Student affairs professionals share many goals with students’ supportive families.
We both want students to succeed academically and socially, to be challenged appropriately, and to enjoy the experience along the way. Yet, when families surprise us with phone calls, emails, or office visits, our defenses go up. We see them as taking up precious time that could be spent with students.
But what if we consulted with families as partners, rather them brushing them aside as nuisances? The key, I think, lies in being proactive. By reaching out to families first, we can keep them happy, foster student success, and maintain our own mental wellness on the job. It’s a win-win-win.
So, I’ve compiled 19 ideas to help you initiate family reach-out, no matter your role. You don’t have to plan family orientation or work in a family-focused office to do these. Many are everyday practices and creative initiatives that any professional can incorporate into their already awesome work.
But, before that, I’d like to also share…
3 Golden Family Rules
In addition to the programming ideas, here are three vital things to remember. They’ll inform – and ultimately, enhance — all of your interactions with students’ families.
1. Don’t assume that students have a good relationship with their parents.
You’ll notice that beyond this point, I refer to students’ families, not their parents. That’s intentional.
Many students’ parents won’t be involved in their student’s collegiate lives, due to strained relationships, illness, distance, and incarceration, among other reasons. Not all students have parents who are still living, nor do all students have positive relationships with their parents.
So, use caution when talking about parents — both in one-on-one interactions and in group sessions. Don’t assume that all students, for example, will feel warm and cuddly hearing references to “mom” or “dad.”
Additionally, thinking of families (rather than parents) will make you inclusive of other relatives who are deeply invested in students’ lives. Some students may have been raised by their grandparents, step-parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, older siblings, or other relatives, including ones who are not blood-related. Or, students may have some relatives who want to be involved in their collegiate life in addition to their parents.
So, no, my choice to speak about families wasn’t superfluous. I considered my advice carefully, just as you should consider your programming carefully to account for a myriad of family relationships.
2. Be mindful of other languages.
You’re hopeful mindful of intersectional diversity in every program that you plan for students. So, don’t drop the ball when it comes to families.
This is especially important in regard to language. Not all family members will be able to speak, read, or understand English. Of course, I don’t expect you to hire thousands of translators to cover every world language. Rather, I recommend looking into your student demographics to discern the top non-English languages spoken by their families.
You can then hire folx to translate written resources and interpret spoken words into these languages. Or, better yet, you can seek help from faculty who teach those languages.
Multilingual students can certainly help, too, but consider if doing so would prevent them from fully enjoying or engaging in programs. Interpretation is work, and they shouldn’t have to miss out on programs if you can find a better solution.
3. Include first-generation families.
It might be tempting to ask families about their own experiences in college, assuming that they’ve been through this all before. But that’s simply untrue.
Keep first-generation students and their families in mind. They might not be aware of things that you consider obvious, such as financial aid options, classroom expectations, and academic milestones. So, be thorough in your education, have patience, and give families plenty of opportunities to ask questions.
You could also offer additional programs and resources that are geared specifically toward first-gen families — such as a first-gen families Facebook group, blog posts focused on first-gen experiences, and open office hours in key offices.
1. Orientation Mobile App
If you use a mobile app to help guide students through the complexities of their first days on campus, consider adding a section for their families to access. Allowing them to see the schedule of events should lessen worried family members’ urges to constantly ask their student “so, what are you doing now?” They’ll know!
A campus map would also be extremely helpful to families who are exploring your campus. And perhaps you could work with the bookstore or dining hall to offer digital coupons.
2. Livestreamed Events
Don’t worry about streaming every pizza party, student org meeting, or residence hall gathering. Rather, focus on the events that are most likely to give families a case of FOMO. I’m thinking of convocation, major guest speaker events, and annual campus traditions.
Theater shows, a capella performances, debate competitions, and other events in which students show off their talents are also ripe for livestreaming. They will allow families to feel more connected to their students, and in turn, the students to feel supported.
And don’t think that graduation or family weekend events should be excluded. Not all families will be able to make those in person. Travel costs, time commitments, health conditions, and other challenges can prevent even the most enthusiastic family members from attending.
Livestreaming will give them that opportunity. Be sure to make the complete video available after the event ends, too, for anyone who can’t make the live time.
And you probably won’t have to give yourself a crash course in filming, lighting, and audio. Consult with professionals in your campus’ marketing and communication office to plan out and market the shoot.
3. Receptions in Key Cities
Some family members may not be able to make it to campus, yet they still want to meet each other. Let receptions be the solution.
