Two people sitting at a table with a sign that says UC Davis Parents Program

10 Things I Learned During My Son’s Freshman Year at UC Davis

By Mary Jane Hornbuckle

Like many parents of UC Davis students, I keep lists: shopping lists, call/text/email lists and “to do” lists. The lists I kept for my son as he grew up could fill volumes. I worried about his well-being, his health, his happiness and whether he was completing the items on each week’s list!  But as he finishes his first year at UC Davis, I have another list for my son — a list of what I have learned about his capabilities and mine. My list is an ode to maturity-both his and mine.

As the year ends, a look back on what I learned during my son’s freshman year of college. Our students surprise us from the beginning at their independence and ability to handle life. And we grow as well, into parents of emerging adults, who are supportive but willing to let them make their own ways. I am sure that other parents already had learned these lessons. But here is the list of things that I have discovered about UC Davis, about my son and about myself, as I look back on his freshman year. They are in no particular order.  

  1. Care packages are appreciated by freshmen. A phone charger with an extra-long cord is the best material gift we could give him.  (This especially is true for freshmen with that top bunk in the first-year dorm triple rooms!) Chocolate chip cookies come in a close second.
  2. Learn to enjoy and take pride in every demonstration of your student’s growing maturity and independence. The Davis Farmers Market is where I spent the morning before my son moved into his freshman dorm at UC Davis, and I felt that bittersweet feeling of pride, and dismay, of seeing him go about his business without relying on his parents. Of course, the Farmers Market also makes the list of things I was happy to learn about during Freshman year. Every parent should go to the Davis Farmers Market on a Saturday morning. It is located in a beautiful park, is shaded and has an amazing assortment of produce and goods. 

    We arrived in Davis early before my son’s dorm move-in, because my son wanted to get some things done, including replacing his lost student ID card before his move-in day.

    That first morning, I found him unlocking his bicycle from the rack outside our hotel.

    Son: “I’m going to go get a new ID card.”

    Mom: “By yourself?”

    Son: “Yeah, I looked it up on the Orientation map and have Google/Apple Maps. I’m good.”

    Off he went, while I sat and sipped my coffee, waiting for the text asking for help. Nothing. I wandered over to the awesome Davis Farmer’s Market.  A text arrives:

    Son: “Got my ID. I’m going to go register my bike with the police.”

    Mom: “Great! Do you want me to come with you?”

    Son: “Got it. Already tried one place but too crowded. Googled others and found one close by. Will use apps and ride bike there.”

    And he did. Most students do not get lost, either on campus or in town. Or if they do, they soon find their way back on track. They display initiative, ask for information and get what they need. As parents, we regret seeing these young adults no longer need us for every, even as we witness these seemingly small accomplishments with pride.
  3. That being said, another thing I learned is that every parent should be aware of second quarter housing deadlines.

    That independent, increasingly self-sufficient conduct on the part of my son continued from those first days on through the weeks of fall quarter. He successfully navigated his academic schedule, made new friends, participated in Homecoming activities and joined a couple of clubs that he enjoyed. But that is not to say the seemingly well-adjusted freshman will never need you.  For example, when the housing deadlines loomed early in winter quarter (for those of us not familiar with the process—be prepared!), we learned about trying to put together apartment groups, finding a roommate and exploring off-campus housing.  It did take parental input on everything from the amount of money a student could spend on rent to whether the student would need a car at school.  These are all things parents can be involved with — as well as discussing lifestyle changes, guaranteeing rents for landlords and volunteering to donate the old furniture in the garage.
  4. As Southern Californians, we learned about Davis weather this year, including that It gets COLD during the winter. Many of us parents worry about whether our fair-weather kids will know how to dress for the cold. They do, although they might not always dress to your taste.

    You learn to respect their choices, which can be manifested in the most basic gesture — what clothes they want to take to school. My son did not need all the clothes I thought he should take. I learned to ignore all those things in his dresser or hanging in his closet at home that I think are wardrobe essentials. You learn the things they truly liked when you purchased them, and those they did not. My son has a sense of fashion. It may not be mine, but it’s his.  And yes, your student will wear a jacket after one or two cold morning bicycle rides across campus in January. I know this because my son texted me a photo of him wearing his winter jacket one January morning. We are happy with that. It is called compromise, choosing your battles wisely, etc., and is the source of domestic tranquility when they come home from school.  They are adults whose opinions should be respected. 
  5. UC Davis dining hall food is good. Your freshman will eat enough to survive very nicely while demonstrating his ability to make his own choices.

    Throughout high school, we remind our families that they need to eat a colorful diet — no bland colored plates. And I do not count red sauce on pizza or spaghetti as the only acceptable hue!  Although my son has his preferences for the favorites and expected components of the American teenage diet, the offerings of international cuisines, vegetables and soups or stews at UC Davis dining halls have fanned some adventurous flames under his taste buds. He has mentioned how he went to one of the dining hall tastings! Plus, he regularly eats sushi with his friends and even has tried cooking vegetarian dishes with them.  I wasted precious oxygen making “suggestions” as to how my son should eat, and all the while he was developing his own tastes and embarking upon a nutritious diet that I didn’t plan for him. He makes his own choices, and for better or worse, he lives with the results.  We, as parents, are there to support him and enjoy when those decisions turn out well. We are there to support him and help him through the rough spots when they do not.  
  6. Every parent should take the opportunity to attend UC Davis Picnic Day, because the school is on display that day. And you see how this university offers endless amounts of study and activity options. I learned this year how this provides encouragement for the students to explore their own interests and pursue their own success. They worry about their own grades. Many of the lists I kept on my flight plan had to do with academics — project and assignment deadlines, test dates and sign up for test dates. I learned that my freshman now keeps up with his own assignments, tests and projects. And the students begin to imagine how what they are learning might lead to their vocational endeavors. Especially if they find an academic passion, they begin to figure out how to craft a profession out of that. Fingers crossed that that enthusiasm leads to viable job prospects!  
  7. Telephone conversations are terrific, and I was happy to have one decent call a week with my son. My son is a man of few words (but that is not a bad thing).

    Mom:  Anything good happen this week, anything bad?

    Son:  All good!

    Okay, so our telephone conversations are a little lengthier than this, but you get the point.  Sometimes it does not require a full explanation to describe comfort, security and contentment.  And when those emotions are not present, it is not difficult to determine that from silence.
  8. A one-word text is worth a thousand words. There’s something to be said for a quick text as a sign of life…and a reassuring note for a mom.  
    Mom:  Everything good?  
    Son:  “Yep!”
  9. A single texted emoji is worth its weight in gold:
    Mom: OK?
    Son:  ♥ 
    Mom: ♥
  10. This year taught me that as a parent, you will miss your freshman. But the dog is as happy to see him or her walk in the door every month or so as he was when your student walked in every day after school. Your time with your college student passes in a different fashion now that they go away to study. But the love and support they need from you, and the happiness they give you continues over that distance and time.  

This is no means an exhaustive list of what I learned about the university, the town of Davis, my freshman or myself. But it does represent the basic lesson I learned about how best to parent my college freshman. The list includes enthusiasm, gentle support, empathy, humor, curiosity and confidence in him.

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