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A parent’s rite of passage
After delivering their freshmen to orientation, mothers, fathers, and guardians enjoy a preview of the life and purposes of the University
O n a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon in June, more than 700 incoming first-year students and parents found their way to St. Ignatius Church, where they heard Fr. Joseph Marchese, director of Boston College’s Office of First Year Experience, deliver the first words of greeting: “Why start here?”
They settled in for a Mass that would officially kick off a three-day freshman orientation, the first of seven such sessions offered by Marchese’s office for students and parents throughout the summer. Looking out on the overflowing congregation—a sea of bright polo shirts and sundresses—Marchese, in a slate-colored summer suit, answered his own question. “We’re a Catholic Jesuit university,” he said, and he told of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, and of the nearly 500-year-old tradition of Jesuit education. “We’re of different faiths,” he said of the assemblage, “but we come, and we share,” because this legacy belongs to all. Gregory Kalscheur, SJ, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, celebrated the Mass. In his homily, he limned the Jesuit vision of the world, in which “God is everywhere and anywhere at work,” where the soul can be nurtured in a biology lab, a political science class, or a dining hall.
Freshman orientation at Boston College and at many other universities has developed markedly since the days when incoming students were briefed for a few hours in the basics of registration and dorm rules and then sent off to class. Orientations now are often intensive multi-day affairs, and one of the more recent innovations has to do with the parents: Increasingly, when they arrive with the students they stay.
Cheryl Bui of Villa Park, California, mother of Matt ’16, remembers when her parents dropped her off at her college orientation and lingered just long enough to “make sure the dorm wasn’t coed.” At the Sunday through Tuesday, June 10–12, orientation in Chestnut Hill, she and more than 400 other parents took part in three tightly scheduled days of meetings that ran concurrently with the freshman students’ program. They heard what their sons and daughters heard about the nature and identity of Boston College and generally about the transition from high school to college. The students roomed together in Vanderslice Hall and 90 St. Thomas More Road; the parents found accommodations off campus.
Sometimes dubbed “Empty Nesting 101,” parent orientations came very early to Boston College, when Marchese, newly installed as First Year Experience (FYE) director, created a voluntary three-day parent program in 1995 at the same time that he revamped the orientation required of freshmen. The idea was to inject into both programs the University’s emphasis on academic excellence, or what Marchese calls “intellectual precociousness,” at a moment when Boston College was on the cusp of becoming highly selective. There was to be an equal stress on Jesuit identity. (Additionally, for the students, there would be opportunities through the year to take part in freshman retreats and other programs sponsored by FYE.)
These days, parent orientation imparts plenty of nuts-and-bolts information about academic requirements and campus life and offers presentations on account billing, student employment, and Eagle-One, the identification cum debit card. But the higher purpose remains—to introduce parents to a certain “philosophy and spirituality of education,” Marchese says.
Especially on Sunday night and late Tuesday afternoon, at the first and final sessions in Robsham Theater (along with Sunday dinner, the only sessions that brought together parents and incoming students), there were lively demonstrations of the rah-rah as well as profound seriousness. Sometimes those moods came very close together: On Tuesday, Robsham erupted with foot-stomping, handclapping “Eagles on the warpath, ooh, aah” chants. A moment later Marchese, who is a diocesan priest, was propounding the Jesuit concept of magis or “the more.” Always seek “more of the goodness of creation,” he urged.
No small part of the goal of orientation at Boston College and other institutions is to encourage parents to let go of their children, to give them space to choose their own paths. This priority has become more pronounced in the age of so-called helicopter parents who hover over their children, “orchestrating their lives,” notes Elizabeth Bracher ’91, the associate director of First Year Experience, who earned a Ph.D. in applied developmental psychology at Boston College in 2004. At a Monday morning “Challenge of Transition” session in Devlin Hall, parents heard from, among others, the director of the office of residential life, George Arey. He described a typical “awkward moment”: A student with whom he is discussing a dorm problem pieces together enough to say, “My mom called you, didn’t she?” (Mom, says Arey, has usually instructed the director not to say she called.) “We want [students] to come in and have that conversation—before we hear from you,” Arey said as a number of parents in the tiered lecture hall nodded in agreement. “We take your child’s development as an adult very seriously.”
The “letting go” message, however, was not unmixed. Members of several panels requested parental help, on such matters as alcohol consumption and participation in student activities (parents were asked repeatedly to remind their freshmen about the Student Involvement Fair slated for September 7). Arey pointed out that a student’s Facebook page will often be the first impression he or she makes on peers—”something you need to take a look at,” he recommended.