Work with involved alumni (or family members who’d like to volunteer) to host receptions at homes, cafes, or clubhouses in key cities where many families reside. You can hold Q&As with traveling staff, informal panels with families who’ve already sent older students off to college, and a pop-up store with institutional merchandise. And food. Always remember to have food.
If you hold these receptions over the summer, consider inviting incoming first-year and transfer students along, too — so that they can meet their future classmates and get even more excited for their first semester.
You can also tie-in receptions with livestreamed events, allowing families to watch graduation, convocation, and other marquee events together. This can work well for athlete competitions, too. Don’t forget the popcorn!
4. Advice Sheets
Some family members might aim for awards like “Best College Dad Ever”, “#1 College Aunt”, or “Proudest College Sibling.” Yet, they’re clueless about how to achieve such metaphorical glory. You can come to the rescue by offering a lesson in Supporting Students 101.
Your unofficial course can involve publishing advice on your website (as Missouri State University and Princeton University have done), sharing top tips in the orientation mobile app, discussing strategies in your family orientation program, and more.
In addition to advice that’s applicable year-round, consider offering event- or season-specific tips. Just before mid-term season, for example, you can tweet out ways to support students during this stressful time. Or leading up to graduation, you can record a video explaining all the graduation week program offerings.
Simply think of a time of year, consider how families can best support students then, and get your advice out there!
5. Recommended Reads
You can outsource some of the advice, too. On your website, social media, and family orientation guides, include a list of follow-up or beginner resources for families. This can include books (such as the ones recommended by The University of Michigan), web articles, podcasts, and blogs.
Consider also buying books and printing out articles that family members can peruse when they drop by your office during orientation or any other time of the year.
And, if you ever have a chance, I suggest reading at least a few of these articles or books yourself. That way, your recommendations will be genuine, and you’ll also be able to better offer them relevant advice.
During orientation or family weekend, set up a station with blank postcards or greeting cards for families to fill out for their students. Encourage them to write messages of support, advice, or a lighthearted joke or two.
You can then drop the cards directly in students’ mailboxes or give them out to orientation leaders or RAs to pass on to students — perhaps on the first day of class, on a holiday, or during an extra-stressful time of year.
You can also mail out pre-addressed cards, with the return stamps already paid for, so that families who can’t make it to campus can still join in the fun.
7. Office Open Houses
Don’t have the time, resources, or power to plan and run family orientation sessions? Open office hours might be an easier alternative.
During advertised times, invite visiting families to stop into your office to get to know the services you offer. You can hand out flyers that spotlight upcoming programs, host a few Q&A sessions, and chat one-on-one with families about how your office can support their students’ particular needs and interests.
Getting to view academic advising offices, disability services, and cultural centers (just to name a few) for themselves can help put family members’ minds at ease, knowing that their student will be well taken care of.
Plus, families can learn more about co-curricular opportunities — like study abroad and alternative spring break programs — that they can pass on to their students, who may not have a chance to explore these for themselves during new student orientation.
8. “How Are You?”
It might be easy to assume that a family member is experiencing pure bliss over sending their student off to college. After all, the student is pumped and you’re ready for another year, too!
But many family members’ emotions will be far more complex than that. They may be anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, or sad. Show that you recognize this — that despite all the higher energy, celebratory events, and smiles displayed during orientation, you understand that they may be having a rough time.
Ask, “How are you feeling about this?”, ideally without the student listening over your shoulder. Then, if and when the family members tells you about negative emotions, validate those feelings. Let them know how common that is. Reassure them that the student is in good hands and will learn an immense amount from the collegiate experience.
And don’t forget to thank the family member — for sharing their feelings and for supporting their student as they embark on this new experience together.
9. Social Media Communities
Just as students love to connect with each other through social media, families can build similarily strong digital bonds and virtual support systems.
You could create Facebook groups, one for the family members of each graduating class, starting year, or academic major. Encourage families to use a hashtag on Twitter and Instagram to connect with each other and staff, perhaps paired with livestreamed events. Create a photo album for families to share snaps of their campus visits or a video series for giving out words of wisdom to fellow families.
The possibilities are as never-ending as a refreshed Facebook feed.
10. LinkedIn Connections
LinkedIn can be an easy way for students to connect with and feel supported by more families beyond their own. Consider creating LinkedIn groups, perhaps for students of certain majors and family members who are in those target industries.
