Advice for College Parents- Q&A with Director of Orientation

The following is the first in our upcoming series of interviews featuring various thought leaders on topics of interest to college parents. We are pleased to feature Kathryn Kay, the Director of Orientation and Assistant Director of Student Programs at Georgetown University. As noted in her bio below, Ms Kay has extensive experience working with both college students and parents. Her responses to our interview questions provide some great insights and useful tips for parents of college students. We would like to thank Ms. Kay for her time and thoughtful answers.

Kathryn Kay: Director of Orientation, Georgetown University

Question:
Suppose a parent does not feel their child’s transition to college is going well academically and/or socially, yet the student says everything is fine. Is there anything a parent should do, or should they avoid interfering?

Answer:
If a student is not engaging in campus life or not doing as well academically as they used to, it may be due to other underlying issues like homesickness or stress. Rather than stating what you’re concerned about, it might help to first ask about the student’s perceptions of how the transition to college is going and acknowledging that it is a big transition (i.e. “So college must seem really different from high school. What have the major changes been?” or “It must feel strange to no longer have class 8 hours a day. Have you had to approach studying differently?”). Often students will then open up about how they feel about these changes, creating a great segue where you can suggest resources (i.e. “It sounds like it’s been hard to acclimate to campus without your high school friends. Have you reached out to that student group you liked during orientation? I remember that they were looking for new members, and it could be a great way to meet new people.” or “Do you remember when the Director from the Academic Resource Center talked at Orientation? She might be a good person to check in with about how to take better notes. Many people must struggle with that, otherwise there wouldn’t be an Academic Resource Center!”).

Question:
Related to the above, do you have any overall advice for a parent who wants to be supportive of their transitioning student, but also wants to avoid being a ‘helicopter parent’?

Answer:
First of all, I want to note that I hate the term “helicopter parent”. You have done a great job parenting and helping your children get to this point in their life, and for that you should be applauded. During this big transition, I know you are going to want to be as supportive as possible, just as you have at all the other times your child changed life stages.

Although sending children off to college seems more daunting than watching them take their first steps or learn to ride a bike, the way you help them transition is the same. When you accompany them to Orientation and Move-In, it is similar to when you held their fingers to help them learn to walk or when you held the back of their bike seat when the training wheels were first taken off. But eventually, you let go. And when you let go, you have a flurry of mixed emotions. You are excited that they are about to be able to do something on your own and also worried that they are going to fall. But you let go anyway and take a step back. And when they take their first step, you applaud and yell in support. And when they fall, you give them encouraging words and comforting hugs…but you don’t go back to carrying them and you don’t put the training wheels back on, because you know that they are eventually going to find success without that.

So when your child goes off to college, there are going to be triumphs as well as bumps. And both your child and the University community will want you there to encourage them, congratulate them, and help pick them back up. But it is important that you support them to solve issues and not solve them yourself. If your student has a rough time with his/her roommate, remind them that there is a Resident Assistant (R.A.) to go to for help and do not call the R.A. or Residence Life yourself. Try not to worry too much about the bumps that come along. Those are the best opportunities for them to learn how to be successful adults. Instead, just as when they were learning to walk, empower your children to take the steps on their own as you cheer from the sidelines.

Question:
For a student transitioning from other institution, what advice would you give them to adapt as smoothly as possible to their new environment.

Answer:
A lot of transfer students do not invest much in their new institution’s orientation program, because they already have had college experience. Although I know transfer students attend with different experiences from incoming freshmen, I would encourage them to use orientation to get to know their new campus, its resources, and some current students. Matriculating to a new institution will only made easier by starting with friendly faces and knowledge of what to expect.

Question:
Are there ways that parents can be helpful to orientation staff, to ensure that their child gets the most out of orientation?

Answer:
Often parents are unprepared to be separated from their student during Orientation. While it is certainly a big transition for both incoming students and their families, we recognize it is a different change for students than it is for parents. Because of this, we want to provide specified support through Orientation programs and ask parents to not accompany their child through his or her orientation and to not take your child away from any of their scheduled programming. Also, Parent and Family programs have important information that we do not want you to miss, so please try and make it to everything scheduled for parents. Even if this is not your first child you are sending to college, information can change by institution or by year, and we want to make sure you have everything you need to support your student. You can also see this as an opportunity to meet other families or to serve as a resource to parents who are going through this for the first time.

Question:
Are there any non-academic skills that you have noticed that many new college students lack?

Answer:
In my experience, the main skill that college students need to develop is knowing when to ask for support. I have watched students let something get out of hand rather than ask for help, either because they do not know about the appropriate resources or because they do not want to appear inept. On the other hand, I have also seen students immediately reach out to have someone help them without ever trying to solve the problem first. While we do want students to develop their autonomy, we also want them to successfully function interdependently and rely on others for support.

If you notice your child struggling and it is not an emergency or health-related situation, rather than solve the problem yourself or calling the appropriate campus resources for him/her, I suggest that you ask questions that will help him/her get to a solution or that you name the campus resources available and suggest that he/she reach out to them. That way you are empowering them to own the situation, while also acting as a safety net.

Kathryn Kay Bio:
Kathryn Kay currently serves as the Director of Orientation, Assistant Director of Student Programs, and Co-Coordinator of R. U. Ready at Georgetown University. After working at Accenture as a business consultant, specializing in Change Management for the Financial Services sector, she earned her Master of Education in College Student Affairs Administration at the University of Georgia. Since then, Kathryn has supported student activities and orientation programs at Georgia Tech, UGA, Kennesaw State University, and Georgetown University. Kathryn’s professional interests include orientation and transition programs, sexual assault education, and diversity education. She also currently sits on the Board of Directors as a Regional Coordinator for the National Orientation Directors Association (NODA).