At college campuses across Maine, students have arrived. They’ve settled into their dorms and commenced classes and labs as well as sports, clubs and other extracurricular activities. Their confusion about schedules, textbooks, meals, technology and other aspects of daily life is subsiding. They’re making new friends, getting a handle on their academics, learning where things are and establishing study routines and social priorities.
But also across the state, Maine parents, grandparents and other family members are gearing up to visit their college students. For some, Parents Weekend — typically at the end of September and sometimes coinciding with Homecoming — will be their first visit to a college campus. Others know the ropes and what to expect.
But no one, according to Robert Dana, dean of student life at the University of Maine, should underestimate the importance of that family weekend visit. Family and Friends Weekend at UMaine this year is Sept. 22-24.
“The separation of young people from their homes and parents and families and communities is a complex transition and a really important one,” Dana said in a recent interview. Students — especially younger, first- and second-year students — and visiting family members benefit from the annual campus event, as they find a balance between letting go and hanging on.
“This is a chance for students and their parents to give each other space without feeling they’ve been cast off to the outer islands,” Dana said. In addition to providing family members with a glimpse of their adult child’s new life, Family and Friends Weekend is an exercise in navigating the new territory of the relationship. Though it’s important for students to feel their connectedness to family and friends back home, he said, they also are poised to move forward on their own as adults.
Dana recommends families review the planned weekend events carefully ahead of time and choose a few to attend, either with their student or on their own. A trip off-campus is often welcome, but parents should communicate clearly and allow their student plenty of input, including the opportunity to opt out of certain activities.
“Be flexible in your plans and expect to see some changes in your student,” he said.
At Husson University in Bangor, family members and alumni are invited to Homecoming Weekend each year. For 2017, that falls on the weekend of Oct. 13-15. In addition to the many events open to all visitors that weekend, there’s a special Saturday morning breakfast for first-year students and their parents. It may be the first time these students have seen their family members since they were dropped off on campus back at the end of August.
“We have found that students really need a chance to come into their own,” Sharon Wilson-Barker, Husson’s dean of student success, said. For the most part, she said, the college recommends that first year students not go home or have visitors for the first five or six weeks, giving them time to develop new friendships and look to themselves or their peers for problem-solving. Parents whose students call, text, tweet or otherwise contact them several times per day, she said, should develop a schedule for those interactions and encourage the student to spend more time interacting directly with their new campus community.
“Parental support is key, but when students figure out how to navigate on their own, they become more confident and independent,” she said.
When parents do come for a visit, Wilson-Barker said, students often take pride in showing off the campus, introducing new friends and demonstrating their competence at basic tasks like doing laundry. She suggests that parents and students make an appointment to tour a student’s dorm room, reducing the risk of embarrassment over a messy room.
A trip off campus for shopping or food is usually a great idea, and Wilson-Barker suggests inviting along a friend or roommate. “Get to know their new circle of support,” she said.
Bottom line? Plan now to attend your student’s family weekend or homecoming. Review the scheduled events and choose a few to attend with your student. Propose an off-campus trip to the coast or the mountains or the mall, and a great meal out. Be prepared to spend some time on your own, without resentment. Ask to see her dorm room and meet her roommate. Bring news and gifts from home, especially food that can be shared. Leave on time and don’t look back.