Parents' Farewell Picnic at Colorado College

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

Two parents, five overweight bags and a college-bound daughter about to burst into tears. Talk about a stressful beginning to the Long Goodbye. We’d opted to fly Southwest to bring my daughter Mel to college because we each could bring two bags free. I hadn’t bargained on them being so heavy. I should have weighed them, I thought ruefully, as we frantically rearranged shoes, books and jeans.

Yes, we were those people you hate to be behind at the ticket counter. Luckily, Mel had an extra backpack stashed in the largest duffel. Luckily, the ticket agent was patient. Luckily, those behind us were kind, going so far as to explain that they’d been in the same situation with their college-bound kids. Luckily, we didn’t have to pay for a single overweight bag. Thanks, Southwest! “Let’s hope that’s the most stress we have this weekend,” my husband Andy said, as we made our way through security. Right!

Mel was the third child we were sending off to college and like the 3 million other families taking freshman to school this August — joining a record number of college students, the National Center for Education Statistics reports — I knew the weekend would be stressful, not to mention an emotional rollercoaster — just like the admissions process.

Here’s a brief diary of our weekend:

FRIDAY: Mel meets her new roommate on our connecting flight to Denver. They hug. We trade the minivan I’d booked online (I love for a larger one to hold all of the heavy duffels. Did I mention the ski bag? My AAA discount saved me some bucks on the upgrade, which I know we will spend at Bed Bath & Beyond and Target.

The Antlers Hilton (, which is a few blocks from The Colorado College campus in Colorado Springs, Colo., is filled with freshmen and parents, but we don’t linger. We’ve got to get to Bed Bath & Beyond. Like many kids heading far from home to school, Mel pre-ordered what she thought she wanted — from plastic storage bins to an extra-thick mattress pad for her extra-long twin dorm bed — at a store near our home. Now all she needed to do was pick up and pay for the order. (Good thing I had a stack of 20 percent off coupons with me.) The store, like the hotel, was crowded with freshmen pushing loaded carts, parents trailing behind, presumably with credit cards in hand.

My ever-frugal daughter kept reminding us that she would be able to use all of her “stuff” for more than one year.

With the blue minivan completely stuffed, we headed to campus where 527 freshmen would be moving in over the next two days. One plus: We’d been through the drill on campus before, since Mel’s older sister attended college here. “I’m an official college student now!” Mel declared happily, as she stashed her brand-new college ID in her pocket.

But all that bravado quickly evaporated when she took her first look at that empty dorm room. The big decision: How to organize the furniture to maximize the space. Should the beds be “lofted” so that they would be off the ground, with room for storage underneath? After consulting with her new roommate, it took nearly an hour of screwing, unscrewing, tugging and hammering to raise the beds and move the furniture. By the time we left that night, we were exhausted but the girls’ beds were made with bright orange and turquoise sheets, clothes were hung in the closets and the room was beginning to seem like home.

“They sail the ship even if they don’t exactly know the course,” observes Natalie Caine of

Mel was sound asleep when the big weekend surprise arrived — her older sister Reggie had come from San Francisco to help her move into the same dorm where she’d lived as a freshman.

“She’s in college now,” my older daughter advised. “She’ll figure everything out.”

I hope so.

SATURDAY: We shopped till we dropped — back to Bed Bath & Beyond, a stop at the grocery for “healthy” snacks, a nursery for some plants for the window and even a local thrift shop in an unsuccessful search of a bike that wouldn’t be a target for thieves. We lug more bags up to the dorm room. We organize.

Mel puts up pictures and posters — far more pictures of her friends than of us. She heads to a session for students; we go to listen to Richard Celeste, president of Colorado College, convince us we’ve made a good choice.

There are sessions, receptions and picnics all weekend for parents, as well as the new freshmen, with advice on everything from not texting in class to “parenting from a distance,” a lot different than when I went to college. A lot different, it seems, then when we took our first child to college seven years ago. “Everyone goes out of their way to be warm,” writes Mary Lee Gannon, who hails from Pittsburgh. She took three kids to college this fall.

Similar programs, I learn, are going on at colleges and universities around the country — down to a freshman convocation at Tulane University complete with a traditional New Orleans brass band. “Today’s orientation programs are designed to help parents let go,” says Kris Getting Roach. She’s a board member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and director of admissions and Financial Aid at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “Trust them,” she urges.

SUNDAY: Mel isn’t answering her cell phone, though we were supposed to meet for breakfast. (How did we manage before cell phones?) Turns out she locked herself out of her room without her phone. We finally connect and after avocado omelets and one last unsuccessful effort to find a bike, Mel seems ready for us to leave. There is a new Connect by Hertz program ( on campus where students as young as 18 can rent cars — even by the hour — so she’ll have no problems getting a bike or anything else she needs she tells us as she walks us to the minivan.

“Group Hug!” she says pulling her arms around us. Her dad and I wipe away tears. She doesn’t. Two hours later, we’re back at the Denver Airport. Only carry-on bags this trip. Only six weeks till parents’ weekend.