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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Letting Go: ParentTalk

For 14 years the ParentTalk listserv was good enough. In the spring of 2001 the Student Affairs staff put some strategies in place to advance parent engagement. This was in response to a growing chorus of concerns that the only time parents heard from us (Trinity) was when it was time to pay the bill.

Dating back to the expansive Coleen Grissom era, involvement with parents was always a hallmark of the Trinity experience. Back in the days when she was "The Dean" in the 1980's and beyond, she put on what seemed to be a one-person show for parents during a special summer orientation.

By 2001, and after she returned full-time to the faculty, fewer parents were attending in the summer and we focused our attention orienting parents when they were on campus en-masse with their new students in August.This has served us well. We get in front of more parents and in this electronically-paced world, giving up a weekend mid-summer just doesn't work for a lot of parents, especially given our reach beyond Texas and associated travel.

Our multi-pronged approach included a summer newsletter for new parents, a quarterly parent newsletter, a calendar/handbook for parents, and beefed up Fall and Spring Family Weekends. As the internet grew the summer newsletter and regular newsletters shifted to electronic versions that we could publish with greater frequency. We created a pretty good parent Web page (and discontinued the printed calendar - though a printed one-pager is available on-line).

Over the last couple of years a group of us meet quarterly to manage our parent relations. Staff members from Career Services, Admissions, Advancement, Student Involvement, Marketing, and the Dean of Students Office collaborate and coordinate a new multitude of programs including TU-in-the-City; Summer Send-offs; special luncheons; and more. This meshes with our philosophy that parents are partners, not distractions. Additionally, we are pretty clear that we are student-centered unless the issue of a student's success here hangs in the balance. Then we want to hear from parents or we initiate that communication.

Sometimes students don't like this because they want to be independent, though the money their parents spend on them comes in handy. That is an age-old tension between emerging adults and their parents. We do what we can to coach both sides through that.

Our crown-jewel of parent programs we rolled out in 2001 was the ParentTalk listserv. It was an electronic forum (mostly email) for parents and by parents to communicate about issues privately. It was an immediate hit. In the first year we decided to host a ParentTalk coffee on Fall Family Weekend at my home and it became an annual tradition. The idea was to put names and faces together so parents could meet some of the frequent contributors. Very quickly the list was split up as active members and lurkers (as opposed to stalkers). Name tags actually featured everyone's email addresses.

The first group had many colorful characters. Bruce from Colorado was a ParentTalk celebrity and he remained on the forum years after his daughter transferred. Parents led by women named Cory, Diane, and others started vacationing together despite being from California and Maine. The forum had its growing pains. The first challenge was handling differences in opinion. One parent expressed some unhappiness that Trinity was hosting the Vagina Monologues, saying "this isn't what I sent my kid to Trinity for." As I tried to prepare a response as moderator another parent posted "this is exactly why I sent my kid to Trinity." A long culture of mostly civil dialogue emerged where opposite opinions often ended up settling in the center.

The culture continued to grow and included George from Houston whose wife and I had to counsel off the forum. Others stood up to assume leadership roles and even today, and the popular Leslie in Jamaica who has been on the list the longest continue to chimes in despite her daughter being long gone from Trinity.

Students have had mixed feelings about the forum. They worried what their parents were saying about them and sometimes resented that parents were in the know about so much. Some parents went rogue and shared posts with their students who claimed, frequently, that those parents had no clue what their own students were doing on campus. They would be mortified. Mostly, it was a chance to take the most involved, concerned, and angsty parents and let them guide one another and talk each other down.

The most benign posts asked about nearby mechanics (Chevron) or restaurant and hotel reviews. We were one of the only schools to have a forum like this and my colleagues often thought I was crazy: too MUCH parent voice... too MUCH group-think. I rarely saw it that way, except when it came to complaints about food. While students were being painted pictures of bread, water, and raw potatoes I was not beyond taking my phone to Mabee to videotape all of the food options to post as a reality check. (Dean-rage.)

What parents have valued the most has been the moments when they could ask for support. "My kid is lonely/miserable/homesick/failing. What do I do?" And parents responded with empathy and care. The next year the same distressed parents were doling out the advice. It hasn't been unusual for parents of sick kids to see if anyone else's kid could check on them. And they did, including bringing care baskets for the ailing.

Over the last two years parents have asked about changing away from the forum. Facebook was gaining steam as a forum. In comparison to our higher-maintenance, less user-friendly, somewhat clunky list, Facebook offered advantages. Sometimes parents were overwhelmed by emails when a hot topic arose. It wasn't uncommon for somewhat surly dads to contact me about how to "get off this damn thing."

So as the requests for Facebook grew we added a private page this year: TU Parents. My staff and I wagered how quickly this would supplant the still-running ParentTalk. I won. Within days of the roll-out there were over 200 parents on the page. Nary a tumbleweed rolls through the ParentTalk listserv anymore.

I like that people can post photos and links ad that the page is generally private. It is already different though. I don't see the posts being nearly as personal or people being nearly as vulnerable. As an over-discloser I will try to prime the pump from time to time. I like the new format. it is easier for me, has a cleaner and more professional look, and is a forum that is comfortable and familiar to many. I will still moderate it and approve those who request to join (or not - no students allowed).

I don't think I am mourning this shift. It is good to mix it up, to update, and to evolve. But I like what we've had and how it fit with our hands-on high-touch culture here. Like most parents though, it seems inevitable. Time to let go.


Jules said...

Parent Talk was so helpful when our son started TU in August 2012. I don't know what we would have done without the help of the informative, experienced parents and you Dean Tuttle. I wish our younger son's university supported the parent community as much as Trinity does.

If parents are still concerned about the privacy of a TU parent Facebook page, the page can be made private so that only members can see posts.

David Tuttle said...

Indeed Jules, it is set to be a private group. I think some parents were more concerned about FB having their information. In any case, thanks for the kind words!!