I just did the arithmetic and was staggered by the fact that as Dean of Freshman Studies for the past 11 years I have shepherded about 13,000 freshmen through Mooney Hall! It’s given me a unique perspective into the mindset of an 18-year-old.
Now, I move beyond the freshman class to the concerns of all students as the Vice President of Student Services, a new area that encompasses Student Affairs, Special Academic Programs and Freshman Studies. I will be supervising student activities, student judicial affairs, health, counseling and career services, retention and advising, Greek life, housing and other student concerns. But before I go forward, I decided to pause and reflect on what I know to be true about student life.
When I was a professor teaching News Reporting, I used to make my students reserve a section of their course notebooks for “Tips from Tracy.” By the end of the semester they had accumulated a litany of advice about journalism. When former students come back to visit, “Tips from Tracy” is the one thing they remember (although I am not certain they can recollect any of the scintillating tidbits). Thus, for parents, some “Tips from Tracy” culled from years of observation on what works, and what doesn’t, in trying to shepherd our children toward commencement.
- Let them make their own mistakes. This is the hardest one for us, myself included, to abide by. For better or worse, this generation of students is closer to their parents than we ever were. And more dependent. When I started in Freshman Studies, I used to beg my students to call home so their parents knew they were alive. I would tell them to call when no one would be home and say, “Hi Mom! Just checking in. Everything is great. I love you and miss you!” Now, when I am advising students, I often see that they are texting their parents the information that I am giving them. Still, it is our job as parents to teach our students how to achieve academic independence. We are hampering their journey to adulthood if we refuse to allow this to happen.
- Make sure the career they choose is theirs, not the one we want. I must concede that we ask an awful lot of 17- and 18-year-olds by forcing them to declare their life path in high school. If national stats are to be believed (and I think they are pretty much on point), about half of the 13,000 freshmen who trekked through our program changed their major en route to graduation. My intention as a high school senior was to be a math teacher. Ha! That fantasy only lasted one semester, when I was introduced to calculus. Students come to college with majors based on day dreams, on their parents’ hopes and aspirations, on really cool television programs and, in a few cases, reality. Some students really are destined to be doctors and nurses and teachers, but for many, the first year of college is one of exploration. Testing whether they were meant to be biology majors is a part of the mix. And first semester grades, whether they are among the 49 4.0 students or among the students on probation, provide a litmus test for a student’s aptitude for and interest in a major. Students who didn’t do well in their major courses need to assess their plan of action. Students who thrived but were miserable also need to assess.
- Give your students lots of advice, but then step back. I call it coaching from the sidelines. My suggestions should in no way diminish your role in your children’s lives. My children would chuckle at the very idea —they always know what Mom is thinking.
- Encourage your students to embrace all of college life. The happiest students are the ones who are engaged in the college. If your student doesn’t seem content or is making noise about wanting to transfer, the best course of action is a heart-to-heart conversation. What went well last semester? When was your son or daughter happiest? And what went wrong? By far, the No. 1 way to assure satisfaction is to be engaged. Was your student involved in an activity? Strategize now and make sure your student promises to get involved. Try a club or organization or extra-curricular activity. As a Comm professor, I always encouraged my students to join The Setonian, our student newspaper, or WSOU-FM, our radio station, or the Theatre Council. All of these extra-curricular activities take solid chunks of idle time away from students, provide a ready-made circle of friends and also provide a line on a resume. But most importantly, the activity helps your student adjust to college. And it provides students with a group of “peeps” who look out for each other. Best of all, it makes them happy, and that’s what all of us really want.
Hope your student has a great semester.
By Tracy Gottlieb, Ph.D.
Vice President of Student Services