Home for the holidays: What to expect when your student comes back from college
MY WIFE AND I might not be the best examples of helping a student transition during their first term in college. We missed Parents’ Weekend at our daughter’s college, and we didn’t realize she had a full week off at Thanksgiving. Our daughter was gracious but took many opportunities to “remind” us of our gaffes. Let’s just say the next year we took her to many restaurants in the vicinity of her university in our efforts to make up for the errors.
That’s probably not the experience of most parents with their college students. You would think my years of experience as a university administrator would have taught me a thing or two to enrich my own family interactions. But, as we all know, we are human, with many blind spots, and God certainly is not done with us (me!) yet.
For the past 17 years, I’ve served in a variety of roles at Seattle Pacific. All of them have been centered on the lives of the students at this university, so I’ve gotten to know our students well. I’ve also had the great pleasure of writing to SPU parents as their students head home for quarter breaks or holidays.
When I started writing to parents, my own children were in grade school. They have now graduated from college, moved out of the house, married, and embarked on their own careers. In the beginning, I had some good ideas about how to encourage conversations between parents and their college-aged children. But there is no better teacher than real-life parenting. And, in this case, parenting one’s own college students!
Our children had relatively good college experiences, but it was eye-opening when we sat with them as they spoke about their joys and sorrows, their accomplishments and failures, or their relationships with friends and faculty. My wife and I listened to them wrestle through ongoing decisions about a major, their dreams of summer fun versus the reality of the summer job, and many other aspects of their journeys. Listening in real time to the stories of loved ones adds a deeper understanding of this transition to adulthood. And there is a richness to the experience that comes from the connection and love of a child.
Amid all the challenges of this past year, the professional journal Leadership Exchange invited me to reflect on the work we do in higher education to develop our students. I chose to focus on how we offer encouragement and hope to students — advice that might be helpful to all parents, but perhaps especially to parents of college students as their kids return home for the holidays. Here are my thoughts:
LISTEN CLOSELY. Take the time to hear not only your college student’s words, but also their tone, mannerisms, and silence. This past year, many of us appreciated the convenience of virtual communications via Zoom or Teams, but those platforms may not have helped us develop the skills for deep listening, which requires greater energy and focus.
UNDERSTAND DEEPLY. Your student will be experiencing many new things, meeting new people, learning new concepts, and making decisions. As you have conversations, keep your mind open to understand your student’s context. Learn about the internal and external pressures they face. Do your best not to make assumptions, but rather go beneath the surface of the words. Use the wisdom of your years to understand your kids more fully.
INTERVENE CAREFULLY. There may be times when you and your student are uncomfortable talking about their journey. Questions can seem invasive. Comments can be misconstrued. Taking a step back might be the best option in the moment. Your student has changed and is changing. Difficult subjects may have been discussed prior to college. Regardless, there will be times when you and your student won’t have the same opinion or perspective. Be genuine, and work to deepen the relationship now for the times to come.
ACT GRACIOUSLY. Remember, you and your student are journeying together through unknown terrain. You will most likely be surprised sometime in this journey. For me, it was when my son decided to stop playing basketball for SPU. The conversation struck at a core of his identity; since he was a small child we had seen him as an athlete. A student’s many gifts or interests may need to be set aside. That can be difficult for all. Extend a gracious hand to provide assurance and a foundation for your student and you to take the next step — whether it’s an easy or a difficult one.
APPRECIATE AUTHENTICALLY. Don’t hold back from articulating and showing your appreciation for your student. In the process of listening, understanding, and sharing, there will be a greater knowledge of your student’s growth and development. Find tangible and genuine ways to appreciate your student.
CELEBRATE APPROPRIATELY AND FULLY. This may look different for each student. Some may relish public recognition. Others may want a thoughtful, written note that clearly highlights accomplishments and your appreciation. Whatever their preferences, these moments of celebration will inspire, motivate, and set the stage for building a deeper, solid relationship.
Jeff Jordan is vice provost for student formation and community engagement.
Illustrations by Zara Picken