Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Parenting a College Student

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This is the time of year when many parents aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. Years and years—and years—of chauffeuring kids here and there created a portal into their lives college doesn’t offer. In a way, that’s good; kids aren’t raised to be perpetually dependent. On the other hand, it’s wise to want to be there when their reality of adulthood is less than their vision of what it’s supposed to be.

The adult phase of parenthood is less about doing, and more about watching. You going to campus, and their coming home, are vital parts of your relationship. But the bigger part is stepping back and considering the big picture, not always easy to do when you aren’t in their lives every day.

Experienced college parents suggest this approach:

  • Make sure they don’t settle socially The best college experience comes for students who don’t simply trust their first roommate, dorm colleagues, and classmates will be lifelong chums. It does sometimes work that way, but if they come across brooders, or the high school students who still think they need to be on the fringe, it may be time to sit at a new dining table, or find a different place to hang out. Many first-year students have a heart that may feel the need to be the one sane person a challenged student needs to keep going. They certainly can do that, but they can do that *and* meet their own needs for growth. Keep an eye out—and if you sense they’re in a relationship where the other party needs help, find a kind way to say that, or to help your child connect their friend to the college-based help they need. 

  • Keep an eye on the relationships with high school chums Some students leave high school intending to keep close with their friends, while others are looking for a fresh start. This is a delicate balance. Too much reliance on high school chums stunts the college experience. Running far away from unexpected high school faces on campus may deny them a chance to see that person in a new, better, and delightful light. The kindergarten song rings true—make new friends, and keep the old, as long as they are healthy and true relationships.

  • Don’t settle academically I went to a summer basketball camp that, I believe, scarred me for life, but the one piece of good advice I got was “always play people better than you”. College opportunities are rich, and the only way students make the most of them is to seek them out. I had a student who got underfunded at their first college choice, so when they attended their second choice, they owned the place, ultimately being the first student to run their much-vaunted foreign policy summit. Those experiences don’t come to those waiting for an invitation.

It's also important to see college years as something beyond a campus experience. Colleges are in communities that need volunteers; colleges have departments with professors eager to help students publish in academic journals; parts of the world have college campuses to attend as a guest student or study-abroad participant. Students were admitted to college in part because they used their high school years to think about “what’s next”. A similar attitude about college will yield the same success and rich experience.

  • Schedule a regular time each week for a phone call They get their life, you get your lifeline, and it’s well organized. Generally, anything more than weekly is excessive. You helped them grow wings. Time for them to fly.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

FAFSA Foul-Ups? Apply Anyway (For Your Students)

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students, I get it.

I used to work for the US Department of Education, and they’re supposed to be helping you get an education—but it sure doesn’t seem that way, if you’ve applied for financial aid for life after high school. They changed the FAFSA form—the one used to apply for aid—and it was supposed to make applying easier.

It didn’t work. The new version had flaws, and more flaws are discovered nearly every week. Those students who did manage to apply have now been told there weren’t one, but two, incorrect formulas used to calculate eligibility—and this means many colleges won’t be sending out financial aid awards until May. This isn’t the fault of the colleges—and it isn’t your fault, either.

Colleges understand this, and they are doing everything they can to let students know two things:

  1. We want you to apply to our college.
  2. We want to do everything we can to help pay for it.

Students and families applying for aid are understandably frustrated with everything that’s happening. Given that, here’s my advice:


It’s never great when the people who are supposed to help you actually get in the way of you achieving a goal, but that doesn’t mean the goal is less important—it just means it’s a little harder to achieve. Some of you didn’t pass your driver’s test on the first try, but you still got your license, because it mattered. Some of you weren’t exactly LeBron James when you first picked up a basketball, or played the guitar like Prince when you first picked up your musical instrument. But you stayed with it, and you got better.

Applying for financial aid, at least this year, is kind of the same thing. It’s only supposed to take one try, but for some reason, this year it’s going to take more than that. If you’re completing a FAFSA to go to college, college is still cool, and you still deserve to go. Persist.

If you’re using your FAFSA for technical training, that training is still cool, and that job is still going to pay way more than the local sandwich shop now, and will pay way, way more over 30 years. Persist.

No matter why you’re completing your FAFSA, you’re likely going to end up making more money, living a better life, and understanding more about yourself if it helps pay for the experience you’re looking for. That’s still cool. Persist.

Help is here if you need it. Start with your high school counselor—and yes, I know they see a zillion students, so getting to see them might be a challenge. You’re worth putting in the time—persist.

If that doesn’t work, call the financial aid office of the college or program you’re applying to, or thinking about applying to. They want you to apply, and if FAFSA is getting in your way, they will likely have some advice on how to overcome that hurdle.

This FAFSA nightmare was never supposed to happen, and many of the adults involved with helping students go to college are asking for big changes to make sure it never happens again. It’s hard to say how long that will take—but then again, that kind of doesn’t matter. For now, we’re going to focus on you, and what we need to do to help you reach your goal for life after high school.

For better or worse, the next step is yours to take, but we’re here, with real help, when you take it. Persi—well, you get it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Giving Back

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Hamtramck is a Detroit enclave with Polish roots, a part of town where, in the day, neighbors would scrub their sidewalks together until you could eat off them. It’s a wonderfully diverse neighborhood now, still hosting a Paczki run each Lenten season, named after the Polish donut with a zillion calories you eat on Fat Tuesday. The route runs through neighborhoods, and your 5K effort is rewarded at the end with a table of Paczki to the left, and a table of beer to the right.

As I ran past these very-close-together houses with kids in their pajamas sitting on the stoops, cheering for the runners (remember, this is February), I wished there was something I could do for this old-school, blue collar community. I was born in a neighborhood in northwest Detroit that wasn’t too different from this one, with houses owned by people who had been raised in the Depression, most of them having served in World War II, Korea, or both. Once they came home, there were only three things they wanted in life: a house with indoor plumbing (no, I am not kidding), a small yard to cut on sunny Saturday mornings and drink beer in on sunny Saturday afternoons in a folding chair, and the chance for their kids to go to college. Hamtramck was screaming the same vibe. If only I could figure out how to help.

It turns out I didn’t have to do much but wish to make it so. About a week later, and completely out of the blue, the Hamtramck PTA president somehow tracked me down, and asked if I’d give a college access talk at their high school. We talked to set things up, and it was clear she was a go-getter, one of those moms who talked on the phone to set up dentist appointments with a baby on her hip, while gesticulating to her other children to get ready for school. It turned out Donna Reed wasn’t dead. She was now Greek, and living in Hamtramck.

I was ushered into a barren auditorium that was rich with the memory of ten thousand assemblies that all started with the Pledge of Allegiance. The walls were undecorated, likely holding their color from the Eisenhower administration, and the kid from the AV club set up a microphone the Andrews Sisters could have used. Students filtered in, many of them girls with covered heads, accompanied by mothers with covered heads, and several younger siblings. I shifted my gaze back and forth, seeing the face of each parent in the face of each student, and caught my breath. I was witnessing an illustration of the dictionary definition of family.

My presentation was warmly received, but only a handful of audience members came up to ask questions. At first, I wondered if my talk had met the needs of those in attendance, since most of my other presentations were concluded by go-getter parents lurching to the front of the room to ask about Harvard or something like that. It then occurred to me: this neighborhood doesn’t work that way. You make the most out of what’s given you, and express gratitude for the chance to do just that.

The PTA president was the last to talk to me, energized by the presentation, overflowing with kindness and gratitude. My payment was a handwritten thank you note and the best homemade Greek pastries I’ve ever had…

…and a reminder how lucky I am to be in a profession where I can make a difference, if only I put myself out there a little.