Sending a child off to college is a big transition for parents, especially if they are doing it for the first time. Even parents who have degrees may return from summer orientation looking glassy-eyed and overwhelmed by all the changes that have happened in the 20 years since they were in college. There are several ways that your church can care for its members who are going through this special and sometimes scary time.
Setting the tone for your church's commitment to continue supporting students and their parents starts before students ever move away. The summer before freshman year begins is a whirlwind of activity for soon-to-be college students, and it's easy for them to feel like they don't really belong anywhere during the few months between youth group and adulthood. Celebrate the newly graduated seniors in your congregation in May or June and continue to host get-togethers for them throughout the summer. This reminds them that they are not alone and shows their parents that the church's love for them endures.
This summer can be an odd transition time for parents as well. Those who are heavily involved in church activities may need leaders to gently remind them that it's ok to take a break from responsibilities to their church community and focus on the unique temporary needs of their families. The church can also provide learning opportunities that address the issues these families may be facing:
- Empowering new adults to make their own decisions
- Teaching young people how to establish good credit
- Setting reasonable expectations for the first return visit home
- Distinguishing between signs of homesickness and more serious issues
College is a big expense, even for those who are generally financially secure. While the church may not be able to foot the bill for college expenses, there are ways that it can help ease the burden for students' families. For example, members can host send-off parties in which the students curate a wish list for dorm items or other things they'll need and guests arrive bearing presents. Even small gifts can relieve some of the pressure of the seemingly never-ending expenses.
There are many opportunities for college funding, but they aren't all easy to find or navigate. While students' high school guidance counselors have likely taught them the importance of filling out a FAFSA form for federal student aid, volunteers who are familiar with the process can walk them and their parents through it. Others can help students find scholarships and encourage them to apply. Your church may even consider making a scholarship fund for students a part of the next budget proposal.
There are so many to-do lists when it comes to getting ready for college that the emotional toll this major life change takes on both students and their parents is often ignored or neglected. One of the best ways the church can support them is simply by lending a listening ear. You can start a mentor ministry that pairs older college students with high school graduates to answer their questions, calm fears and prepare them for what lies ahead. Enlist members from the hospitality team to organize regular care packages for students who are attending school in other cities. A simple note of encouragement (and a month's supply of popcorn) can make a big impact on students' emotional health.
Seeing strong support for their children is a blessing, but parents may need additional care themselves. They may put on brave faces, but they are likely hurting. A peer support group specifically for parents of college students gives them a safe space to voice their concerns and learn that they are not alone in their fears.
Having a child go off to college can be a bittersweet experience for parents. The church can help by supporting not only the students but also the parents themselves.