Colleges try to help empty-nest parents Homesickness, cookie schedule, computer use are all on the agenda

September 18, 1997|By ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - Joe Salerno had already seen three of his children go off to college.

So with the youngest, Tony, preparing to attend the College of St. Rose in Albany this fall as a freshman, you'd think adjusting to the separation might be easier for the whole family.

Not necessarily so.

"It's going to be difficult for him and for us," Salerno, 54, of New City, N.Y., said recently as he and his wife Mary, 40, visited St. Rose. "We've been really close. Our son is leaving. He's also been a good friend."

The College Board in New York City, which sponsors the SAT, predicts 1.2 million freshman will enter 1,781 four-year colleges and universities in the United States this fall. Experts say their parents will struggle with some universal questions, ranging from the mundane to the philosophical, about their children and themselves.

Questions, questions

When do care packages of home-baked cookies stop becoming welcome signs of life from home and start becoming stifling reminders of parents who can't let go? Should they write real letters or send e-mail? Is this a good time to go on a second honeymoon with their spouse and get to know each other all over again? What is their identity outside of their parenting role?

Discussions about such questions can be found with increasing frequency at colleges and universities, in special programs designed just for parents.

St. Rose started offering them two years ago. At a recent orientation session, a panel of college administrators who have sent children to college talked about their own experiences.

Then the panelists offered advice on everything from the best way to handle that first tearful conversation with a homesick child to cellular phones.

(The consensus on cell phones: Don't give one to your child so that you can make instant contact. Nothing's more embarrassing to a freshman than a phone call from mom in the middle of class. And don't lose a night's sleep over a homesick child. They will quickly adjust.)

Paula Alpart, St. Rose's associate dean of graduate, adult and continuing education, offered advice that's a recurring theme among administrators helping parents through the transition.

"It can be an absolutely fantastic time in a marriage," she said. "You really rediscover your relationship. And it can also be a fantastic time for personal development. Take a college course, learn quilting, take up fly fishing."

'Letting Go'

St. Rose recommends that parents read "Letting Go," by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treegar. Now in its third edition, the book is often cited as a resource by college administrators.

Divorced parents may face special issues, Coburn said. Long-dormant topics such as finances, vacations and visits with the child - who's now a young adult - may flare up unexpectedly.

"It's very important for the parents to see that the kids don't get pulled," she said.

At a recent freshman orientation session at the State University at Albany, Richard Toes and his daughter, Katie, said their family had worked out a solution to avoid just that problem.

Richard and Katie's mother were divorced eight years ago, and Katie lived with her mother in South Carolina through high school. Now that she's entering college, her father's home in New York City will be her residence in the summer and during school vacations.

Education officials say colleges and universities around the country are paying more attention to the services for parents.

Last year, the State University at Albany introduced a program on computers for parents during orientation. The session teaches parents about basic computer usage and buying a computer for their child. The course was developed in recognition of the fact that many parents have never used a computer.

With more and more colleges offering students free or discounted e-mail accounts, e-mail is fast becoming one of the main ways parents and students communicate.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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