University News

Expert tips for sending a child off to college

August 21, 2023

My wife was certain she would be sobbing when we dropped our oldest off for his first year at college.

I put my own chances at about 50%. If there were bagpipes, as YouTube suggested there would be, I raised the likelihood of tears to 70%.

There were bagpipes.

Yet when those pipes filled and that inevitable moment came for the college to gently and wisely nudge all of us families to our cars, I didn’t shed a tear. My wife, on the other hand, lived up to her prediction.

We were a few miles into the four-hour drive home when we heard sniffling from the back seat.

It was our 15-year-old daughter, reckoning what her life would be like without her big brother in the next bedroom.

That did it for me. Open floodgates.

If you’ve reached this point in your family story, you know the emotional marathon that you endured to get here.

So now what?

We asked Denison University faculty and staff for advice on how understandably nervous families can ratchet back the anxiety and make the transition to college life easier — for their students, but also for themselves.

Emotions are normal, but don’t let them overtake the moment

  • Your child will be excited, nervous, eager, distant, clingy, weepy, fearful, and thrilled, often all at once (and so will you). This is normal. -Margot Singer, professor and director of creative writing, Department of English
  • That unique combination of nervousness, excitement, and anticipation that your child will feel as they arrive on campus to begin college, they will never feel again. I hope that you all can cherish that moment. -Veerendra Lele, chair, anthropology
  • I don’t remember my mom expressing or giving away any sort of nervousness at dropping me off. I realize now what a gift she gave to me; I didn’t have to think about her stress or emotions, or how the family would miss me. -Lori Kumler, instructional technologist
  • Just remember that your children leaving and moving on is what you raised them to do. Pat yourself on the back! Good job, mom/dad/grandparent/village! -Laura Frame ’83, director of principal gifts, Institutional Advancement

Be mindful of what your student brings to college

Load up with snacks and drinks like Gatorade. Ensuring they have everything they need to make their dorm room a ‘home’ is big. -Nan Carney-DeBord, director of athletics, via her son

  • For the introverts: Encourage them to keep some premium snacks in their room. It’s amazing how many people pop by to chat and just happen to grab a mini Kind bar. -Laurie Kamerer, associate vice president of career development
  • Pack the fan last, so it’s the first thing you can unpack to cool off the room on move-in day. -Carianne Meng, associate director of admission.
  • Buy a door stop. Prop open your dorm door. It’s a great way to meet neighbors. -Kelly Mork, assistant director of donor relations and stewardship

You may be tempted to pack too much, but less is more

  • Pack less! You don’t need or won’t use a lot of what is considered essential. -Sandra Doty, visiting assistant professor, physics
  • Your student does not need to bring everything that is in his/her bedroom. Most students pack way too much and end up having a cluttered room. Less is more. They will mostly wear sweats and slippers anyway. -Laurie Kamerer
  • Don’t buy the 90-variety pack of oatmeal from Costco. You will be moving 87 of them back home in May. -Lew Ludwig, professor and director of the Center for Learning and Teaching

Leave behind a few special touches

  • Individually wrap 15-20 small gifts for the student to pick one and unwrap when they need a boost: snacks, candy, coffee mug, coffee/tea, portable charger, lip balm, playing cards, stress ball, etc. -Donnie Sendelbach, director of educational technology services
  • When you are leaving town, stop at a few stores/restaurants and buy a gift card. Mail one to your child as soon as you get home. Everyone likes getting mail. -Kelly Mork
  • Gift cards to local restaurants are a wonderful treat and a stressless way to enjoy time with friends off-campus. -Jeni Miller, peer learning strategy program coordinator
  • On move-in, put a greeting card in a drawer or under a pillow for them to find later. -Kelly Mork
  • This may not be helpful, but it is memorable — my mother short-sheeted my bed. -Stephanie McLemore, university chaplain, director of religious and spiritual life

On their move-in day, let your student lead the way

  • Allow your student the space to have their own experience on move-in day. Their room, roommate, residence hall location, etc., might feel perfect to them, so prepare to keep any comments suggesting otherwise to yourself. -Jamie Sue Haidet, academic administrative assistant, Department of Communication
  • Let your child take the lead. If they want help setting up their room, help. If they don’t, just sit and talk while they work.  If they need you to stay for a while, stay. If they are ready for you to go, then go. It’s OK to cry as you drive back home. -Cathy Untied, associate vice president for finance and controller
  • As gut-wrenching as this moment may be on the parental side, it’s important to remember that this is an even bigger moment for your child. Be supportive but give them space to figure out how to navigate this on their own. Let them set the tone for the move-in, and allow them to decide how they want the day to play out. Remember that you’ve done everything possible to get them to this moment; let your hard work come to fruition. -Jeff Thompson, dean of the faculty

Let your college student take it from here

  • From now on, your job is to help your child figure out how to find resources and solve problems on their own, without you doing it for them. Start with having them make their own bed! -Margot Singer
  • Remember how you have been preparing to “send them on a journey” since they were tiny, and now you get to cheer them on as they embark on this new one! -Gina Dow, associate professor, psychology; Alford coordinator for service learning
  • Adjusting to college is almost always harder than it looks on websites and social media, so be the person who cheers them on for learning to do something new and hard, not the person who agrees with them that everything should be easier. -Karen E. Spierling, professor, Department of History
  • Set expectations of behaviors that lead to greater academic success rather than a specific GPA.  For example, “I expect you to submit all your academic work on time and not miss a class.” Stay positive. There is not a stigma in asking for help at Denison, and positive patterns of behavior contribute to students’ academic success! -Jennifer Grube Vestal, director of the Academic Resource Center
  • Your student might hit a rough patch. Remind them that not only did they choose Denison, but Denison chose them. -Jamie Sue Haidet
  • Your child has a devoted academic advisor who will help them choose and change courses, figure out requirements, and find the resources they need to succeed. That’s their job (not yours). -Margot Singer
  • When things go awry (as they very well might) in their first months away from home, encourage them to lean on their new network of support no matter how tempting it might be to swoop into the rescue. Encourage them to be resourceful and utilize the campus community to its fullest potential. This will not only help them get to know their support system but will also set them up for independent success down the road. -Erin Lovelien, executive assistant, Institutional Advancement
  • Permit your child to survive without you! -Bill Mason, ’57, assistant swim coach

Ways to keep in touch with your college student

  • Talk about what each of you feel is reasonable contact/communication *before* move-in day. Hearing from your student twice a day might seem reasonable to you but feel overwhelming for your student. -Jamie Sue Haidet
  • Set a day/time for a short (or long, if that works for your kiddo) weekly call with your student. Be flexible about it. Sometimes they will feel like talking your ear off and other times they will be trying to rush through the conversation so they can catch up with their friends who are heading down to Whit’s. -Laurie Kamerer
  • The old “call home on Sundays” is still a nice rule. -Margot Singer
  • Have a set day to talk and catch up. Important family gatherings have happened for us on Facetime Sundays. -Susan Stoner Leithauser ’90, parent and family philanthropy
  • A simple text will do. Let your student use the wings you have helped prepare, and give them some room to figure out college life for themselves. -Jeni Miller
  • Sometimes the only way to get your child to respond to your texts is with a picture of your family pet.  That’s OK. -Kelly Mork
  • Expect that you might not hear from them for a while. It is normal. Let them find themselves. -Sandra Doty
  • If you don’t hear anything from your student, it’s because they’re happy and busy. Take a deep breath and relax. -Ginny Olderman Sharkey ’83, director of institutional communications
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