For many, the crisp fall air is a sign of change. For parents with their son or daughter leaving home for college drop-off day, this season of change can be an exciting, yet nerve-wracking experience. Maureen Stiles, is a freelance writer for Grown & Flown, virtually working from her Washington DC dining room. A wife and mother to three sons, Mo has experienced this parenting milestone more than once—this is her third trip to the first-year drop-off line. Her oldest son, “sort of” graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2020 during the pandemic. Her middle son is in his third year at an in-state school, Salisbury University, and her youngest heads to Coastal Carolina in South Carolina this fall.We asked a Grown & Flown contributor to share insider tips for other parents sending their children off to their college dorm rooms for the first time. Before you queue the tears, long hugs, and dorm room goodbyes, get the college freshman parent's perspective on dropping a kid off at college.
- What parent-support items are necessary for the inaugural college drop off of their first (or third) child? I think college drop-off is that juxtaposition of being a universal concept with an individual experience and range of emotions, personal to each family. Support actually starts way back in identifying the right school for your child. If you are confident that you are sending them to a place where they will be among peers, engage in a challenging curriculum, and have strong systems for students, then that in and of itself is a support system to parents.
- Are there any college parent support groups that you recommend for parents sending their child off to college? I highly recommend signing up for anything the school offers to parents as a means of being involved. Organizations like Parent Connect and Family Connections send newsy-email updates of campus happenings and the college experience. I have also signed up for any alert system that the university offers. Even something as simple as following school accounts on social media can give insight into life on campus. And of course, the Grown and Flown Facebook Parents Page is a source of invaluable information and camaraderie and support.
- Name three items you refuse to send your son to college without—even if he drags his feet on the packing suggestion. Well let’s just start by saying, I have endured my share of eye-rolls during the packing process. For me, the doorstop is non-negotiable. Keeping that door open is the difference between ‘I’m here' and ‘I’m here and you should come in to meet me.’ Some form of a first-aid kit and OTC medicine stash is a must too. While my sons may feel invincible at 18, I know that college, in many ways, is just a petri dish. Lastly, I ensure they have a safe for their room. It is not so much I fear the emergency credit card or passport will get stolen, but that I always want them to know where these important items are. I also have them write down their social security number and leave it in there too.
- How do you help motivate your son(s) to participate in the scholarship application process, and to continue applying for scholarships? We talk a lot about budget in the initial selection process. My boys all knew that if scholarships or merit aid did not come through, then some schools were off the table. By applying for scholarships and keeping their grades up, the pool of options expanded which helped us all. In many cases, a version of their college essay was a good fit for scholarships with a writing requirement. So, what they envisioned as a long process suddenly felt worthwhile, once realized they could repurpose something they had already written.
- Your youngest son was a 2021 high school grad. What have you both learned that will help him accomplish his goals of becoming a college graduate? My son gained a significant level of introspection that, in normal times, most kids his age don’t have. He had to think about his priorities, his strengths and accept some failures throughout his senior school year. These 2021 graduates are adaptable, seasoned, and capable. In many ways, the pandemic was a gift to their maturity. There was no gliding through the last year of high school—everything was a challenge. I feel he can embrace the inherent challenges of college because he’s realized that a whole lot of education happens outside the classroom, with life as our greatest teacher.
- What tools or resources did you find helpful when your son and family were completing his Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application? The FAFSA is the most dreaded part of the entire college process for kids and parents alike. We really did it on our own, with the aid only of the experts in the Grown and Flown group. My kids know that the FAFSA is just part of the process every year like picking classes or signing a lease otherwise the merit money and tuition aid do not get applied. However, we normally do it together with them because it is important that it gets done right the first time.
- As someone that has been through this process more than once, what other advice do you have for parents? I believe the most important thing is to listen to your child. I have had one child who handled the entire process from start to finish alone. He knew exactly what he wanted and asked for and needed zero help. My middle was very slow to tour and think about college, so we went with his timetable, and he found just the perfect place. My last one was a hybrid—excited but very stymied by the pandemic obstacles. We had Plans A through C and would have been happy with any of them. The biggest part of those plans was the money talk we arranged early in the process. Sums as large as tuition bills are not real to teenagers; it is like monopoly money. Our job as parents is to set realistic parameters for what the family can swing and where that money is coming from. The applications should all have the caveat of affordability in some regard.