]
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Sabrina Washington
Sabrina Washington
1 year ago

Absolutely The Best... Wife, Mom, Sister Friend and RESOURCE QUEEN of Queens Extraordinaire! Lists, systems, investigator, coach and all. Great tips shared in this article. Thanks for being a gem to all the Moms! Keep letting God use you Sis. Blessings upon blessings.

Teraza Twiggs
Teraza Twiggs
1 year ago

Deborah, I can't begin to tell you how much this article helped calm my anxious heart as my daughter rolls into her Sr. year of high school. We are beginning the transitioning process of getting her ready for college next year. Thanks for your encouragement, and for sharing some tid bits that I will definitely be using! Many blessings!!!!

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