At the end of each academic year, one Western Michigan University instructor asks his graduating seniors a question: “You know you’re graduating in a few short weeks. Who most influenced your success during the college years?” The overriding response (well over 50 percent of each class) for many years has been, “my parents, my family.” Student responses consistently emphasize the impact of a strong family foundation that encourages resiliency and determination.
A wider support network
Higher educational institutions are increasingly aware of and responsive to the various family constellations of this generation. No longer is the two-parent (mom and dad) family the assumed norm. Extended family, guardians, mentors and a host of other adults support students throughout their lives and are actively engaged in their success.
Today’s young college students have been raised in an environment of constant parental involvement and the transition from high school to college is a life-changing experience for both student and family. The connection with family is strong as students enter college and most students desire a continuing, close relationship with their family that includes open communication, positive parental support and affirmation.
This relationship influences the student’s ability to adapt to new situations, make decisions independently and accept the consequences — both positive and negative — of those decisions.
Thriving through change
Adjusting to college life is a whole new world for an incoming student. Students often feel apprehensive about moving into a new living environment, especially with someone they don’t know, navigating the academic rigor of college courses, managing finances, and making social connections. The need for family connectivity is highlighted by various student comments that include, “being on my own was scary,” “no one was there to take care of me,” and “I wish I’d known what I was getting into.”
Students may experience shattered expectations of college life being perfect and finding out that it is simply hard work, sometimes realizing that high school study skills don’t measure up to college expectations.
A robust family relationship supports students through these transitional insecurities and beyond, encouraging self-advocacy and building caring relationships with people on campus. A synergetic partnership between student, family and the institution helps families guide their students to appropriate resources in difficult situations and students welcome this advice and encouragement from home.
By any means necessary
Students often turn to family first and lean on their family network for counsel and consolation. This is especially true for the first-generation and underserved students and families. For example, Marquez (2017) in “Cultivating Chicana/o Latina/o Student Success Through Parental Engagement in Higher Education,” says, “The notion of ‘by any means necessary’ captures the array of support that parents provide, whether it be saving up financially to help pay for books and tuition or driving far distances to do their part in making sure their students were successful.”
Accordingly, many higher education institutions are committed to providing intentional engagement and educational opportunities for families and other student supporters so they can be better prepared to support and promote their student’s success into and through the college years.
Shari Glasser, Director of Family Engagement, Western Michigan University, [email protected]