More meaning in parents' visit

Families: In these tense days, mothers and fathers of students away at college feel a need to be just a hug away.

October 14, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

At 2 a.m., Nick LaGamma hears a loud tapping on the door of his dorm room. A late-returning roommate? A drunken reveler? The pizza guy? He opens it to discover -- his parents, Edmund and Kalliope LaGamma of Setauket, N.Y.

How does a college student react to such a late-night encounter? With hugs and kisses. It wasn't as though he was sleeping. The Loyola College senior proudly re-introduces his parents and 7-year-old sister, Christina, to his roommates and neighbors, and there is much laughter.

"I needed to see them," the 21-year-old senior says afterward. "It was great."

On the campuses of colleges and universities across America, at least one weekend between late September and early November is reserved as family weekend, where such reunions are as much a part of student life as homecoming parades and mid-term exams.

But this year, it's different. College officials say family weekends are bringing more family -- and more heartfelt emotion -- than ever to campus. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have only increased the desire of parents to visit schools -- no phone call or e-mail can replace the reassurance of seeing their child in person.

"It's very special," says Mrs. LaGamma, who, like many in her Long Island town, knew victims from New York's World Trade Center. "It was a little frightening, just having a student so far away at that moment. I know for freshmen parents, it was probably worse."

Originally called parents weekend when colleges and universities first planned them in the '60s and early '70s, such events used to be geared merely toward the parents of homesick freshmen who needed an excuse to drop by on a Saturday, perhaps attend a football game and then grab a bite to eat.

Today, they are three-day marathons, heavily programmed with activities from academic lectures to fine arts performances, designed to encourage family participation in all aspects of campus life. At some schools, attendance is bigger than homecoming, with parents booking hotel rooms months in advance and driving great distances to be there.

"One thing about this generation of students, they are close to their parents," says Gail Hanson, vice president of student services at American University in Washington. "These are students who, whether they've done community service, sports, theater or whatever, their parents have been part of it. Now, their parents expect to still have the experiences with their kids on campus."

At Loyola, 1,250 families registered for family weekend in late September -- a significant turnout at a school with an undergraduate enrollment of about 3,000.

"We basically had no cancellations. Normally, 30 or so families will change plans but not this year," says Mark Broderick, the college's director of student activities. "More than any time, the parents really wanted to get together with their sons and daughters."

Officials at the University of Maryland, College Park say family weekend turned into a healing experience for many on their campus this year. It was held last weekend, less than two weeks after a tornado hit the school, killing two sisters, both of whom were students. Families were finally able to comfort their grieving children.

"The timing was good. I was glad for us," says Linda Clement, the university's vice president for student affairs, who estimates attendance was up 20 percent this year.

Carmen Neuberger, executive director of the American College Personnel Association, says the increased interest in family weekends is part of a much larger trend of schools reaching out to parents.

In part, she says, it's a matter of accounting. With private school costs averaging more than $27,000 a year, parents want to know more about how their money is spent, and campus visits are the best way to find out.

"We've gotten more into the mentality of seeing students and parents as customers," says Neuberger, whose association represents college officials who work in student affairs. "We felt it was important parents knew what they were getting for their money."

Not only have family weekends become big, but schools now also routinely expect to involve parents in other activities as well. It starts with campus visits when their teen-age son or daughter is a prospective student. Many have also added summer orientation sessions geared toward parents of incoming freshmen.

No longer are colleges considered substitute parents. Family is still family, even if the children are no longer minors and live a thousand miles away from home.

"Parents want to have a connection with a school," says Richard Flaherty, president of College Parents of America, a D.C.-based nonprofit group representing 200,000 families of college students. "Parents believe students who have their support will be more successful, and I think they're absolutely right."

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