All in the family: building relationships with parents enhances students’ Honors College experience

It isn’t only students who find unique opportunities in the Honors College. When prospective students express interest in joining the college, parents, guardians and family members are included throughout the admissions and orientation process. And they are welcomed into the honors community along with their students when their honors experience begins. Since 2015, the Honors […]

January 9, 2023

It isn’t only students who find unique opportunities in the Honors College. When prospective students express interest in joining the college, parents, guardians and family members are included throughout the admissions and orientation process. And they are welcomed into the honors community along with their students when their honors experience begins.

Since 2015, the Honors College has set a standard at Oregon State University for high family engagement. “Families continue to be important parts of the social structure supporting student success, even after students move away from home,” says Honors College Dean Toni Doolen. “Including them in the community offers far-reaching benefits, and our ability to deliver highly-personalized interactions gives us the unique capacity to connect with families on an individual level.”

Making Connections Early and Often

When interested students visit campus, Honors College student ambassadors involve parents in presentations and question and answer sessions, while keeping the focus on the students and their concerns. And after students have decided to attend Oregon State, Doolen, Associate Dean Susan Rodgers and other leaders host a special parent and family session during new student summer orientation sessions. This gives a face to the university for students and families at the outset of their experience. Doolen says they emphasize to parents that while OSU is a big place, the Honors College is there to help their students — and them — navigate the university and find resources and support.

“Sue and I hand out our business cards and basically say, ‘before you get frustrated, call me or email,’” Doolen says. She encourages parents to urge their students to contact her directly as well. And not just about problems, but to share ideas or draw on Doolen and Rodgers’ extensive network of campus connections to launch research experiences.

The Honors College also hosts — in partnership with parents of current students or alumni — summer send-off events where incoming students can meet each other and parents can make connections before classes start. There were 11 of these events in summer 2022, held in the Portland and Seattle metro areas, Corvallis, the Coast and the Bay Area at parks and parents’ homes, as well as online. Honors College leaders attend all of them, along with current students.

“Send-offs establish that students and families are joining a community that includes other students and families, as well as staff and faculty,” says Doolen. The college maintains these connections by sending quarterly newsletters to families and hosting remote events each term for families to meet university leaders and learn more about Oregon State and the Honors College.

Ideas Come From Parents

The Honors College receives regular input about the family experience and how to deepen engagement from a Parent and Family Leadership Circle, which had 12 member families in 2021-2022. The summer send-offs, newsletters and Zoom events were all ideas initiated by the PLC, building the most robust set of family opportunities on campus.

According to parent Tom Beer, it’s a bidirectional exchange with university and college leaders sharing information and PLC members giving feedback. Parent Dana Hammer says serving on the PLC provides another connection to Oregon State and the opportunity to share experiences as parents.

Members are asked to attend three one-hour meetings during the academic year. The fall and spring meetings are held during Family Weekends, and in the winter, parents are invited to a virtual State of the College presentation given by Doolen, in addition to an in-person meeting. Parents serving on the PLC are asked to make a $2,500 gift to the Honors College, which funds differential tuition scholarships. These scholarships support students who might not otherwise be able to enroll in the Honors College, furthering the college’s access mission, which PLC members share.

Tom and Angie Beer: Connecting with Students

Portlanders Tom and Angie Beer have hosted several summer send-off events, even after their daughter Sofia earned her honors baccalaureate in 2021 (their elder daughter Maria graduated from Oregon State in 2019). He says the send-offs benefit both students and parents. It’s an opportunity to get questions answered, calm nerves and start the school year with more confidence.

The Beers also served on the PLC, and Tom, who is the chief medical officer for multi-cancer early detection at Exact Sciences and a part-time faculty member at Oregon Health & Science University, has participated in several career seminars, working with pre-med students on interviewing skills and helping them learn about the process of becoming a doctor. He especially enjoyed interacting with students.

“Oregon State students are fun to be around,” Tom says. “They have so much talent and energy. If you can be helpful in their journey toward academic and personal success, it’s really rewarding.”

Beer also believes volunteering for the Honors College sends a message about contributing to the community. “When you make time for this, you hope your kid sees that and internalizes it as a value they carry forward themselves,” he says.

While Tom recognizes the appropriate level of parental involvement varies among students, “it was really important to me to convey to my daughters that I have full confidence in them to take care of themselves,” he says.

Doolen endorses this approach. “Being an undergraduate is about learning to make your own decisions and growing as an independent person, and we are very mindful that engagement with parents doesn’t impinge on the student experience in a negative way.” The college also is careful that PLC members are not provided with any special knowledge or other advantages unavailable to the full Honors College family community.

Beer encourages Honors College parents to get involved, even if they cannot donate or serve on the PLC. “You can calibrate your involvement,” he says. “You don’t have to do everything. Even a little involvement is worth it.”

Dana and Keith Hammer: Giving Back to their Alma Mater

Dana and Keith Hammer have longstanding ties to Oregon State. Dana, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado and clinical associate professor at the University of Washington, graduated from OSU in 1990. Keith graduated in 1994, and Dana’s parents and brother are alumni as well. They encouraged daughters Delaney and Karina to consider OSU, but also to explore their options. Being accepted into the Honors College, with the prospect of stronger connections with faculty, smaller classes and other benefits, led both to choose Oregon State.

The Hammers hosted the first Honors College send-off in Seattle in August 2021. During the PLC meeting in fall 2021, Dana had the idea to host a pre-decision day event in April 2022, ahead of the traditional May 1 college decision day, to help convince admitted students to commit to Oregon State and the Honors College. They hosted another send-off event this past summer.

Dana appreciates how the Honors College “takes a big university and makes it feel smaller. They know my kids by name,” she says. “We love OSU and had such a positive experience there. We want to give back.”

As with the Beers, the Hammers want to stay in touch with their students, but let them find their own way and decide what interests and excites them. “They’re in charge of their world. I’m not going to helicopter,” Dana says. “They know if they need us, we’re there, but kids need to make their own decisions.”

Bottom Line is Community

While Doolen and Rodgers agree that it’s important for parents to give their students space to be an adult and make their own decisions, they also welcome connections and communications with parents.

“I’ve had some wonderful conversations on a family weekend with the parents and the student,” Rodgers says. “We have this great conversation, and it feels like it builds the community to be even stronger.”

That’s the bottom line, Doolen says. “We view families as a part of the community that supports students’ success.”

CATEGORIES: All Stories Alumni and Friends Homefeature Homestories

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