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Colleges Are Learning to Hold Parents’ Hands

Times Staff Writer

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

In her campus job, she sometimes gets calls about offbeat problems, like the time a student accidentally dropped a cellphone 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 American college officials who tends to moms and dads. As San Diego State’s coordinator of parent programs, DuBord handles a telephone hotline 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.

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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 sons and daughters old enough to vote and serve in the military.

College administrators say the 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 kids’ college years.

That’s true, many administrators say, even for baby boomers who prized their own 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 Assn. 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.

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“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% 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.

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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 hotline 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.”

Campuses hire parent relations staffers 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 State University in Valdosta, Ga., and co-editor of an upcoming book about how colleges deal with parents.

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Keppler 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,” said Keppler, 47.

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.

Keppler has helped launch a parents’ association, expanded the parents’ orientation program, established a website 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.

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She said parents should discuss school and career issues with their sons and daughters, then let the students take over for themselves.

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.”

In California, San Diego State, Stanford and USC often are cited as leaders in parent relations. USC stepped up its efforts in 2002, opening a three-person office for parent programs.

USC’s parents office, like San Diego State’s, welcomes calls and e-mails, even if they sometimes are a bit odd. A staffer once helped a mother who wanted to know what dry cleaner was closest to campus. The reason: The student was mailing dirty clothing back to a dry cleaner in New York.

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Parents also are quick to alert USC’s parent office any time service falters on the TommyCam, an Internet camera mounted on the student union building that some parents use to get glimpses of their children. (Students reportedly have posed before the camera to show their parents the outfits they are wearing to dressy events.)

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 fundraising 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.

Nawas said she and her husband, Soli, joined the university’s parents’ council to maintain a “close link to our children’s lives.”

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“We had been involved with various parents clubs, as well as PTA and fundraising” as their children progressed from grade school through high school, she said. “We didn’t want that to end.”

Parents also say their desire to keep tabs on their children is fueled partly by the high cost of higher education.

“I have a big investment in this,” said Leonard Green, a Seattle-area resident whose daughter, Jennifer, is a senior at USC.

During a recent visit to USC for a parents’ weekend program, Green said, “I’m proud of her for the fact that she’s been accepted to this school -- it’s a great school -- and I’m excited for her, but she just can’t be in cruise control. This is just too expensive a place to be in cruise control.”

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Jennifer Green said she calls at least one of her parents, who are divorced, almost daily.

Green chose her major, psychology, only after consulting with her mother and father. She regularly e-mails them papers she is writing to find out if they have editing suggestions.

“They pretty much know everything going on at school,” Green said.

Janet Castro, San Diego State’s interim director of new student and parent programs and DuBord’s boss, said she learned about the intensity of parent involvement during her six years in a previous job as academic director of a special residence hall program.

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“My phone would not quit ringing all summer long, and it would be parents -- it wouldn’t be students -- asking questions about their class schedule and trying to get classes changed or dates and times changed.

“The thing that was funniest to me,” Castro added, “was that the parent would call and say, ‘I got my schedule of classes today, and this isn’t what I want to take.’ ”

Some parents even take online courses at their children’s colleges as a way of staying in touch. Whitman College, a liberal arts school in Walla Walla, Wash., offers “parents core,” a great books of Western civilization course, beginning with “The Odyssey” by Homer, that mirrors a class taken by all freshmen.

Rogers B. Miles, a religion instructor who developed the parents’ course, said he believed it was “helpful to parents in letting go. They drop their children off, and for many parents, it’s really kind of traumatic. This gives them a kind of connection, at least for a while.”

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Young college students today apparently are much more comfortable confiding in their parents than in years past.

A national survey last spring by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that, among the 26,000 freshmen living on campus that it polled, 26.7% said they were in touch with their parents every day.

One reason is the rise of e-mail and cellphones.

When students on campus at the University of Connecticut try to decide on a new meal plan or dormitory room, frequently “we’ll have students tell us, ‘Thanks for the information. I’ve got to talk this over with Mom or Dad and get back to you,’ ” said H. Sam Miller, associate vice president for student affairs at the university’s flagship campus in Storrs. “That’s very different from what we saw five to 10 years ago.”

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Miller recounted meeting with a student recently to describe the university’s emergency loan program to help the young woman replace some stolen books and other items.

During the entire conversation, Miller said, “she had her mother on the cellphone while we were talking, and she was basically repeating everything I was saying.”

“Eventually, the student said, ‘Here’s my cellphone. Will you speak directly to my mom?’ ”


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