Saturday, September 02, 2006

Springtime in Academia and Greeting New Parents

Fall in academia, at least that portion of academia that teaches students, is like spring in the rest of the world. It's the season when there's a sense of renewal and hope. New students appear on campus ready to learn. Fall term is when I most look forward to my classes. I have a lot of energy, I'm not tired from the previous term, and the students are usually at their most energetic, too.

Sometimes spring arrives slowly: one spends weeks watching buds gradually appear on trees and then open up gradually over the course of a month. But other times spring seems to appear all at once: all of a sudden there are crocuses blooming in the yard, or you notice that it's still light out after dinner. The same is true of fall and the "back to school" season. Sometimes there's a long countdown, and other times it feels like a bit of a surprise.

The latter occurred on Sunday when I greeted parents of new students. We hold a brief orientation session for parents and families of new students on "move in" day. While the students are off getting organized for their outdoor orientation trip, we gather parents together, welcome them into the College of the Atlantic family, and answer any questions they might have. This is the fourth year that I've taken part in this event, and I enjoy doing it.

I remember the first year I spoke to parents. I had prepared a few introductory and welcoming comments. I was a few minutes into my remarks and I noticed that some folks in the audience were looking sort of strange -- a little green or something. I've given a lot of talks, including quite a few to parents, and taught a lot of classes, but this look was one that I didn't recognize. Not being very clever, I couldn't quite figure it out. Then I saw someone with tears in her eyes, and I got it. For whatever reason it hadn't quite occurred to me how emotional a day it can be for parents when they drop their sons or daughters off to college.

Anyway, on Sunday I again found myself speaking to parents of new students, and again I saw all sorts of emotions on the faces of the audience. Just two days earlier I had returned from China. In one sense, I was prepared for the presentation; I've done this before and I knew what I wanted to say. But in another sense, it caught me a little bit by surprise, like when one sees crocuses in late winter. It's not unexpected. We know that flowers come in the spring and that the academic cycle starts again in late summer or early autumn. But it nevertheless can be a surprising moment to actually see the crocuses.

One of the reasons I like talking to parents of the new students is that it serves as a really good reminder of the importance of many components of my work teaching and administering at the college. It's increasingly common to speak of our students as customers. And this is, in a sense, certainly true. And I also sometimes think about how much college costs, and how this gives us an obligation to do the best possible job for our students. But all of this seems trivial when I think about sixty or so parents looking at me while I promised them that the rest of the faculty and I would do our very best for their children. The parents' expressions showed a mix of concern, hope, pride, sadness, joy, and love. I wish all faculty -- at COA and elsewhere -- could share the experience of talking with the parents of new students on "drop off" day.

The leaving-for-college transition is an interesting one. It's a big deal. I think back to when I left for college. I wasn't dropped off at school by my parents, as I lived too far away. Instead I grabbed a cab to the airport and flew to Minneapolis. I don't remember too much about the particulars of the day. But I do remember a general sense that I had a clear opportunity to re-invent myself. Or, perhaps to have myself re-invented by a new group of friends and peers. I had attended the same small school from 4th to 12th grade. For the most part, my social standing and the cliques I hung out with hadn't changed since 5th grade. So there was something tremendously liberating -- and a little frightening -- about being in such a new setting. It was a totally clean start. In one's life there are probably only a few such instances where one gets a fresh start in this way. I can count only three in my life, and I doubt any more are coming.

Although I have no direct experience with it, I'm sure that having one's son or daughter go off to college must be an exciting and difficult day. A friend and colleague will be dropping her oldest son off at college this week. I've talked with her some about it and I think it will be a very happy day, but a day of complicated feelings.

Later today I will again greet and talk with parents of new students, this time the parents of those students who did not participate in our outdoor orientation program, and hence are arriving on campus and moving in today. This will be a smaller group than last week, as the majority of entering students have already arrived. The students from outdoor orientation return from their trips today, and over the next few days returning students will start trickling back to campus. Monday and Tuesday are orientation, Wednesday convocation and classes start Thursday. Although I'm not quite ready for it, I'm nevertheless looking forward to getting into the routine of the academic term.

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