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Family Life

Parent-to-Parent Advice for the College Transition

Amy Baldwin, Ed.D.

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My son’s university is 30 minutes away. He could easily commute from home but from the get-go made it clear he wanted to live on campus his first year. His dad and I supported this choice (even though I’m pretty sure it was mostly about the “all-you-can-eat” dining hall options). And now it’s happening — Fall 2020 is here!

Although campus life will look very different this year, freshmen will face all the usual challenges as they navigate their new independence and responsibilities. Here’s how you can help!

Communicate Expectations

This is a tried and true tip. The more you and your student set clear expectations, the easier time they’ll have when they need to make decisions on their own.

Do you expect them to call or text regularly? You may ask that they check in at a certain day or time of the week. You may also ask them to let you know immediately if they 
are sick.

Do you expect them to let you know if they have a problem that they cannot manage? You may ask them to share what they’re doing to deal with challenges, or request that they ask you for help when they’re unsure what they should do next.

One discussion I’ve had with my own son is the “Don’t be afraid to tell me you are failing” conversation. This included subtopics like “How can you tell if you are failing?” and “What resources are available if you struggle in class?” As an educator, I know that he’ll have at least one challenging course this year, and I want the lines of communication wide open when it happens. He knows there will be no judgment, no shame, just support and advice (if he wants it).

Remind Them of Their Resources

Campus resources range from academic services, like tutoring, to health services, such as screenings and counseling. Grab that brochure, watch that informational video, and scour the website to learn more about what’s available. Then talk about these resources with your student as though they’re a normal and necessary part of every college student’s existence (because they are).

Here are a few ways to do this:

  • “Remember, if you’re not sure how to complete an assignment, visit with your professor. Upperclassmen do this all 
the time.”
  • “If you don’t feel well, make an online appointment at the health clinic so you can be seen immediately. Don’t wait until you 
feel worse.”
  • “Stop by the tutoring center in the first few weeks and find a tutor who can help you with your courses. If you don’t need the tutor after all, you can use that time to study on your own.”

Take a Step Back

This suggestion has never been easy for some of us, and may be even harder knowing that there’s a lot at stake in how we manage our habits, behaviors and choices during 
this pandemic.

Stepping back doesn’t mean stepping out of the picture entirely. It means watching, waiting and encouraging your student to handle issues themselves first.

This is especially true when it comes to your student’s courses. A call to the department chair or email to the professor will not go over well — and possibly run afoul of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). I’ve talked with students who were mortified that a parent had called me to ask about their grades. This tactic can undermine the progress your student is making in learning how to advocate for themselves.

Instead, coach your student on what to say and when to say it. As hard as it may seem, it’s better for them in the long run if they stumble a bit and pick themselves back up. Notice I didn’t say that it may be better for them to fall off a cliff. Of course, when extreme situations call for it, stepping in to help is appropriate.

Stay Flexible

As I write this shortly before students return to campus, I realize that things can still change. My son may have to commute after all. He may have to wait another year to get the “real” college experience. Adjusting my expectations and remaining flexible is really the only way to get through this...but I really am hoping I don’t have to turn my kitchen into an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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Amy Baldwin, Ed.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Student Transitions department at the University of Central Arkansas. She is co-author of "A High School Parent's Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials" and lead author of "College Success" (OpenStax), a free online student success book. Amy and her husband are parents of a college graduate and a current student. She blogs at
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