Earlier that morning, parents had heard from a student panel. “My mom put me on a plane and said, ‘Good luck!’” recounted Christopher Ager ’14, of Gjettum, Norway, who majors in international studies. “It worked for me.” His recollection drew laughs from the parents in Robsham, as did his follow-up: “We Skype.” Another student spoke of a more trying process in which her parents could not let go of “the person I was in high school,” a cheerleader who thought she would do more of the same in college but quickly discovered other passions. “I was growing as a person,” said the rising senior, who described her involvement with service projects such as Appalachia Volunteers. The panel was culled from the 43 student orientation leaders, who were identifiable throughout the session by their Land’s End polo shirts (a different color each day), name badges, and tan Bermuda shorts.
With the economic woes of recent years, parents have become increasingly attentive to how college will prepare the way for gainful work, according to many higher education professionals. Perhaps counterintuitively, those who speak for Boston College at its orientations have responded by doubling down on the message that a university is not an employment agency with gothic towers; students are there to discover their passions and learn how to think and serve others. The case against the “utilitarian view of education” is more urgent than ever, Marchese tells parents.
It is not a knockdown argument. “The Jesuits seem to be saying that college isn’t for getting a job,” said Dennis Minett, who has worked for 34 years as a pipefitter at General Dynamics Electric Boat in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. “Of course,” he added matter-of-factly, “that’s what everyone is here for.”
This question of what college is for provoked some of the liveliest discussion in the sessions, in hallways, and over lunches in McElroy Commons. It was a conversation that seemed to evolve over the three days. The chief provocateur was Fr. Michael Himes, a popular theology professor and diocesan priest, who spoke on Sunday night to the full convocation of families.
On the darkened stage of Robsham, Himes’s lecture at times seemed more like a one-person play as he paced from side to side with hands folded behind his back when he wasn’t wagging a finger in the air or otherwise gesturing theatrically. He indulged in some Catholic collegiate rivalry, mentioning that he formerly taught at Notre Dame—”if you would excuse the expression,” he quipped, eliciting cheers across the jam-packed auditorium. He saluted the “great faculty” at Boston College, the “great” students, and the “great sacrifices” parents make, but the platitudes were soon paired with critical reflection upon the purposes of higher education.
After a preamble about how “robust conversation” defines a great university, Himes arrived at his core contention. A great university is not about finding a job or “adding a zero to a starting salary line” or even getting into graduate school, he said. “Don’t get me wrong,” Himes went on in his curiously blended accent, part Brooklyn and part Britain (having grown up in the borough, around relatives from abroad). “It’s terribly important. It’s just not what a university is good at. It’s not what it’s about.” He continued—”It’s about producing intellectuals.” These are people who are never completely satisfied with an answer to a big question and always keep probing. Their rallying cry is, as Himes put it, “Yes, but.”
At a place like Boston College, he said, students ask questions about human existence, about who they want to become, and how they can channel their passions and talents into service to the world. During the Q&A, a parent asked from his seat in a middle row what “we,” parents, should fear most about what lies ahead in college. Himes replied in an instant—”that at no time in the next four years will your student shock you and fill you with horror.” The response brought down the house, although a disproportionate share of the high-spirited clapping and cheering appeared to come from younger hands and voices.
The next day, Peter and Sue Lynch of Rockville Centre, New York, were trolling the main bookstore in McElroy for some maroon and gold, as were other parents during the lunch break. Holding a clutch of hangers with Boston College sweatpants, sweatshirts, and jerseys, Lynch, a banker, said he agrees that students should try to discover their passions but feels nonetheless that “college is for getting a job that will make it possible to do well and raise a family.” Encountered a day later at the entrance of Devlin, however, Lynch spoke more dissonantly about “two views,” including the non-utilitarian outlook. “Not sure which is right,” he said this time. Sue Lynch expressed a proposition heard often at parent orientation: “If you learn to think well, you could apply that to all areas” of professional life, in a world that is changing too fast for a narrow education.
Arthur Vera, a lawyer in Miami, had nothing less than an epiphany. A specialist in mergers and acquisitions, Vera said that after returning to his hotel on Sunday night, he mentioned to his wife that the Himes critique seemed “almost medieval,” as in outmoded. But he said on Tuesday morning that after giving it much thought and hearing further presentations on the value of a contemporary liberal arts education, “my thinking has completely shifted,” particularly on questions surrounding his daughter Olivia’s major and career focus. He added, with a look that suggested surprise at his own words—”My daughter is here to be an intellectual.”
Standing on Robsham Plaza in a crush of parents after the closing ceremony, Myles Pritchard, a wealth manager in Los Angeles, said, “When we get back home, I have to talk with my son about whether he still wants to be premed. Is that what he really wants? Or is he just doing it for the money?”
At bottom, says Marchese, the question that grips parents is an existential one: Will you care for my child? At the start of the orientation, Bui, who recently retired as a business development manager with Procter & Gamble in Orange County, California, said she came to the orientation for “peace of mind.” She explained, “When you live 2,600 miles away, you have to be able to put your faith and trust in the institution.” Early Monday morning, sitting out on Robsham Plaza with a cup of coffee, Bui was ready to say her confidence was increasing.
Read more by William Bole