My College:
Family Life

Hang on for the Freshman Year Roller Coaster!

Shari Bender

Imagine your teen’s perfect college freshman year.

A roommate who is their new best friend. A meticulously organized dorm room complete with coordinating sheets from Dormify. Classes taught by world-class professors, and your student’s hard work culminating in a 4.0.

From afar, you watch them masterfully juggle the new social scene while taking full advantage of the vast array of extracurriculars. If this is your last child to fly the nest, you may have visions of skipping off into the sunset relishing the new freedom with grand plans of your own.

Now throw that freshman fantasy right in 
the trash and saddle up for what can be 
one helluva ride.

My first child’s experience was fairly straightforward, but her younger brother’s path was topsy-turvy. Deferred in the early round by his Dream School, he filled out 11 more applications. Regular decisions rolled in. He was waitlisted at Dream School.

He committed to another lovely college and made it Instagram official. Two weeks later his cell phone buzzed. Just like that he was off the wait list at Dream School, #1 in his chosen field of study! Amazing right? Not so fast. He was offered a spot as a Spring admit — meaning he would start a full semester after his peers, in January in freezing upstate New York. He decided to take the offer and start his college career at community college while living at home.

Starting college after 95% of your class is difficult, but my son found his peeps and settled in. Then, Week 7 of freshman year, COVID-19 rumblings began. Was a campus closure imminent? Week 8 resulted in 48 hours’ notice to vacate. Eight short weeks after my son started his away college journey, he was back in his childhood room for the remainder of the online semester.

I have learned much during five years of college parenting and would like to share some nuggets of wisdom that should apply no matter what 2020–2021 has in store.

Expect a Roller Coaster 
of Emotions

One day you are relishing your newfound parental freedom by seeing a Journey cover band on a Tuesday night, and the next day you’re sobbing on your child’s bed missing them and all their teenage angst.

One day your student is so happy at school they vow never to return home again. Next day same student texts that they miss you and asks when you’re coming to visit.

Two days that pass without even a peep from your college freshman feels like an eternity, and when they finally answer at 2 a.m. they tell you “all good, but can you send some granola bars?” The next time you hear from your teen, they call in sheer panic about an anticipated failing grade.

Respect Boundaries

The adjustment for both of you takes time. Stay in regular contact via text, and learn to schedule calls. Respect your student’s boundaries and understand their time constraints.

Encourage but don’t smother your student. Ask pointed questions about a class. Instead of “How’s financial accounting going?” (likely to elicit a one-word response like “terrible”), ask “What’s the hardest thing about financial accounting?” Remind your student to reach out to professors during office hours and take advantage of TAs before an issue arises.

Create a First Aid Kit

Remember when your little one started pre-school or kindergarten and immediately got sick constantly? Likely your freshman will come down with run-of-the-mill colds and stomach bugs. A thermometer and basic over-the-counter meds (with written explanations) are a must. Make sure your freshman also knows where the student health center is and how to access care 
after hours. This is especially important during a pandemic.

Other Basic Must-Haves?

  • Shower shoes. Trust me — you do not want your child stepping into a dorm shower without proper footwear.
  • Tool kit. Just because they don’t know how to use a hammer doesn’t mean they won’t need one. Screwdrivers in a few sizes are also nice to have on hand (especially the tiny ones for electronics).
  • Hand sanitizer. Find ones that hang from a backpack, and ones that pump or spray — kids will use it more if it’s easier.
  • Water filtration pitcher. Eliminate the expense and waste of the plastic water bottle.
  • Step stool. Even if your child is on the basketball team, a step stool will come in handy.
  • Masks. Washable as well as disposable ones.

College during COVID-19 does look different.

But what remains the same is this is a time in your child’s life for them to grow and learn exponentially and navigate the new normal on their own.

Surrender to the process. They may struggle to make friends, meet the love of their life, fail a class or choose a major you never even knew existed. It is their journey, and our job as parents is to support and help guide them.

And of course, don’t forget to take the prerequisite parent-child selfie and the defining college-freshman-on-bed pic. 
You got this!

Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University and freelances all things Communication and Marketing. She is a cat-loving spiritual vegan and former admissions interviewer. With two grown children, Shari is happily and sentimentally embracing her Empty Nest along with her husband of nearly 30 years. Her musings delight parents in numerous publications and online platforms, including CollegiateParent and Grown & Flown.
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