Every director of college dorms has a horror story about freshman move-in day: People pulling up with overpacked rental trucks, overpacked trailers and overpacked rental trucks towing overpacked trailers.
But nobody can top Charlie Strey’s story: a semi.
“It was a little disconcerting to see that pull up outside the dorm,” admitted Strey, assistant dean and the director of the Resident Life Office at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.
The incident happened at a previous job, not at Gustavus, where, he assured us, parents are much more level-headed. Still, it happened in Minnesota, so we’re not completely off the hook in terms of group embarrassment.
In retrospect, Strey realizes that he should have seen the warning signs before the semi showed up.
“The parents called me during the summer and asked if they could send an interior designer to take measurements of the room,” he said. “She did a complete makeover of it. The ironic thing was that they never talked to the roommate. He didn’t like it, and they ended up taking out most of it.”
Two lessons are here: Roommates should communicate with each other long before move-in day. And parents need to get a grip on their overprotective instincts.
Marjorie Savage, the parent program director at the University of Minnesota, has written the book on moving kids into dorms — literally. It’s “You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here if You Need Me)” (Simon & Schuster, $16).
The over-reactive parent is understandable, she said. Many of them look at this as their last chance to take care of their children before sending them off into the cold, cruel world to fend for themselves.
But learning to fend for themselves is a crucial step toward adulthood, she said.
“When kids are in high school, parents are encouraged to be involved,” Savage said. “When the kids get to college, some parents don’t understand what the appropriate level of involvement is.”
She’s not suggesting that you abandon your children. “You don’t have to let go, but take a step back,” she said. “Let your kids test the waters a bit for themselves.”
At St. Catherine University, Heidi Anderson, director of residence life, coaches parents on how to handle that inevitable first college-life crisis.
“It’s not that we don’t want the phone calls from parents,” she said. “But we want to work together with the parents to develop the students’ life skills. When the students face a problem or have a concern, we give tips to the parents on how they can help the students solve the problem on their own.”
Many parents also are taken aback by legally imposed distancing. By law, when students turn 18, colleges cannot share a lot of their private information with their parents — including their grades — without the students’ permission.
“That’s a big transition for parents,” Anderson said. “For 18 years, the parents have been in control. Suddenly it’s their daughter who is in the driver’s seat.”
The most common mistake parents make is sending too much stuff. The average dorm room is about 12 by 20 feet, with 75 percent of the space already occupied by the beds, desks and bureaus. There are things you can do to increase the floor space, such as “lofting” the beds if the school allows that. But you’re still talking about a room that is smaller than some of the walk-in closets kids see on “MTV Cribs.”
“We stress the theory that ‘less is more,’” Strey said. “Don’t bring everything you need for the whole year. You don’t need your winter coat in September. Bring enough for the first two months. By then, most students either will have gone home for a visit, or they can have things shipped to them.”
Clothes are something parents tend to overpack, Savage agreed. The typical college wardrobe consists of shorts, jeans and sweatpants combined with T-shirts when it’s warm and sweatshirts when it’s not, she said. If you want to send two or three nicer outfits for special occasions, that’s fine, but limit it to two or three.
Parents also need to remember Isaac Newton’s law of gravity: Whatever goes up (into a dorm room) must come down.
On move-in day, most schools have student volunteers standing by to help, but the same is not true at the end of the school year. Those two burly upperclassmen who so graciously lug your futon up to the sixth floor will be nowhere in sight when the time comes to take it back out.
Here are some dorm do’s from the experts:
• Find out what the school provides. Some dorm rooms come with small refrigerators, and many have vacuum cleaners available (not that they get a lot of use). Some rooms have wastebaskets, some don’t. Find out what the school bans. Most dorms don’t allow popcorn poppers, others limit the number of electronic devices.
• Coordinate what each person is bringing. There might not be room for your futon and the roommate’s bean bag chair. And you don’t want to end up with two microwaves and no mini-fridge.
• Remember that closet space is limited. Most dorms barely have enough storage space for oft-needed items. Skis, golf clubs and the sousaphone are best left at home.
• Think of things from your kid’s perspective. If you have to choose between an ironing board or an Xbox, go with the latter.
• Keep decorating urges in perspective. Personalizing a dorm room is a great way to make it feel comfortable, but don’t overdo. A favorite poster from home is good; a 200-piece Beanie Baby collection, not so much.