Students can ask questions about various fields and learn about job openings, including summer internships, part-time off-campus roles, and full-time entry-level gigs for recent grads. And families can feel good knowing that they’re helping out a younger generation.
11. Web Videos
Rather than repeating answers to common family questions ad nauseum, film a perfectly phrased video and place it on your website and on social media. You can recruit students to role-play scenarios, give out their own advice, or conduct a virtual tour of popular campus spots.
Videos will help families connect a friendly face to your office and demonstrate your willingness to partner with them as supportive allies in student success.
Students may complain about their families being overbearing or over-involved, but that’s often simply due to families’ enthusiasm. They want to know what’s happening on campus and in student’s lives.
You can help supply answers via e-newsletters. Use a tool like MailChimp, Benchmark, or SendGrid to send families (who opt-in) monthly, weekly, or semesterly updates, spotlighting a mix of past and upcoming events. Be sure to include pictures, as families will surely love to see their students featured.
Don’t want the hassle that comes with a large email blast? You can make the newsletter available on your website, announced through social media.
13. Family Blogs
The advice you’re reading right now is via a blog, so of course I’m a big fan of blogging!
You could start one to curate a mix of your own advice and that of colleagues all across campus. For example, you could ask a career counselor to share tips for supporting students during a summer internship. Or, an area director can share ideas for must-have (and reasonably priced) room decorations.
Family members could also get in on the fun, passing on their words of wisdom to others or posing questions to solicit answers in replies.
You can also borrow content from outside sources, such as your institution’s student newspaper, The Chronicle of Higher Education, local news articles, and other institution’s blogs. Just remember to credit the authors.
14. Facebook Live
Facebook Live is a great way to interact with a bunch of families all at once. You can host one to field questions about your office, topical happenings on campus, and general advice for supporting students.
Facebook Live can also be great for financial aid officers to answer highly specific questions, for professors to share tips for supporting students academically, and for residence life staff to explain the move-in process.
15. Virtual Campus or Office Tours
Your admissions office might have already created a video tour to entice prospective students. Take advantage of this! Share it with families of current students, perhaps with additional narration and subtitles that point out the buildings, features, and facts that families will most want to know.
You could also film a tour of your office — as a fun way to introduce your professional team, show off the resources you offer to students, and display spaces where students hold club meetings, study, or simply hang out.
Just as TV shows welcome viewers into a fictional world, video tours can help welcome family members into your space — no travel required.
16. Web Glossary
Your campus likely has its own language — with acronyms, nicknames, and quirky phrases galore. Yet, despite students being fluent, their families aren’t attuned to this lingo.
You can translate. Consider publishing a glossary that defines the most popular acronyms and nicknames of buildings, services, and traditions. In addition to sharing the full names for each of these, tell families what they mean to students. What is each building most known for? Why do students treasure those services? When might students use these quirky expressions?
It’ll be like Urban Dictionary, only much cleaner. A glossary can help families better understand their students’ daily routines and their social lives.
17. Community Volunteerism
We know that volunteering within the local community is an invaluable way for students to feel connected with their surroundings.
Inviting family members (who live nearby or are visiting) to join in for additional benefits. Students can connect in a new way with their families while seeing them as role models of good citizenship.
And if a family member runs or works at a local organization, they can be a main partner in planning the volunteer event. Perhaps they could bring the opportunity to campus for increased engagement and accessibility.
19. Campus Volunteer Opportunities
In addition to volunteering with students, families can volunteer for them, letting students benefit from their skills, passions, and generosity.
They could support students’ career goals by reviewing resumes, conducting mock interviews, writing a blog about their typical workday, or even allowing students to shadow them at work.
Alternatively, families could support your admissions team by attending college fairs and speaking with prospective families about their experiences.
They could also write letters to welcome families of newly accepted or enrolled students, volunteer at family-friendly campus events, or chat with students who are parents themselves.
19. Family-Friendly Programs
Consider inviting families to some family-friendly programs you run, such as art fairs, farmers markets, carnivals, charity runs, or cook-offs. Students can enjoy planning and leading components while showing off to their families.
Students’ younger siblings, cousins, and other children will also get a chance to explore campus in a way that’s engaging. Plus, they’ll get to see first-hand how much the student is enjoying college life — which would be especially wonderful for first-generation students and their young relatives.
Oh, and students who are parents will surely appreciate the chance to bring their kids along, too!
How have you welcomed families on board as partners in student success… and kept them that way? We’d love to hear your stories at @HelloPresence.