Ties That Bind

Ties That Bind

It's midnight in London. A student on the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin program there can't find a taxi. She calls her mother back in the States to see if she can fix the problem.

By David Treadwell | Photos by Fred Field

Mark Serdjenian '73, associate dean of students, talks of the "bittersweet struggle— parents face in learning to back away after nurturing their children for 18 years. "Parents can no longer control what life has in store for their son or daughter, and that can be scary. They know that their child will change in college, but they don't know how. It's really a fear of the unknown.—

Serdjenian acknowledges that not all parents adapt successfully to their new roles. "Sometimes a parent of a first-year student will call in the summer and say something like, 'We are thinking of taking a course in biology' or 'We plan to major in economics.' In fact, students must feel free to follow their own passions, to set their own academic goals.—

Beverly and Michael Wilson are in touch with their daughter, Naomi ‰07, daily with e-mail and instant messaging or by phone.
Although he occasionally must deal with an overly possessive or protective parent, Serdjenian says most parents do a fine job in their new roles. He encourages ongoing communication between the parent and the student and between the parent and Colby.

Athletics is a natural area for extended parental involvement in the lives of students. Parents of student-athletes enjoy an extra opportunity to stay in touch by attending games. And, increasingly, they do just that. "Parents think nothing of driving to Waterville every weekend,— marveled Marcella Zalot, director of athletics. "They used to set up tailgating parties just during football games; now we see them in lots of sports.— She estimates that at least half the parents of student-athletes regularly attend games, stay in touch with coaches through e-mail or by phone, or attend athletic banquets.

For the most part, Zalot views the increased parental involvement on the athletic scene as a positive development. She does, however, point out that there is a fine line between involvement and intrusion. "Let your students make their own mistakes and learn from them,— Zalot said. "It's their path, not yours.—

Some professors at Colby look less favorably upon frequent student-parent contact than do administrators. "Constant student-parent communication prolongs adolescence,— cautioned Tom Morrione '65, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology. "Sometimes that's necessary, but often it is not. Students should get unplugged from cell phones for a while; it's a different experience and different experiences are good.—

Morrione readily admits that times have changed drastically since he lived in Averill Hall 40 years ago. "The one phone on the floor rang endlessly,— he recalled, "and students endlessly did not answer it.— He also recognizes that constant cell phone use has become the norm and that it's difficult, often stressful, for students and/or parents to break the habit.

Jonathan Weiss, NEH/Class of 1940 Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Department of French and Italian, takes a softer stance. As head of Colby's Dijon program for years, Weiss recognizes the importance of student-to-parent accessibility, especially during the first semester. He enjoys regular contact with first-year parents while he is on overseas programs, particularly communication concerning the students' overall welfare, not purely academic matters.

Still, Weiss understands the pitfalls of the cell phone crutch. "We took a hike in the Alps, and just as we were coming down the mountain a student's cell phone rang. I wish we hadn't had that intrusion.— Weiss also wonders about the mother of a first-year student who called her daughter in Europe every night to read a bedtime story.

But Weiss did confess that he does not always practice what he preaches. "I'm constantly trying to resist the temptation to call my son at Trinity!—

Fernando Gouvêa, professor of mathematics, reports that parents seem to intervene directly only during the first year. "When I'm doing first-year advising, I often run up against 'but my mother said' arguments,— he said. "For example, there's 'My mother said I should take the easier calculus course so that I can get good grades and get into med school.' I tell them that that strategy rarely works.—

Another professor, who requested anonymity, said that his only negative experiences with parents involve their putting excessive pressure on students over grades or choice of majors. "These parents are the exception,— he noted, "but I see one a semester.—

On a more positive note, Tom Berger, Carter Professor of Mathematics, says that he's had many favorable interactions with parents, and they are not unusual. One parent even thought enough to endow a scholarship to Colby in Berger's name.

Michael Wilson admits that he and his wife, Beverly, were mentally but not emotionally prepared for life without their only child, Naomi '07, living at home. "It was lonelier than we had anticipated,— he said. "Life is not the same when you're living with just your dog and cat.—

Wilson laughs when he compares the contact he had with his own parents during his college years with the communication he maintains with Naomi. "My parents were lucky to get a call or a letter once every two or three weeks. We're in touch with Naomi perhaps twice a day, if you count e-mails and instant messages.—

This connected father is delighted with the communication he's had with Colby. "The attentiveness of the faculty has exceeded our expectations, the coaches are exemplary, and Naomi has become more independent, just as we had hoped she would.—