For 30 years, Emory psychology professor Marshall Duke has helped ease parents through the ritual of saying goodbye to their college students, offering a pragmatic roadmap for navigating the first major emotional separation that many families experience.
Long a staple of Emory’s orientation weekend, his “Parenting a College Student: What to Expect” lectures have, in fact, become a popular hallmark of the orientation experience. In recent years, his road-tested advice to parents also found an audience beyond the university, with columns in the Huffington Post, YouTube videos and live chats with Washington Post readers.
But Duke recently announced that this year will be his last to offer counsel during Emory orientation on how to negotiate the complex changes in family dynamics that come with sending a student off to college. His final lectures will be Saturday, Aug. 23, at 1:45 p.m. and 3 p.m. in White Hall room 208; and Sunday, Aug. 24, at 9 a.m. in room 208 of the Math and Science Center.
It was simply time, he says, to offer a new voice.
“The reason is that I’ve been doing it for 30 years, and I’ve always enjoyed it and still enjoy it — I think parents enjoy hearing what I have to say and find it valuable,” says Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology.
“But things are different,” he adds. “Student life has changed so tremendously with social media.”
“When I started doing this, I was talking about whether students would phone home. Now it’s all about Twitter, texting and Instagram, which elevates the ways in which children can not communicate with their parents,” he chuckles.
Negotiating a tough transition
Duke launched his lectures — he typically presents several sessions during orientation weekend — when he was serving as director of the Emory Psychological Center, a component of the Department of Psychology established as both a training facility for advanced doctoral candidates and a treatment resource for the Atlanta community.
“At the time, we thought it would be a good idea to talk to parents of new students about some of the psychological aspects of adjusting to college life, both on the part of their students and on their part, too, just to be sure everyone had some reasonable expectation of how this would affect everyone involved,” Duke recalls.
Despite a changing campus landscape and enhancements in the student experience, Duke’s message has actually remained fairly constant over the years.
“I think the effects on families are still very much as they have always been: moms and dads going into empty nest mode,” he says.
“It’s a tough transition and many a tear will be shed. They need to know that they’re not alone in that — in fact, they may have adjusted by about the time the student graduates.”
Topics within the lecture have always been targeted to the kinds of changes parents can expect: concerns around grades; emotional and developmental changes; new food and sleep habits; and how to resist the urge to problem-solve from afar.
“Students are so anxious about starting college and succeeding, but the reality is that the number of students graduating from Emory with a 4.0 is small — last year, eight students out of 1,300,” he says. “The message to parents is ‘Everybody relax, it’s not going to be like high school. It’s hard. They’re going to get Bs, and that’s okay.’”
Managing expectations, emotions
Orientation weekend always presents a roiling stew of emotions for students and parents alike. “They’re all in a place where they’re both proud, sad, excited, and worried — it’s as if all the emotions are on a light dimmer and it’s been turned up to the max,” Duke reflects.
“It’s a privileged moment in time, and they know it,” he adds. “Parents need to take advantage of that and write a letter to the student with whatever advice they want to give, because it will stick much better, stamped with the importance of the time.”
Duke’s hope is that some element of the lectures will continue as part of orientation weekend; he also plans to continue writing on the topic.
Looking back, Duke says that he found the experience to be tremendously rewarding. “I always get notes of appreciation from parents the week after they leave their students here, it’s something that’s happened every year,” he says.
“Some have also been from colleagues here at Emory, who come as parents, not as faculty or staff, and go through all of the same things everyone else does.”
Most gratifying, he says, are moments when his own former students have appeared at his lectures. “This grown-up will come up and say ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I had you for abnormal psychology in 1975?’"
“That’s the best,” he says. “When they say they’re now bringing their own children to Emory — just a wonderful, wonderful experience.”