In Loco Parentis

Guest Correspondence

I had the privilege last week of speaking to parents of New College’s incoming first year and transfer students. The students come from all over Florida, 28 states, and five foreign countries. As in the past, I experienced the pride, hope, trepidation and anxiety that the parents radiated, and I wondered about the potency of that emotional cocktail.

Our society commemorates births, graduations, marriages and deaths. But, the experience of escorting children to begin college goes curiously unremarked. I have four children, now grown, and my eight most vivid memories are bringing each to kindergarten for the first time and dropping each at college. The clarity and freight of those eight memories exceed those of my own and my children’s graduations and weddings.


The reason, I think, is that the first day at a school or university marks a real shift in the routines of one’s family. No parent knows how it will end up, but the parents sense that the future of those whom they have protected and sheltered has passed largely out of their control. They are handing off responsibility and relationships with those children and, hence, among family members will change.

I tell the parents to relax. Their student will be fine—just not all of the time.

And I make two requests.

First, when their student calls them for help, I request that they ask their student whom on campus they think might help, and encourage their student to contact that person. New College, like many other residential institutions, has tremendous resources available to its students. There is no better place than college for students to practice the lifelong skill of learning how to think about what help they might need and how to secure it.

My second request is that they encourage their student to explore and expand, academically and socially. Our students are very focused, many have strong likes, dislikes and fixed beliefs about what they are good at and what they are bad at. I ask parents to encourage their students to step outside of their comfort zone: to take a writing class if they dislike writing or a math class if they believe that they are not good at math. It’s okay, I tell them, not to like something, but it is not okay to fear it.

Likewise, they should reach out socially: learn another language, learn to talk across difference, befriend someone unlike themselves. Most students will live more than 80 years after graduation, and can expect to have eight or more careers. Fear will stop them from being all they can be, and they will never get another four years to explore and air out those dark corners in their minds.

But above all, I feel the parents’ uncertainty and hope, and the trust that they are investing in the college. I realize what a gift, and what an extraordinary responsibility, the loan of their students is, and I vow that we will do well by them.

Dr. Donal O'Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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