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When Pandemic Life Gives You Lemons, You Take ThemShari Bender
As I trudged into the auditorium, sleep-deprived and a few cups of coffee short of a full attention span, I couldn’t help wondering why I’d agreed to attend another freshman orientation.
Granted my youngest was going to a different school than his older brother, but one glance at the two-day itinerary and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to hear anything I hadn’t heard before. Except maybe the school fight song and, to be honest, 8 a.m. is way too early for that kind of enthusiasm.
I didn’t have to go — orientation was mandatory for him, not me — and yet I felt that I needed to be there, if only to alleviate the feelings of maternal guilt I’d certainly suffer if I skipped it. And that’s how I came to be sitting in a crowd of strangers, scanning the list of activities and plotting my escape.
But then a funny thing happened. I actually became engaged in the programming (okay, not every single thing — it’s hard to get really excited about a college cafeteria salad bar — but most of it). The speakers were funny and engaging and clearly dedicated to the university and its students. My son chose the school in part because of the people he met during his previous visits. He told me that everyone seemed really happy to be there and now I was seeing this first hand. Of course, the orientation staff is supposed to be upbeat and energetic but still, knowing he’d be somewhere with such a positive campus culture made me feel better about his journey.
Discussions about student responsibilities, the do’s and don’ts of residence hall life, and how every student should get involved always sound the same but move-in day procedures, a change to the core curriculum, and the study abroad program for sophomore year were all news to me. Big universities operate differently than small colleges; urban campus environments present different considerations from rural or small town locales. And so on!
Sure, you know the best boutique shops that you visited with your older daughter, and you're familiar with how her engineering program works. But what if your younger daughter is more footballer than fashionista, and plans to major in the humanities? This orientation will give you a chance to explore the parts of campus and town that your younger student is interested in.
The first orientation I attended I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I just tried to absorb the information being presented and figured I could always look things up later. This time I knew to ask about health center hours and whether studying abroad counted towards fulfilling one of the new core curriculum classes.
Already taken the fifty-cent tour on the first campus visit? This time go off the grid and track down the nearest Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond for move-in day or find a convenient urgent care office for those weekends when your student’s pretty sure they have strep throat but the campus health center is closed. These are things your student won’t hear about (or at least not remember) from their own orientation.
The parents of students who’ll study and live with your daughter or son, and also potentially parents who live nearby and could become a resource for you in an emergency. If you're really lucky you'll meet someone whose older children have attended the same school and can give you the straight dope about the mice in the dorms, where your student should store their stuff at the end of the year, or when your student needs to buy football tickets.
For some students, going to college will mark the first time they travel alone. The orientation trip that you take together is a chance to pass on your knowledge of getting through airport security quickly, dealing with parking in a big city, and navigating a new city’s transportation system. Sit back and let your student take the lead so the one time they end up in Brooklyn instead of Midtown they’ll be with someone who can help them decipher the subway map.
The timing of summer orientation programs isn’t ideal for many families. It often requires time off from work, securing childcare for younger siblings, and the expense of travel and an overnight stay. Some schools with summer orientation programs also have the option of attending right before school starts; there are even universities that offer touring orientation in a city near you. Check the college website or call the admissions office for more information.
In hindsight, I’m truly glad I tagged along. No, I didn’t spend as much time with my son as I wanted, but I met other parents I really liked, gathered some important intel about matters my son didn’t think to ask about, and got a detailed and enthusiastic debrief from him during our lunch in the airport — and that alone was worth the price of the plane ticket.