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Navigating Student Privacy Within FERPADavid Tuttle
When I decided to move across the country for college, the last thing on my mind was how I would talk to my parents. I was excited about the start of a new chapter far away from everything, and everyone, I had known before.
But when the time came to say goodbye to my family, I was suddenly aware of how bizarre and lonely it would be not to see them every day. The first few weeks, I found myself reaching out often to my parents and siblings. I felt that I needed to process my new environment with them — my successes, the things that were exciting to me, and the experiences that I was nervous about.
However, as I settled into my routine and solidified new friendships, my parents heard from me less and less. A few weeks would go by and I'd only be reminded to call my mom when I received a panicked “you alive??” text.
In the years that have followed, it’s sometimes been difficult to balance my connection with loved ones back home with my life on campus. Time differences and busy schedules make it challenging to form and maintain a strategy for regular communication.
I’ve often lamented my failure to make a plan for staying connected with my parents before I left home. This semester, I’m determined to do the planning I’ve avoided before and have compiled a list of tips and tricks I wish my parents and I had known years ago.
Through trial and error, my family and I have worked out the types and frequency of communication which work for us.
For example, I appreciate getting updates about my mom’s garden, but there are only so many photos of tomato seedlings I can reply to on a Friday night. Now she knows that, if I don’t reply to a text message, we can discuss her fertilizing strategies the next time we talk on the phone.
To avoid hurt feelings or communication overload, both of which can lead to radio silence, parents and students should communicate before students leave home about how, how often, and about what they would like to connect. During this conversation, make sure there’s space for both parties to negotiate if a request is too demanding so that the final plan serves everyone.
Dealing with a family emergency while separated by thousands of miles is a situation that can be packed with stress and uncertainty. While one of my good friends was away at school, her parents, wary of distracting her in the midst of finals, elected to wait to tell her some sad news. When she went home, she had to process her feelings about their secrecy as well as her grief. She would have much preferred that they had given her a call, but they didn’t know because they hadn’t ever planned for that situation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to talk ahead of time about what to do if there is a public health emergency that requires a campus closure and/or big lifestyle changes. We're also coping nationwide with an increase in extreme weather events (flood, fire, heat and more) that can impact campuses.
For all these reasons, it's more important than ever to talk through a variety of scenarios and make a plan for communicating with your student about crisis, illness, and loss if this arises during their time on campus.
Dealing with tragedy can be especially difficult for students separated from their familial support networks, which is why it’s so important that they are contacted on their terms. Make sure to ask your student if, when, and how they would like to be notified of information that may not be easy to receive.
Learn more about how to help if your student is struggling with grief >
Tips for preparing for emergencies on campus >
Although I recommend that you make a plan for communication, this plan should include an understanding of flexibility. We’ve all been reminded by the pandemic that our lives can be suddenly interrupted, and some weeks it might be healthiest to amend your original blueprint and opt for more or less communication than originally planned.
For many of my peers, a strict weekly call with their families has ended up feeling more like an unwanted obligation than an expression of love and care. Plan to check in with your student periodically to make sure that everyone is still feeling satisfied and supported, and ask them about any especially busy times that they can already anticipate in the coming semester.
Calling, video chatting, and texting are easier than ever before, but this doesn’t mean those are the only ways to stay connected while separated. Once for a few months, my dad emailed me a poem every day. Sometimes they came from poets he loved and wanted to share with me, but most often they were poems that he wrote himself. It was a fun way to bond through a shared interest, and I loved getting an insight into what his life was like at home.
Although it may take a little longer, physical mail is a great way to stay in touch. My friends and I all display artwork, postcards, or handwritten letters from our families on our dorm room walls. These little tokens are great reminders that we’re loved and supported — as well as visual reminders to give our loved ones a call.
The support I’ve received from my family during my college years has been invaluable. I’m hoping that all of the mistakes and triumphs I have made will help my family, and yours, stay connected in the year ahead.