At colleges, dealing with parents becoming a full-time job

Schools' specialists help baby boomers adjust

December 17, 2004|By Stuart Silverstein | Stuart Silverstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN DIEGO - Michelle DuBord often is the first person to hear of trouble at San Diego State University.

In her campus job, she sometimes gets calls about offbeat problems, like the time a student accidentally dropped a cell phone down an elevator shaft. Her phone also rings with questions about balky Internet service, roommate tensions in the residence halls and difficulties in finding tutors.

But it isn't frazzled freshmen or other antsy undergraduates who keep DuBord busy with those inquiries. It's their parents.

DuBord is one of an emerging breed of college officials who tend to moms and dads. As San Diego State's coordinator of parent programs, DuBord handles a telephone hot line and e-mail service just for parents, including many who are eager to help their children deal with the hassles of campus life. Among other things, she also organizes parent orientations, meets with the parent advisory board and helps hit up parents for donations.

It's a job that, a generation ago, wasn't on the radar screen. The rise of parent relations specialists in recent years is, in part, an acknowledgment that baby boomers often want to keep running interference for their offspring.

College administrators say that the same kinds of parents who took time to attend their children's school plays and soccer games and helped with their college applications aren't inclined to fade into the background during the college years.

That's true, many administrators say, even for baby boomers who prized their independence when they went off to college.

Today's parents "are sort of like their kids' managers," said Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, an organization of college officials. Dungy said that even though many schools offer "letting go" talks at parent orientations, most baby boomers don't fully take the message to heart.

"It's unrealistic for us to say `let go' when they drop their kids off at college. They're not going to do it," she said.

These days, nine out of 10 four-year campuses offer special orientations for parents. And about 70 percent of four-year schools have at least one staffer working full-time or nearly full-time with parents, according to a survey of 607 U.S. schools by the nonprofit advocacy group College Parents of America.

They can be tricky jobs. DuBord, who at 25 is fresh from her own undergraduate days at San Diego State, occasionally has to turn down parents who want sneak peeks at their children's grades. She explains that a student's privacy is protected by federal law.

She also needs to be discreet. Parents have called seeking help for students, sometimes roommates or friends of their children, who they suspect are struggling with depression or eating disorders.

But sometimes, DuBord said, when a parent phones in to say, "`My daughter is having a difficult time; she's trying to get to know her roommate, but is having a difficult time,' I realize that the homesickness is really with the parent. They're homesick for their son or daughter."

The work is rewarding, DuBord said, because the advice and referrals she provides parents frequently help their children do better in college. DuBord, who has taken more than 150 hot line calls from parents so far this semester, said that other times parents "just want somebody to vent to, and I'm here for that, too."

Parent relations staffers are hired partly to remove some of the burden from college presidents, provosts and deans of having to deal with angry or perplexed parents over the phone.

Parents, in many cases, "are being demanding, they're trying to settle their children's scores, they're trying to analyze and resolve their students' issues rather than simply have their son or daughter take care of it for themselves," said Kurt J. Keppler, vice president of student affairs at Valdosta (Ga.) State University and co-editor of an upcoming book about how colleges are dealing with parents.

Keppler, 47, called it an ironic turnaround for baby boomer parents who attended college in the 1960s or '70s, as he did. `"I would have been devastated if my mom or dad would have called my dean," he said.

Still, Keppler has put more emphasis on parent relations at his own 12,000-student campus since assuming his job there 2 1/2 years ago. He has helped launch a parents' association, expanded the parents' orientation program, established a Web site for parents and assigned two staffers to work part-time on parent-related activities.

Other administrators are warier. Judith R. Shapiro, president of Barnard College in New York City, has complained about parents who show up on campus or call administrators to intercede for a child.

Barnard, a women's college, strives to be a place where "young women really become adults and learn how to handle difficult situations for themselves and learn to grow strong," Shapiro said. "They're not going to become strong if somebody is always handling their problems for them."

Fred T. Badders, a retired education professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., who has studied parent programs, said some administrators who once feared that such initiatives would open the door to parent meddling now believe the programs are valuable marketing and fund-raising tools.

Parent programs were among factors that impressed Dorothea Nawas, from the San Francisco Peninsula city of Atherton, with Washington University in St. Louis. Both of her children are undergraduates there.

"We had been involved with various parents clubs, as well as PTA and fund raising" as their children progressed from grade school through high school, she said. "We didn't want that to end."

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