Too Close for Comfort
By Sara Kassir, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, May 4, 2012
Going off to college is nothing like how it is in the movies. No one’s parents actually load up a minivan of furniture and clothes, plant their kid in a dorm and then say, “Hey, I’ll see you at Thanksgiving.”
Parents always want updates on their son or daughter’s life at school. They’ll want phone calls, trips home and maybe the occasional campus visit. The majority of Dartmouth students probably don’t fault their parents in making such demands — we know that having an empty nest can be tough (well that, and they’re probably still footing the bill.)
Parental involvement in a students’ life on campus typically directly involves mom and dad taking a back seat and letting their child have a little room. College is, after all, a young adult’s chance to grow up in a lot of ways. However, some parents are better at realizing that aspect of the transition than others.
The habit of direct parental involvement in their child’s campus life can begin long before move-in day. Director of Undergraduate Housing Rachael Class-Giguere handles a wide variety of calls from concerned parents, ranging from simple inquires about deadlines to efforts to advocate for their child.
“We understand families care, and they want the best for their child,” she said. “Sometimes, like anybody else, they just need their concerns be heard. Just like students, they want to understand what the process is so that they don’t feel like something bad is happening to their son or daughter.”
Class-Giguere said that some of the most endearing questions received by the Housing Office come from parents of first-year students who live far away, with concerns about the climate and buying dorm supplies being particularly common.
“Every year, some of those same questions come up,” she said. “There’s a notion that if you don’t send your child off with everything, they’ll have a horrible fall. They don’t realize you can go to West Leb and buy sheets, towels and shampoo, and that you’re going to be okay.”
But once a student is all set up in his or her residence hall, mom and dad don’t necessarily back down. Sometimes, Dartmouth parents also choose to directly involve themselves in the entire reason they sent us here in the first place — academics.
In the past three years that she has taught at the College, Arabic professor Jamila Chahboun said she has seen a fair number of parents who like to keep tabs on what their son or daughter is up to in the classroom.
“I’ve seen parents who are really involved and have their students report back to them on what they’re learning every day,” she said. “I’ve had a student who would be on the phone with her mom every time I met with her.”
When it comes to the academic progress of a student, having a network of adults pushing a student to succeed isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Chahboun.
“As a professor, to see that a student’s parents know what is going on and that they have someone checking on them is a positive,” she said. “I know they have no room to not to do well in school.”
Other than educational questions, some of the harder discussions Chahboun has had with parents have been about safety concerns for students who want to go on the Morocco FSP. While she has always been “happy to have these conversations,” a distinction does exist between a parent wanting information on academics or study abroad and a parent contacting a professor about something like a grade.
“My colleagues and I don’t give parents the chance to come in just to argue against a grade,” Chahboun said. “But at the same time, we don’t give our students the chance to do that, either. I think that is a very rare occurrence at Dartmouth.”
In a somewhat similar line of thought, when a parent contacts an undergraduate dean to inquire about academic grades, visits to Dick’s House or class attendance, the Undergraduate Deans Office does not divulge such information without the student’s permission.
“We don’t want students to think that if a parent calls the Deans Office, we’ll just be sharing all of this information,” Senior Assistant Dean Deborah Tyson said. “We try to play the mediator.”
She explained that when a parent does reach out to the Deans Office for any reason, the focus is on figuring out how to establish working relationships between deans, students and families.
“The best option is to have the student in the office and to have a conference call so all parties know what each other is saying and why they are saying it,” Tyson said. “We don’t want misinterpretation. That’s very important for a student who is struggling to move forward — a shared understanding of what the problem is and a shared understanding of what the solutions are.”
For the Undergraduate Deans Office, there is a key philosophical distinction between “a student’s engagement with their parents and parental engagement in place of their student’s,” Tyson said. “Sometimes we have to ask parents to work with us so that the outcome is greater than the sum of its parts,” she said. “We might be able to get a student X, Y and Z and dictate them to complete tasks, but that’s not what is most healthy. We want to see growth that will result in better outcomes next time.”
Tyson also noted that for rare cases when the Dean’s Office does feel the need to reach out to student’s parents to handle mental or physical health concerns, they “almost always come through with flying colors.”