Brian Underwood: Advice for the college-bound student

What do a T-shirt, winter coat, computer, artist’s brush, white board and a teddy bear have in common?

They are but a few of the eclectic items that were recently shoehorned into our 2010 Honda for the purpose of seeing if/how our oldest daughter’s assorted belongings might fit ahead of our upcoming trip to Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., where she will be transferring to begin her junior year.

It’s hard for us to believe that in a couple of weeks, the Underwood family will load up said items and much, much, much more into the family truckster for a four-day, cross-country road trip.

Adding to the coziness will undoubtedly be a majority of my wife’s wardrobe and half of her side of the bathroom, as well as our youngest daughter’s “essentials,” including technology, which is essential for my sanity.

I shouldn’t complain, though; I have been allotted a generous postage stamp-sized corner of the trunk between the driver’s side tail light and the wheel well, buried under bags of clothes, for my toothbrush, razor and phone charger.

We’re certainly not going to be alone in making this journey. Though my curiosity was unable to locate statistics on the estimated number of students who will be escorted to college for the first time this fall, I think it’s safe to say that thousands of families will soon be loading their family vehicles for similar treks.

My wife and I have had more than a few conversations of late about whether or not this is really happening, but the recent withdrawal for tuition, room and board confirmed it is very real. But now, after more than 34 years of counseling how to get kids to the next stage of their lives successfully, I suddenly realize that I’m now at a loss when it comes to my own daughter.

You see, after years of sharing all the nifty pathways to approach college and career planning, I now realize, mere days ahead of taking our first child to college, that I’ve never really spent any time offering what to say (or not) once they arrive at that doorstep. And now I’m up.

Physician, heal thyself, so I spent some time recently trying to prepare for that day next month at the Fanning Residence Hall, once all the bags and boxes are unpacked and the administration politely excuses the parents to leave, for what to say.

My mother, God rest her soul, told me behind dark glasses that didn’t fool anyone, “Study hard and make me proud.” I didn’t do either, initially, which makes me all the more ecstatic that the apple of my eye fell a country mile from my tree and landed under her mother’s. But still there have to be some words of wisdom to impart, so here are some things I’ve read and am considering…

“Use single-ply for toilet paper because double-ply plugs,” says Alexandra Rosas, co-producer of the “Listen To Your Mother” show in Milwaukee in her blog, Grown and Flown: Parenting Never Ends. “Don’t lend money. Eat protein or you’ll feel depressed. Always take a shower because it’s like a miracle. So is a new shirt, so let me know and I’ll send you some.”

“Look over your shoulder when you walk home alone at night and do not walk home with earbuds in so you can hear if someone is following you. Good posture and a good haircut save many a day.”

OK, I might not adopt all this, but it’s a start, especially the “don’t lend money” part. But a dad’s gotta give some advice, too, right?

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed reading and learning from some of the many fine education and family writers for the Washington Post. On the subject of what to impart to one’s child leading up to saying goodbye, columnist Jeffrey J. Selingo offered some excellent advice a couple of years back.

The premise of Selingo’s encouragements err to the practical side of those pearls of wisdom a parent should convey in the final days and hours. His thesis is predicated on how much time is spent preparing to get them there and the void that follows once they arrive.

“The truth is that most new undergraduates are woefully unprepared for the realities of college,” Selingo explained. “The college search that has consumed many of them for the past year — and in some cases, for more than a year — focused largely on where to go to college, not how they should go to college.”

Selingo recommends parents offer four specific pieces of advice to help their college-bound children in transition from dependence to independence.

“Researchers have found that getting to know at least one faculty member well in the first year of college improves the chances that students will get more from their undergraduate experience,” Selingo wrote based on the annual National Survey of Student Engagement.

“One easy way for students to build a one-on-one relationship with a professor who teaches sometimes hundreds of students in a semester is during office hours. Unfortunately, undergraduates don’t seek out professors or advisers nearly as much as they should to talk about life and careers. Office hours aren’t just reserved for students facing problems in class.”

This point really resonates with me, as I recall how much more I learned about college, career and life after spending additional time with one Dr. Gordon Cheeswright, who ended up being an enormous influence on my college career and my early professional life. His advice, encouragement and eventual friendship was invaluable to me.

“Students can no longer wait for the summer before their senior year to line up their first internship,” Selingo pointed out for his next point of emphasis for parents to emphasize. “That now needs to happen during the summer after their freshman year.”

In support of this, he went on to cite a 2014 Gallup poll of 30,000 college graduates that found that those who had secured an internship or job in their area of professional interest were twice as likely to be engaged in their life and work.

Problematically, just one in three graduates said they had internships or similar hands-on learning experiences in college. This is doubly concerning when taken into consideration that, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, employers today hire full-time approximately 50 percent of the interns who worked for them before they graduated.

I don’t know what the placement statistics were back in the mid-’80s when I was preparing to graduate from college, but I can say that after interning for a local newspaper in college, I was offered a paid position after interning. It wasn’t much, but it was definitely resume-building material that eventually paved the way for me to write for the Los Angeles Times. All this, by the way, was advised by none other than Dr. Cheesewright during office hours.

Thirdly, Selingo recommends students become very familiar with their course catalogs, particularly in light of a University of California, Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute statistic he shares that nearly a quarter of entering freshmen will change their major by the end of their first year.

“To make the most of their undergraduate years and prepare for the job market after college, students should take courses that challenge them to work hard (especially those with extensive reading and writing requirements),” the writer states. “The job market is expanding and contracting at an alarming pace, and even the supposed hot majors of today will not necessarily guarantee jobs four years from now.

Entering and finishing as a communication arts major, I briefly dabbled in between with becoming a theology major. Fast forward three decades later, it’s rather ironic (or perhaps not) that I work in Christian education and write on behalf of all seeking to grow their gifts and talents.

Finally, Selingo emphasizes that perhaps the greatest value of an undergraduate residential experience is the opportunity for students to network with their peers.

“Some of the most important learning that happens in college comes from peers, so students want to be surrounded by people who give them different perspectives on life and careers,” Selingo points out. “Recent graduates I talked to often said their best leads for internships and jobs came from their classmates or students a year or two ahead of them.”

This is all really good stuff, and I’ll definitely look to strategically drip this into conversation over the next couple of weeks, but I still need to whisper my own voice for what’s unique to our daughter and my relationship with her. That part is easy...

You’re ready, little girl. Just remember who you are and Whose you are.

Brian Underwood is director of school development at Sierra Lutheran High School in Carson City.


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