Message to parents

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen
August 31, 2002

On behalf of myself and all the faculty and staff at Bates, it’s a great pleasure and a great privilege for me to welcome you today. I am almost as new to Bates as most of you are, and so I feel a very special affiliation with my fellow first years in the Class of ’06. I’ve spent most of my adult life at one liberal arts college or another, and in a post-September 11 world, my conviction has only increased that the kind of education traditionally offered at the select liberal arts colleges is not only relevant but essential. Students learn here in a close-knit community where academic understanding is linked to serious discussions about ethics and values and to high expectations about service, leadership, and citizenship. A global perspective on issues and principles is more urgent than ever, and Bates has a longstanding habit of connection with and concern about the wider world: 68% of last year’s graduating class applied credit earned abroad toward their Bates degree, and we welcome increasing numbers of international applications and matriculations each year.

But I would actually like to reflect briefly today not on the global, not even on the glories of this place, but on the particular moment of uncertainty and change that all first-year students and families are now experiencing. I thought I would begin by sharing something of my own experience since it was just two short years ago, in the fall of 2000, that I stood in the shoes of all the older people here today, as my elder daughter embarked on her career at another small liberal arts college. I will never forget the almost overwhelming intensity of my thoroughly mixed feelings at the time. My daughter was entirely cool (or so I thought at the time) – she had flown off to her chosen campus, 1,200 miles from home, two weeks prior to the beginning of classes for her team’s pre-season, and she thought it was a little silly of her father, her little sister, and myself to insist that we had to be there for the regular first-year family orientation. She did however agree that it would be useful for someone with a car to bring out a great deal of stuff that she was unable to carry on the airplane, so we rented a large station wagon and made our leisurely way by interstate and ferry, turning the trip into our summer vacation. The main advantage to this seemingly inefficient arrangement, for me, was that I got to hug this child, who really doesn’t like to be hugged, not once but three times, and to cry three times, once at the airport in Philadelphia, once when we arrived on campus, and once again after the car was unpacked. We had done our shopping and our schlepping, and there was nothing left but to say goodbye again. The more often you can have these ritual hugs and, if necessary, tears, the better, as they express and alleviate the hopes, the fears, and the host of other emotions you too may be feeling.

Personally I was surprised by the confusion of my feelings. My anxiety, of course, was predictable, but out of proportion to the event: millions of college students survive their departures from home. The depth of my concern brought back the near panic I felt on the first day of kindergarten when the school bus door shut and a little person with a sober face waved out the window. My child had been in day care or preschool since she was 11 months old, but always before that day her father or I had overseen the trip from home to school and back. Somehow I could not convince myself that she was capable of going alone on that bus – because I couldn’t really imagine her independent existence in such a markedly transitional state, without my protection and presence. Little seemed to have changed about my feelings now that she was going off to college, and that contributed to the sense of time-warp and disbelief. How could the 13 years in between that first day of kindergarten and the start of college have gone so quickly? How could that small person have become this adult who was taller and stronger and in many arenas more competent than me, and totally uninterested in waving goodbye out the window? Of course there was sadness and regret – no need to comment on these emotions – and there was also great pride. Something I treasured – our time together as parent and child – was coming to an end, but something else – a whole new life for this grown child without me, and a new relationship with me that only the passage of time would define – was just beginning.

In the months that followed, I learned a great deal about the first year college experience from a student’s perspective that was surprising and useful to me as a parent, and even more so, perhaps, as a faculty member and administrator. Above all, I learned how much goes on outside the classroom for kids in college. I had forgotten, in my focus on being the teacher, that life in the dorm, on the court or the field or the stage, in the dining center or the Den, is very time-consuming, very demanding, very distracting from the academic focus that I thought should be paramount. Many of you may notice the same thing about life at Bates: Our students are workers and leaders in 100 clubs or activities and give 50,000 hours of volunteer and service learning activities in the Lewiston/Auburn area; two-thirds do international study; two-thirds play on club or varsity sports teams. I also saw what faculty members looked like and sounded like from the student’s point of view, which was not the same as my own. And computers were the special bane of our existence for a while. Technology has added a whole new layer of complexity to survival as a college student, because new printers really do always break down the night before a major paper is due, and finding the right length of cable or knowledgeable technical help at the right time – no matter how well-staffed the computer center – is the biggest challenge of the information age. The biggest boon, at the same time, is e-mail; if you haven’t already developed an e-mail relationship with your son or daughter, you have something to look forward to. Much as I still miss the actual, embodied person when she is 1,200 miles away, I cherish the intellectual exchanges and the affective openness that seem to thrive in cyberspace.

In retrospect I see that while I initially worried about all the things that were getting in the way of the academic experience, in the course of her first two years my daughter has grown in many dimensions, as will all the students here today. She has worked hard in her classes and done well. And having to cope for herself with all those distractions and practical realities both inside and outside the classroom has brought out the best in her.

If the past is any guide to the future, most of the new students will be very happy here at Bates. But in the weeks to come, parents will no doubt hear about problems that students are experiencing, and as parents you will wish you could fix them. Sometimes your advice and support will really help, but much of the time you won’t be able to do anything at all except listen. (And of course much of the time, many of you won’t hear anything at all, at least not until the situation is over, for better or for worse.)

At those times, parents, when you do hear about problems, you may wonder why no one at Bates seems to care about or for your son or daughter as much as you do. It may indeed be the case that someone here on campus will fail to do something that should be done; although I have never met a more dedicated or more expert staff and faculty, we are human. But you should also know that our job is not to take your place, not to parent people who are old enough to vote and, before the end of their time of here, are legally adults.

Please don’t misunderstand. We really have no reason for being on this campus except to sustain a community where talented young people can grow and flourish. For students with questions or problems, we are here to help. I was in fact appalled that my own child, who grew up in a faculty home and socialized her whole life with other faculty, was at first so reluctant to seek out her own teachers to air a complaint or ask a question. It was easier for her, and safer, to complain to me.

Some first-year students may already have learned when and when not, how and how not, and whom to ask for advice. This is one of life’s most useful lessons, and we encourage all students to develop this skill in their time at Bates. But we also believe that Bates students, in order to grow, should be treated from the beginning as independent, resourceful people. We want students to leave Bates prepared to learn and lead throughout their lives, and to that end we consistently expect them to do a lot for themselves, to stretch, to take responsibility. Part of their growth and self-discovery involves learning to cope with circumstances, and learning that we are all going to make mistakes. It’s not so much the mistake that matters as what we ourselves do about it afterwards, and a failure often forces us to reflect more deeply on what we mean by success, what we really want, and how to get it.

When you hear about a problem, encourage your student to seek advice and counsel as appropriate, but also to draw on his or her own unique strengths, to see himself or herself as already so proven, so talented, so able to accomplish. Remind her or him of all the outstanding abilities and attitudes you have seen evolving over the years, of obstacles overcome and problems solved.

The message in an editorial in The New York Times on August 22, written by Judith Shapiro, president of Barnard College (and formerly my colleague at Bryn Mawr College) resonates with my own experience in many ways. I’ll just sum up by quoting her final paragraph: “Parents do best when they encourage their college bound children to reach out enthusiastically for opportunities in the classroom and beyond. And if they can let go, they will see the results that they want and deserve: young people, so full of intelligence, spirit, and promise, transformed into wonderful women and men.”

I am impressed and delighted to see the intelligence, spirit, and promise of this year’s incoming students, and with my colleagues I look forward to watching the transformation that has already begun. We’re profoundly grateful to welcome the Class of ’06 to Bates College.