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Message from Dean O'Hara, Dean of New Students
Congratulations on your child's acceptance to Amherst College and welcome to the greater Amherst community. In today's competitive college admissions world, your son or daughter has just won the equivalent of the academic lottery. You are aware, I am sure that this college on the hill is one of the most selective small liberal arts colleges on the planet. This fact however, is in the past, and you are concerned with the future. Be assured that the traits that got your child here will continue to make him or her flourish. Not everything will be easy, not every test will be aced and not every roommate will be a lifelong best friend. Still, after 30 years here, I continue to be amazed at the power of this institution to transform people's lives.
Be forewarned that it is likely to be just a matter of time before you get the "phone call of despair." This call often includes some combination of the: "I can't do it", "I'm not smart enough", " I don't like this place", or "I don't have any friends." Your job as a parent is to listen and sympathize. This anxiety is natural and part of your child's adjustment to Amherst College. Believe me, I speak from experience as the parent of two college students. Most often, if you call back 12 hours later, the situation will have resolved and the outlook will be sunny. Be assured that we have incredible resources available to your child and very, very few students fall through the cracks. Should that not be the case, and should you have real concerns, PLEASE DON'T HESITATE TO CALL US AT 413-542-2336 during 8 AM-4 PM or at 413-542-2291 after hours. If you are anxious about calling, or don't know at what point you should intervene with your child's Dean or alert them to a situation at home, check out the good advice at College Parent Central.
One big change you will have to adjust to is the flow of information. Federal Law prohibits our communicating directly with you or even disclosing information to you about grades, courses, disciplinary actions, or other matters about which you will naturally be very concerned. The intent of FERPA is to make conversations about these issues become family decisions and not institutional ones. Talk with your child and discuss how and when you will share this information. Good guidelines for these discussions can be found online. Again, the best way to get information from your child is to ask them. If I see a student for an academic or a disciplinary action, I will tell them to call you. Occasionally, I will do this from my office so that I know the call has been made and will be there should you have any questions. As much as I sometimes would like it, I cannot call you without your child's permission. There are a few exceptions to this, such as if a life threatening situation occurs of if a student is very young.
As a parent of a college student, you can help your child transition to being a responsible adult by letting him or her negotiate conflict. Refrain from picking up the phone and talking with us about your child's exam conflicts, problems with courses, or need for an extension for their housing. Instead, empower your child by encouraging contact with our office or the appropriate office. I know this is not easy, but it is necessary. My own youngest daughter has a great deal of trouble advocating for herself, and it is sometimes extremely painful to me to not pick up the phone and try to help her resolve her difficulties.
Keeping in touch
Here's the truth, I believe that the adjustments that accompany a first year student's first weeks at College are almost as hard on parents as they are on our children. So, I have advice for you as you adjust to the shift of frequent involvement in their day to day lives to what we hope will be their more independent adult life.
* Don't expect it to be easy on you, either psychologically or emotionally.
When my first daughter left for college, I would sit in her room with her stuffed animals and cry I missed her so much. When this daughter called home after her second week of College, upset, in tears, and feeling that she had made the wrong decision about where to go to school, my heart broke. It took every ounce of reserve to stop myself from jumping in the car driving the six hours to her college and whisking her home. By the time we got to October break, she didn't remember this conversation.
* Resist the urge to call frequently. Constantly checking in erodes your child's confidence in their own ability to make their own decisions and handle their own problems. What is the right amount of contact? It depends on a million individual factors. My advice would be to find your own parent/child comfort in the space between once a day and once a month.
I tell my second daughter who is now in College that I need to speak with her once a week. This child does not share info about her troubles and seems to forget she has parents or a home outside of College. She returns to College early, stays as late as she can, and spends interterm at school. This should make me happy.
* Don't stay completely away or aloof in the false expectation that they should make ALL decisions on their own and handle EVERY problem on their own. You love them and want to know what they are thinking, what new experiences they are having, and to listen to the voice on the other end of the phone. SKYPING helps if you need more than the voice or if your child tends to give one syllable answers.
I don't know what I would have done without SKYPE when my daughters spent semesters away in Paris (daughter 1) or Capetown (daughter 2). This gave me a sense of place and sound to put them in a context and allowed me to share a little tiny bit of their life so far away.
* Send packages if you can - from home if possible. The broadest smiles on the faces of students are those coming out of the Campus Center with a package from home. Food is always welcome and the recipients are made instantly popular in the residence halls. Also welcome are letters from a sibling or a photo of a pet or a CD of the jazz performance of the group they played with at home. Even clippings from home newspapers ground students in who they are as they evolve into who they are becoming.
I wish I was the kind of parent who efficiently baked cookies or made candies to send off, but alas, I am not. I do, however, have friends and will pay one of them to bake cookies that I then ship off. My girls know that even though the cookies come from Connie, the love is coming from me.