Holding On and Letting Go: Reflections and Some Friendly Advice on What to Expect During Transition

As the last few days of August roll around, we can well imagine the frenzy and tempo picking up in each and every household that is gearing up to make that long-anticipated trip with their college-bound students to their new home and life on campus. As we reminisce about our own experiences from just a few years ago, our hearts are overwhelmed with the need to reach out to each one of you parents/caregivers that is going through this experience for the first time. Here are insights from two fellow UMass Amherst family members on what to expect during this exciting (albeit challenging) time of transition, and how to handle the process:

  • Take care of business before move-in by using both the students and family checklists as your guides.
  • Expect some degree of ‘organized chaos’ – for both you and your student.  If this is your first child going to college or attending UMass Amherst, this is a new experience and territory for both of you.  You’ll experience excitement, nervousness, anxiety, etc. all at once.  The most important thing is to check-in with your student during the next few weeks to see how they’re doing and handling things, listen, and offer words of encouragement. Showing your enthusiasm for this new experience will inspire your student to stay positive and embrace this new life, even when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Expect a few setbacks: At times, your student may feel a bit homesick, and you as a parent or family member may feel a bit “lost” without them.  Encourage your student to get involved from the start. Having a part-time job on campus, for example, is an excellent way for them to stay busy while learning new skills.  As for you, keep yourself busy by volunteering at different events and doing something new, or something you always wanted to do but haven’t had the chance to do it. In addition, take advantage of support from friends and family members who have already sent their young adult off to college. Joining our Advisory Council Facebook group “Family to Family” can also help. We offer advice on a range of issues including financial aid, tuition payment plan, roommates, traveling for breaks, being out-of-state, gym membership, dining facilities, course registration, final exams – and the list goes on and on.
  • Making friends can be a bit challenging for some students, especially during the first few weeks.  Encourage your student to participate in the Fall Orientation and Residence Hall activities.  There are numerous clubs, performing groups, and intramural teams on campus designed to help make a large school feel smaller.  As a parent/caregiver, try to strike a balance between asking about your student’s social life and giving them room to develop on their own.  “One of the best things my son did was join an online gaming team with fellow UMass students.  He met a number of like-minded souls in an activity he was interested in doing.  Not something his dad or I ever would have thought of suggesting, but he found some of his good friends there,” says Melissa Goldman.
  • Let your student know that it’s ok to not know all the answers, but that it’s not ok to not try to find out. Students should gradually try to become aware of the myriad of resources available on campus for every aspect of their academic and residential life; and they should learn to effectively use these resources as needed. During their college years, there will be countless times where they will have to ask a faculty member, a tutor, an RA, a coach, or a friend for help.  Let them know this is OK.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is an indication that they are mature enough to recognize their strengths and challenges and take responsibility for their situation.  Also, even if you are pretty sure of the answer yourself, encourage your student to find the answer out independently.  Working out your own solutions is one of the biggest lessons the college experience teaches students.
  • Adjustment is a process.  It takes time to get acclimated to a new situation.  It is ok for students to take a “wait and see” approach to some activities.  As parents/caregivers, we often want to swoop in and fix things or share our experiences from when we were in school.  While there is a time and a place for that, allow your student to work through things on their own terms.  Going through the adjustment process, while challenging at times, is really important to students’ growth at this time in their lives.  “As a parent, I have found it important to be a listener and a cheerleader, not the decision maker or head researcher,” says Melissa Goldman. Don’t expect an organizationally challenged student for example to suddenly develop great organization skills.  It’s ok to have a few missteps along the way.  Just as you let them fall safely when they were learning to walk, you also have to let them fall safely when they are adjusting to living independently.
  • Independent thinking is also a process but essential to being successful.  The most important advice you can give your student is to advocate for themselves and not necessarily through you. The University is well equipped to accommodate your student’s needs regardless of the situation.  Experts are available to help them navigate the University and find answers. Give them the space to make their own decisions and seek resources. “Even though my husband and I are both alums, we have stepped back and let our son do his own ‘figuring out,’” recommends Goldman. “Many things are different now and while we are excited he gets to experience some of the same things we love about UMass, ultimately he is the student and his experiences are his own.”
  • Remember, as a parent or family member, you still play a major role in your student’s success.  Don’t be ambiguous in your messaging around health, alcohol or substance abuse, and safety; your voice matters a lot. Share your counsel even as you let them be the key decision maker of their own lives. Be available as a sounding board – just listen – even if you may not always appreciate the content or substance of their argument. “I am so glad I just gave her the space to be heard without holding any judgement,” says Neena Verma, about her own daughter who is now a successful and happy senior, and one of the VPs of her sorority. “Soon enough, she seemed to always arrive at really sound and judicious decisions that always moved her in a positive direction.”

And last but not least, call, email, text, whatsapp…whatever…but do check-in using your student’s choice of communication mode – even if you don’t hear back. Remember, the adage ‘no news is good news’ still holds valid! They are most likely way too busy settling down, making friends, getting the hang of campus life and college academics, or just adjusting to a very new and different life. College students don’t usually run on a typical 9-5 schedule, so try to be flexible about when you all communicate. Trust yourself for having raised them to be capable and independent young adults … take a deep breath…and let go. They will be just fine, and so will you! Life soon becomes a balancing act of ‘Holding On and Letting Go.’

A very warm welcome to all of our new UMass Amherst family members/caregivers, and our heartfelt wishes for a smooth and successful transition!

Neena Verma/Melissa Goldman