Is attending orientation with your college freshman helicoptering or helping?

I just spent two days with my daughter at a University of Georgia freshmen orientation and shared the travails of elevated dorm beds on Facebook. I expected ribbing about my ungainly attempts to hoist myself up and over the guard rail, but instead met with a spirited debate about whether parents even should accompany teens to college orientation in the first place.

Some people were unaware that most colleges now invite parents to orientation and create extensive programming for them. Others felt parents at orientation undermined the independence that college was supposed to develop in students. (I was four floors away from my daughter in her dorm. She roomed with a student from New Jersey who came sans parents but with precise instructions on where to go and when. In fact, we relied on all her mother’s reconnaissance to get places.)

My own parents were minimalists who only showed up for school graduations or command performances. I adhered to that model until I heard one too many times from my oldest daughter, “I was the only one there without a parent.”

This was my first college orientation — I didn’t go with my older two children. Now, I am adding that omission to my long reel of parental blunders.

There is a lot to navigate and figure out, especially at a big public university with nearly 36,000 undergrads and graduate students. (UGA is experiencing such a surge in enrollment that it’s offering Athens-area freshmen $1,000 to give up their dorm beds and stay at home and $3,500 to upperclassmen to cancel their university housing contracts and go off-campus.)

It is helpful to have another point of view and someone on hand with ready cash, as there were ID cards and placement tests that can’t be billed to student accounts.

UGA earns accolades for its carefully curated two-day orientation sessions attended each time by around 300 students and their entourages, including grandparents, younger siblings and older brothers. At the dozens of panels and presentations, they learn how to call the Dawgs, they watch spoken word performances about diversity and tolerance and listen to somber speakers remind the teens they are not in Kansas anymore: “We don’t have detention. We have jail.”

The newbies hear from an unfailingly cheerful array of current upperclassmen, all of whom fall into that category of extrovert who, if washed up on a desert island, would somehow create a beach volleyball league. (A suggestion to UGA: Consider a panel of kids who struggled in their first year to find their place on a sprawling campus. It would be helpful to hear how they overcame their struggles, doubts and apprehensions.)

Can most incoming freshmen handle orientation on their own? Yes, if everything goes right. (Of course, there are risks to leaving the entire process to your child. One teen showed up on his own bright and early for orientation Monday only to realize it began Tuesday.)

What you have to accept is that UGA is like any vast bureaucracy: You can get lost, and sending up a flare doesn’t necessarily bring immediate aid.

For example, appointments for advisement sessions are texted to kids midway through the final day of orientation and awaited by them and their parents with great angst. Students are told in these one-on-one sessions which courses to take. My child’s slot ended up being the last one of the day and on the other side of campus, which meant she’d miss the dorm checkout deadline. As a punctuality fanatic, I reflexively panicked and called to inquire about an extension; three transfers later, I finally got clearance. (A friend who disdains deadlines, no-parking signs or ever arriving on time checked out hours later with no apologies or repercussions, so my frantic calls were probably unnecessary.)

Going with your child to college orientation doesn’t assure success. After being told several times during orientation about how large this freshmen class was, I counseled my daughter to press her adviser on the options if the recommended classes were full when she sat down later to register.

She didn’t, some were, and now she’s figuring it out on her own.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.