Working with the families of our students can be challenging. They want nothing but the best for their children but sometimes what they want is not always within our scope to provide. Then, of course, there is FERPA or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that limits how much, if anything, we can share with them about their student. Nevertheless, a student’s family can be a huge influence on their time in college, for better or for worse. Their opinions, desires and concerns matter, especially if they are footing the bill. Thus, we have a responsibility as advisors to include the family in our advising appointments. Here are some ways to do this:
Ask them about their family
The simple question of “How is your family doing?” serves multiple purposes. First, it shows our students that we care about them as whole people not just as students. After all, our role goes far beyond telling them what courses to take but instead, we are often their first point of contact for any challenges or concerns they may encounter, academic or personal. Second, this question allows us to find out how big of a role their family plays in their academics and their future career goals. This is crucial to know early because it may change how we advise them. For example, advising a student who has a good relationship with their parents looks vastly different from a student who was emancipated and whose parents don’t even know that they are currently in college. When I first started working in student affairs as a graduate assistant, I remember telling students that they needed to make decisions independent of their parents’ opinions or wishes. I now realize that that advice came from a place of naiveté and ignorance. Naiveté because I still rely on my parents’ advice quite often myself and ignorance because I ended up ignoring huge pieces of the students. I wasn’t treating them as whole people but instead as relics stuck in this one moment in time in which we both found ourselves, to become outmoded as soon as they walked out the door. I also ended up ignoring cultural factors that make some students more reliant on their parents than others. Now, if their family plays a big part in their academics, I make sure to include them in the decision making process when appropriate.
Include them in the advising appointment
I don’t necessarily mean literally including them in the advising appointment as in a mother who physically accompanies her daughter to the appointment, for example. Although, as long as a FERPA is on file, that is totally fine. No, I mean it in the sense that I touched on previously. If I meet with a student who has a close relationship with their parents and values their opinions, then I too must value their opinions. Here’s an example of a conversation I’ve had before:
Me: So, what major were you thinking of switching to?
Student: I’m not sure. Maybe psychology. But I need to talk to my mom about it first before I make a decision.
Me: Sounds good. I encourage you to share the resources we talked about today with your mom, so that you both have the necessary information needed to make the decision. And if either of you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email!
Student: I really want to transfer to a different school. I already looked at some colleges closer to home. I want to talk to my parents first though.
Me: Absolutely, I can totally understand that. Well, we’ve done a good amount of research on the transfer process today, so feel free to share that with your parents. And then, after you speak with them, you can always come back to meet with me if you need help completing the transfer process.
Including the family in the advising appointment can be as simple as validating the student in wanting to consult with their parents first and providing them with the resources and information they need to make the conversation with their parents as productive and fruitful as possible.
Remember to still give agency to the student
Including the family in the decision making process is important. However, there has to be a balance between inclusion and encouraging agency. Because at the end of the day, it really should be the student’s decision, whether that’d be a change of major, transferring institutions or something else entirely. Let me give you an example that will help explain this better:
Student: I don’t know, I don’t really want to be a nurse.
Me: Well, what sparked the interest in the field to begin with?
Student: My parents want me to become a nurse because of the job security.
Me: But are YOU interested in nursing?
Student: Not really. I don’t like biology. I prefer English.
Me: You don’t have to be a nurse, you know.
Student: I don’t?
Me: Nope. You can be inspired by your parents to pursue a certain path if that path holds interest in and of itself. But it’s still your life and thus your decision.
Student: I’ve never had anyone tell me that before.
This is a real conversation I had with a student, who is now an English major by the way. Sometimes they need someone to tell them that they can make a decision that doesn’t align with what their parents want. For some students, like the one from the conversation above, we may be the first to give them that kind of power over their own future. Something to keep in mind is that not all students to whom we give this power will be ready for it. When that happens, it is crucial to focus on what agency they do have such as in the following example:
Student: My parents won’t pay my tuition if I switch majors.
Me: I see. Well, have you tried speaking with them about it?
Student: Not really.
Me: Well, we’ve gone over quite a few resources today that talked about what you could do with a psychology major if you decided to pursue that instead of nursing. Sometimes it can be helpful to present that information to your parents. That shows them that you did your research and are serious about this path and it allows them to know what you now know.
Because we, as academic advisors, know that a lot of the resistance from parents comes from not having all of the information. Arming the student with the necessary resources gives them the confidence to tackle a potentially difficult conversation. And, if that fails, we need to assure the student that we’ll be here to help and support them no matter what.
Set boundaries for parents with no boundaries
But what about parents who blatantly overstep boundaries? Such as the parent who calls us asking for weekly updates on their child’s grades or who emails us incessantly wanting to know what their child’s future in healthcare looks like. We’ve all had to deal with them at some point or another and while it can be frustrating in the moment, we must take a step back and try to approach them with compassion and understanding. They love their child and are just concerned for their well being. And, as mentioned earlier, at the root of their concerns is usually lack of information which is typically the result of a less than forthcoming student. So what do we do? I usually defer to providing very general information, FERPA or no FERPA. The last thing I want to do is set a precedent that they can call at any time and receive updates on their student’s every move. Furthermore, I cite resources and statistics when I have them. More importantly, however, I encourage them to speak to their student and I encourage the student to do the same. Here are my last examples:
Parent: Is he attending class? What kind of grades is he getting? I’m paying his tuition, you know!
Me: I absolutely understand your concern. I don’t actually have access to the information you’re asking for. However, all students can view their grades on Blackboard or eServices. I’d be happy to send your son tutorials on how exactly to access that information.
Me: Your dad has called our office a few times.
Student: Oh yea, he does that sometimes.
Me: Do you talk to him often?
Student: We talk sometimes.
Me: Okay. I will say though that the questions he’s asking really only you have the answers to. I’d be happy to help you talk through how to speak with him about some of these things but at the end of the day, you’re the best person for him to be having these conversations with.
In both examples, I set boundaries without cutting off either party from the conversation. The parent is still included, as much as the student will allow.
What is your take on working with parents? What have been some of your strategies to including the family? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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