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CHCCS PTA Council Co-Hosts "Transition to College" Event

It’s more than just the high school seniors who transition to college.  It really is a family affair and everyone needs to be prepared for when the time arrives.

Parents of high school seniors can be completely focused on supporting their children’s admission process to college, figuring out financial aid options, and juggling the stresses and festivities of “making it” through the final months of twelfth grade. So focused to the degree they may not think and plan enough for the “What Next?” questions surrounding transitions to life beyond high school. A standing-room only crowd of parents and staff from CHCCS showed up to learn more about the issue at a presentation on “Preparing Your College-Bound Student for Transition” on the evening of May 20 at the Chapel Hill Public Library (CHPL).

CHCCS PTA Council President, Erin Schwie Langston, said, “Transitions can be challenging, emotionally/practically/physically/psychologically, for both the child and parent. It's better to try to prepare, talk, communicate, model and practice health behaviors in advance versus in the thick of it or after the fact.”

The subtitle of the event was “Beyond GPAs, College Essays, and Acceptance: How to help your student succeed in their first year,” and the assembled panel of five experts offered a wealth of tips and counsel to help parents think about the What Next questions, especially regarding mental health supports. The event was developed by Elinor Landess of the Chapel Hill & Campus Coalition, and the co-sponsors were the CHCCS PTA Council, as well as CHPL. “The panel for parents of families with graduating seniors was intended to help families prepare for the complexities of transitioning out of high school and into college, covering mental health, substance use, and coping with change,” Landess said.

Presenters included UNC Dean of Students, Desiree Rickenberg, Dean of East Campus at Duke University, Dr. LB Bergene, Latoya Dunston, addiction counselor at Duke Integrated Pediatric Mental Health and Jim Wise, student assistance specialist at Chapel Hill High School. A 2019 graduate from UNC, Thomas Matthew, also joined the panel.

Bergene works exclusively with first year Duke students, and she emphasized the deep-seated need for new college students to blend in. “The desire to fit in is incredibly strong,” she said. “A student may make decisions that go against their values if they believe it will help them fit in with their peers.” She added she sees many Duke freshmen who arrive with a strong sense of identity, but “they get a little lost when they’re first on campus. Their need to fit in may be stronger than the need to stay true to their high school selves.”

Rickenberg said, “Keep talking to your kids – have the hard conversations about alcohol, drugs, sex, priorities. Once you have had these conversations, repeat.” Several panelists encouraged parents to use College Parents Matter as an early and frequent resource. The website offers numerous tips on best communication practices with college-aged children.

Tips shared by the panel included:

  • Discuss potential scenarios college freshmen often face, and encourage your child to brainstorm solutions in advance.
  • Before, or soon after, your child’s freshman year begins, research and discuss healthcare resources your student might need, from filling prescriptions to understanding insurance: “If this happens, who do I talk to or where do I go?”
  • Encourage students to develop broader resources and contacts beyond campus, i.e. in church settings, civic organizations or volunteer opportunities.
  • Discuss realistic expectations-- and a new normal-- for communication in both directions. For example, how many texts per day are reasonable, or how long parents should wait during a silence before reaching out to others on campus (answer - more than an hour!)
  • Make sure to discuss practical, daily living tasks and needs like laundry and finances, as well as the broader issues around budgeting and managing debit cards.
  • Require accountability around expenses. Don’t hesitate to ask where the money is going.
  • If your child hasn’t embraced an exercise routine, encourage development of the habit during the summer after graduation. Panelists agreed that establishing a workout routine on campus yields many benefits for physical and mental wellness.
  • Don’t assume your child will avoid alcohol, just because drinking wasn’t part of high school activities. Talk in advance about designated drivers and when to call a cab or Uber.

The top areas for increased awareness and concern were communication, transparency and substance abuse, and the panelists offered a mix of reassuring and somewhat alarming statistics. Dunston urged parents to talk carefully with their children who have already experienced drug or alcohol problems in high school, to make sure they are ready to enter a world where those substances are usually readily available. “With drugs, as soon as you think they’re involved, seek counsel,” Dunston said, “but stay away from punitive or moral stances.”

Rickenberg noted during the first four weeks of their freshman year at UNC (and many other colleges), the number of students drinking alcohol jumps from 30% to 60%. She urged parents to talk with their children about resilience-building strategies, as well as help them understand the ease with which college students turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate for stress and depression. The panelists noted the recent increase in “collegiate recovery” programs on campuses and said the resource can be tremendously supportive.

There were light moments and laughter, and several panelists reminded parents lapses in communication with their children are often explained by new sleeping patterns, losing phone chargers, and other predictable occurrences among college students. Rickenberg said it’s not unheard of for her to receive alarmed phone calls from parents who say, “I haven’t heard back from my child and it’s been an hour since I texted him.”

Rickenberg said, “Your student will struggle, and you won’t have all the answers, and you may not be able to fix it. That’s okay, and your child will be okay. The university environment is full of good times, but it is also full of challenges that teach lessons and foster resilience.  Listen when they call, encourage them to take advantage of the campus resources, and when in doubt ask for help (you and your student).”

Langston, said, “We were delighted to see the room fill up with interested parents. We hope they left with information to start conversations with their college-bound kids about some of the pressures they'll face in college and how to navigate them, how to hang back and give their kids space to ride the roller-coaster of emotions, how to help their students take care of themselves. As one panelist said, 'you have to be well to do well’--and what signs to be aware of that may require more guidance from parents. We look forward to doing more such events in the future."

Any parents interested in attending a repeat of this program or who have suggestions of future topics for "community conversations," please email chcptacouncil@gmail.com