9 Survival Tips for Parents of College Students

Our trip to the airport on Saturday to send our eldest son back to college for his second year was so much easier than last year.  Just  12 short months ago, our firstborn was departing for his first year of college (see Sending a Son to College – I Didn’t Know It Would Be Painful!).

There was so much uncertainty when he started his Freshman year at an Eastern university:

  • Did he have everything he needed in the way of clothing and stuff for his room?
  • How much money does a college student need during the school year?
  • Did our son really need the meningitis vaccine?
  • Would he adapt to a different cultural environment and the change in weather?
  • Did he choose the right college?

Waiting in line at San Jose airport to check his luggage, I had a chance to watch the college freshmen and their families repeat the teary-eyed departure that we lived just one year ago. How I empathized with them!

One young woman was frantically trying to shift enough clothing from her checked bag to her carry on. The checked bag weighed 57 pounds. She had to get the overweight bag to 50 pounds to meet the airline’s requirements. Her flight was set to depart in 45 minutes. And, there was still the long walk through the security line before she could get to her plane.

Watching the activity all around me, I realized that we have learned a number of lessons after surviving the first year of college:

College Survival Lesson 1: Ship as much of your student’s belongings to the college ahead of time. I got this tip at a party from a father of a second year student who paid exorbitant fees on overweight luggage her first year.  FedEx Ground is actually slightly cheaper than UPS from California to Rhode Island. What used to be Kinko’s is now FedEx Office. They can help you get your boxes of stuff where they need to go. And, there are open late.  Remember to allow enough advance time to ship. It takes about 4-7 days to get packages from here to there.

College Survival Lesson 2: Residence Hall Linens turned out to be a time saver. I ignored the first flyer because I didn’t know who they were. When the second one came in from my son’s college, I read through it more carefully. We ordered a smaller package of sheets and towels shipped to our home so that I could launder them before the start of school. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality. And they are guaranteed to last all four years! They still look good after the first year.

College Survival Lesson 3: Unless you live within a couple hours driving distance of the college, buy or rent your mini-fridge and other big items there. But, remember that any bulky item you buy will have to be stored over the summer. Buy only absolute essentials. Coordinate with roommates about furnishings. Most dorm rooms are very small.

College Survival Lesson 4: Will the budget amount for personal expenses estimated by the college financial aid office last both semesters?  Maybe. As our son’s plane took off last year, I worried that the budget of $3600 might be wrong. How expensive would books be? Did we forget to anticipate anything? How would our son manage his money?

It turns out that our son did an great job of holding down expenses. He spent $3300 on books and personal expenses (not counting room and board). The biggest difference from the college prepared budget was travel costs. Driving 3000 miles for holidays was not really an option. Plane flights, including an extra trip at Thanksgiving, cost $1200. The school budgeted $800 for travel.  Our son managed to save money on text books by sharing a few with another friend in the same classes and buying used books ($850 actual vs $1230 estimated). His personal expenses totaled $1350 actual vs. $1590 estimated. He resisted the temptation to eat out rather than at the college cafeteria. We were relieved to know that our son is quite good at conserving his cash.

College Survival Lesson 5: If your daughter or son has not lived away from home before, expect some homesickness the first semester. I visited our son during Parents’ Weekend in October because he seemed so lonely those first weeks. He paid the plane fare to come for Thanksgiving because he didn’t want to be alone in the dorm (most students live within driving distance) on the holiday. In addition to communicating by phone, Facebook and cards, consider sending care packages.  You can order a package from any of the floral websites and from specialty companies. Search “College Student Care Packages” to find a long list of companies that will ship your student’s favorite munchies. Because our eldest has food allergies, I packed my own with non-perishable items like food bars, chai tea, almonds, pistachios, dried cherries and cranberries. I shipped vitamins periodically, too.

College Survival Lesson 6: Bottled water is costly for a college student. Tap water often tastes bad, not to mention the latest reports showing all sorts of drugs coming out of the tap. But, everyone needs to drink water. The simple solutions is to buy a water purifying pitcher. All your son or daughter needs to do is soak and rinse the filter, put it in the pitcher, pour in cold tap water and wait for the better tasting filtered water to trickle through to the bottom.  I tested several brands and settled on a PUR pitcher and filter.

College Survival Lesson 7: I have very mixed feelings about all of the immunizations that are required for children and young adults. Was the expensive meningitis vaccine really necessary? Yes. My research indicated that college freshmen are at a much higher risk of getting meningitis. Some strains are contagious — spread through sneezing, coughing, kissing, or sharing drinking glasses.  Antibiotics work on this disease IF it is diagnosed early and treatment is begun very rapidly.  The reality of college freshman life is that most students stay up very late, eat at odd times, are stressed to the max adjusting to the new environment and may not recognize that they are much sicker than just having the flu. And, sadly, delays in treating meningitis can be deadly. This is one immunization that your son or daughter should not miss.

College Survival Lesson 8: I grew up in the East but my son is all Californian. My pleas to shop for winter clothes were ignored. My son was convinced that he would be warm enough by layering the clothes he already owned.  The protective mother in me wanted to scold him into submission. I resisted the urge, allowing him to have his own way. The late October rain in New England was cold, cold, cold. The long walks from his dorm at the far end of campus to class convinced him that I was right about buying winter clothing. Fortunately, we were able to buy boots, lined raincoat, long underwear and windproof fleece online and have it arrive pronto.So, be prepared for unexpected needs but let your college student lead. Because of this episode, my advice carries much more weight these days.

College Survival Lesson 9: Wait until January to get a realistic appraisal about the student’s choice of school. The first semester was rough for our son and many of his friends.  Roommate problems topped the list of super stress inducers. Resist the urge to intervene unless the situation is potentially dangerous. Give your student space to deal with the issue. A five star book with great tips for dealing with the roommate from hell is “My Roommate Is Driving Me Crazy”

This year our son is rooming with several of his friends who share is interests and values so he shouldn’t experience the issues he had with last year’s roommate. I think he’s going to have a great school year. We are looking forward to hearing about it when he is home after the semester ends.

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