Parents get taste of the freshman experience

BALTIMORE — Afforded a night away at college, something he never experienced when he was young, Roger Sobrado had an idea: toga party!

Alas, he couldn't get enough of his middle-aged cohorts to sign on. So he had to settle for dining hall chow and a blandly furnished dorm room.

But that was enough for Sobrado, whose daughter is an incoming freshman at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md.

"I personally did not have the college experience, living in a residence hall and eating in the dining room," he said. "It's amazing. I got to see where she'll be walking, where she'll be eating. It really put my mind at ease."

Sobrado was one of about 200 McDaniel moms and dads who spent two days earlier this month on campus for "Parent Preview." The program, in its second year, is designed to give parents a taste of what their children will experience when school starts at the end of August.

Given rising college costs and a generation of parents used to being deeply involved in their children's lives, similar programs are springing up around the country — a new method of customer service for an industry sometimes accused of being aloof in the face of runaway inflation.

Other area schools, such as the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, College Park, offer parent orientations on the weekends when incoming students are dropped off. But McDaniel — where the close-knit community is a selling point — opted for a more in-depth approach.

"We felt like we needed to spend more time with incoming parents," said Beth Gerl, the college's vice president for student affairs. "Moving-in day is extremely wearing physically and emotionally. So we thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to get them in here earlier when they can experience everything imaginable?' "

During their whirlwind 29 hours on campus, parents sat through briefings on financial aid, health services and dorm life.

They peppered current students with questions about roommate relations, ideal study spots and computer needs. The only difficulty, Gerl joked, was getting the parents to bed after a beer and wine reception.

The program, which costs $125 per adult, has proven popular, with some parents flying in from Alaska, Texas and California. Over the two sessions, about 200 parents participated from an incoming class of 445 students.

"This is like the insider's view to know what's going to happen when you first get here," said Donna Stanton, whose daughter, Kiara, recently graduated from Loch Raven High School in Baltimore County.

"We feel more welcome, now that we've been here like this," added her husband, Michael.

Debbie Mayer of Arnold already has sent three children to college but said she was impressed by McDaniel's efforts to explain the campus culture. Based on the preview, she said, she'll tell her son, John, that the school really wants him to succeed. "If you have any question at all, reach out," she said she'll tell him.

But do students want their parents digging so deeply into an experience traditionally cherished as a first leap toward independence?

Gerl said she encounters some students who are "a little blown away" by how much their parents know after the preview.

Tricia Meola, a sophomore from New Jersey, said she was mystified when her parents left for the first preview weekend in 2011. "But once they came back, I was more comfortable, because they were much more comfortable with everything," she said. "I would absolutely recommend it, especially for first-time parents of college students. It lets them know the truth versus the myths."

Robert Simon and his wife, Celine, flew in from Los Angeles to experience the environment where their daughter, Anijke, will make decisions that will shape her life.

"It gives us a really good feel for the school, for the programs, the people," Simon said. "It's going to be a major change and, in some ways, it's going to be very hard, but very good for her. You have to leave the nest sometimes, whether you're five miles away or 500."

Simon said he would leave the preview with a sense that the McDaniel faculty and staff will watch out for his daughter's well-being, both in terms of safety and education.

"It's really nice to know she will be looked after," Simon said.

Tim Blair also said the program helped ease his nerves. Sending his eldest child, Cassie, to McDaniel, nearly 800 miles from the Blairs' hometown of Birmingham, Ala., is a "big, big deal" to him and his wife, Barbara.

"It's a great idea," Blair said. "I feel infinitely more comfortable. These are wonderful people. They have my vote, and they're about to have my money."

Roger Sobrado did not want to make the drive from Cherry Hill, N.J., for the preview. He owns a business that manufactures parts for the aerospace industry and was loath to sacrifice a workday. But, he said, he knows the look on his wife's face that means, "Stop arguing."

"She said, 'We're spending tons of money, and we should know what we're getting,' " he said.

The Sobrados attended community colleges, so when their eldest daughter, Devon, announced her interest in McDaniel, they really could not tell her what to expect.

After going through the preview, Sobrado said it should be mandatory for parents like him.

His daughter is quiet and studious, so he was pleased to hear about McDaniel's peer mentors, older students who get to know freshmen before they move in and who nudge the newcomers out of their rooms to movies and group dinners.

The information sessions were great, Sobrado said, but he got just as much from a quick drive to Walmart to buy a blanket.

"We came back at midnight and, walking around, it felt safe," he said. "It's your baby you're sending out, so it's important to feel at ease."

He also had a blast, he said, grinning at memories of the toga party that wasn't.

At a session with current students, parents asked all their nagging questions: Would their kids need formal clothes? Would they buckle under the academic adjustment? What items were they likely to forget to bring? Would their babies want to see them come Parents' Day?

The answer to the last question had to warm the heart of Roger Sobrado, who already feels what a struggle it will be to drive home after dropping Devon in Westminster.

"Even if they don't say it," said McDaniel junior Emma Duesterhaus, "they want you to be here."

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