First, they get wound up at a welcome ceremony. Then, they meet a few professors. Later, in the library, they discuss a novel.
They are not new college students. These days, college orientation has a new audience: parents.
Officials at Macalester College in St. Paul witnessed parents sneaking into book discussions meant for students, standing in the back of their child's first class and hovering long after they should have left. So they assigned parents the same "common reading" as their children, created parent-only sample classes and suggested a "family farewell" at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Confronted with a generation of highly engaged parents, colleges and universities across the country are finding new ways to involve them in the transition -- then remind them that separation is a good thing.
"It's a generalization, but this generation is pretty much Velcro-ed at the hip," said Laurie Hamre, Macalester's vice president of student affairs. Parents wanted to know more about college life, professors and resources, she said.
"Why fight that? So we made opportunities for them to learn those things -- but made them separate."
Hamline University, Lake Superior College and the University of Minnesota, among others, have upped their programming for parents of incoming freshmen. At the U, the maroon-and-gold student orientation guide flips over to a mirror schedule for parents. Included is advice from students ("Make sure to call before popping in for a surprise visit") and optional activities (including a nighttime trolley tour of Minneapolis).
Parents John and Jan Lee rode the trolley during the U's orientation, attended seminars on paying tuition while at Welcome Week and "got plenty of lectures on sex, drugs and alcohol" throughout, John said, laughing.
They appreciated the attention, the Grand Forks, N.D., couple said, and the information eased some of their worries.
"This is a pretty big school for someone from a town of 50,000 people," John Lee said.
The barrage of dates, departments and activities is meant to assure parents that their students are in good hands and to provide them -- their children's trusted advisers -- with information colleges hope they will pass along.
Era of instant communication
The Lees frequently text and call their son, Mathew, but are "really not helicopter parents," said Mathew, who's starting at the U's Carlson School of Management.
Experts agree that few parents deserve the hyped label of "helicopter parents" who hover near their offspring constantly. But most warrant a different one: "the iConnected Parent." Authors of a new book by that name use the term to describe "a culture of parents deeply involved in their children's lives, even as they approach adulthood, that uses the technology of instant community to enhance their connection."
"Perhaps nowhere is this trend more evident than on campus," Barbara Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore continue, "where parents and kids once separated."
A few years back, a mother called Hamre, upset that her daughter was being treated unfairly in a class. As they spoke, Hamre used her computer to figure out which class this might be. She realized, looking at the student's schedule, that the student was still sitting in the class in question.
"She had texted her mother and her mother had called me, all while she was still in class," Hamre said. Later that day, she received a similar call from a mother who had been similarly contacted.
She decided to survey freshmen women about how often they communicated with family members. The answer? An average of nine times a day.
"That has kind of been the base of how we think about reaching out to parents to provide information," she said. "When I was in school, I called home every Sunday night and maybe once in a while when I needed money.
"Those days are long gone."
OK by students
Students welcome the involvement -- a surprise to some college folks.
At Winona State University, students can sign a form to give parents access to information, such as grades, otherwise deemed private by federal law. Although she doesn't have hard numbers, Barbara Oertel, Winona's director of advising services, said that in the past few years, "many, many more students are signing that form." The University of Minnesota and others have seen a similar trend.
That and other clues taught staff to "accept the fact that we can't just cut parents out of the process," Oertel said. "Students want Mom and Dad to weigh in."
Winona State now offers parent programming during summer registration days, including a session called "Let the Journey Begin: Parent and Student Separation."
"We encourage them to think of having a different kind of relationship," she said. "Coaching from a distance, while still allowing the student to be independent."
The Lees have tried to keep that balance. "When I was in college," John Lee said, "if you were going to call somebody, you had to go downstairs, find a phone, wait for the phone. ... It was a real rigmarole.
"Now, you can text anytime, anywhere and just ask, 'How's it going?'"
Easing the split
Some schools on the East Coast have recently established dramatic parting ceremonies that end orientation and move-in days, but in true Minnesota style, most local schools shyly suggest to parents a time to leave.
Wednesday afternoon, the University of Minnesota lured John and Jan Lee to Coffman Memorial Union for a ceremony for parents and, importantly, away from their 18-year-old son, Mathew.
That gave Mathew time to roam the halls of his new residence hall with his roommate, meeting neighbors.
"Everyone's really friendly and outgoing," he said. "We all want to get to know each other."
Marjorie Savage, director of the University Parent Program, said this time apart is scheduled intentionally, and students, needing something to focus on, tend to be "very productive with it."
"When parents go back and see that they're doing just fine, it helps make things a little easier," she said.
The Lees returned to Mathew's residence hall after their event and found him happy and half-finished unpacking. They kept things brief, and exchanged hugs. Later, they texted.
"Jan didn't cry, so we were good," John Lee said. "She got to make his bed and fill the refrigerator."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168