Parenting a college student from another state can pose a number of challenges. But what does this experience look like when you’re also a college educator? Dr. La’Tonya Rease Miles reflects on her first year as the parent of an out-of-state student and shares her advice for success.

La’Tonya Rease Miles, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of First Year Experience at the University of California at Los Angeles.  She is also is the mother of a first-year college student and a graduating college senior, and is a .5 empty nester. 

“So . . . how do I put on a coat???”

My daughter asked this question rather casually during one of our increasingly intermittent telephone conversations.  It was late October, and I was in Los Angeles.  She was in Chicago, a first-year student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).  Having spent two weeks at SAIC during the previous summer, Zoe felt prepared to take on life in the Windy City as a full-fledged college student.  Of course, I had told her, what’s not to love about Chicago in July?

Truthfully, I never thought we would be at this juncture.  When she was in high school, Zoe’s top choices included—at various times—Stanford, UCLA and Otis College.  All in California and easily accessible to home by either a short drive or one hour flight.  When she was in 9th grade, I recall how nervous she was about staying over for one night at a local pre-college program.  Upon dropping her off at the residence hall, she gripped my arm and whispered with tears in her eyes, “Don’t leave me.”

“She’s staying in California for college,” my husband said with finality.

Zoe surprised us both on her College Decision Day.  The three of us gathered around the dining room table on what was likely a normal 70-degree day in February.  The Midwest was recovering from Polar Vortex 2019, a foreign concept to us.  I would have bet the farm that Zoe would choose California College of the Arts, a highly reputable institution nestled in vibrant Oakland, California.  My husband did not have a horse in the which-school-will-she-pick race; he only knew that wherever she landed would be in the (warm) Golden State.

You could have knocked us both over with a feather when Zoe declared, “I’m going to Chicago!”

In retrospect, I hardly can be surprised by this bold decision.  I, for one, had gone out of state to high school (!), college and graduate school.  And, while my husband and I have lived in LA for over 20 years, our entire family continues to live along the Eastern seaboard from New York down to North Carolina.  Being away from family is normal for our children.

Additionally, Zoe constantly has shown proclivities toward risk-taking and charting her own path.  From the decision to attend a virtual high school to her decision to apply only to art institutes for college, she has long been an independent thinker.  And even though she cried the day that I dropped her off at that summer program, she dried her tears after I left and stuck it out for 24 hours. 

Independence, resourcefulness and sense of adventure truly are important skills for any college student, particularly in the 21st century. Students who have the opportunity and resources to study out of state often manifest those qualities at a more accelerated pace than their peers.  Away from the comfort of home and settled in unfamiliar environs, these students often are forced to deal with seemingly adult-like situations on their own or remotely. These may include, but certainly are not limited to, figuring out local health insurance plans and medical care, as well as navigating unfamiliar airports.

Here are some ways to stay connected to your college student who lives out of state:

  • Birds of a feather.  Encourage your student to identify and connect with other out-of-state students, regardless of region.  They could travel together to the airport and bond over exploring their new home.  The Out-of-State Student Association at UCLA, initiated by students for students, makes this process easier.
  • Make Facetime.  One of the advantages of having a smart phone or other technology is the ability to use video communication.  I have found this form of communication to be more personal than just a phone call.  In fact, I have even put Zoe’s cat on the phone when she misses him.
  • Send love.  A well-timed care package definitely can lift spirits.  These can include a few of your student’s favorite things, especially items that remind them of home or things from home that are not easily accessible.  In our case, Zoe loves receiving vegan chocolate chip cookies that for some reason are not available at her local Trader Joe’s in the Loop.

Likely there will come a time when your student will be homesick, or even physically sick, and won’t have the luxury of returning home easily.  It is important to for you to be familiar with the campus’s student health and psychological services offices, so that you can support and redirect your student should the need arise.  Additionally, you may consider becoming involved with the Parent and Family Association or asking about Facebook groups for parents.  Not only will these resources help ease your mind, but you also may even bond with families in the same situation. 

Ultimately, Zoe did learn how to wear a coat.  In fact, she ended up going shopping for Chicago-appropriate outerwear with her best friend from SAIC, a Boston native who helped her find a good deal at Burlington Coat Factory.  It is often amazing to see what our little birds can do when they fly the nest, especially when that nest is far from home.