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Parents must prepare for back-to-school season, too

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By JESSICA WIANT

For The State Journal

At Glenville State College in Gilmer County, lots of energy goes into recruiting the state's high school graduates. Several initiatives, from bringing students on campus for tours and assigning mentors to summer camps, are aimed at getting students more familiar with the concept — and importance — of higher education, according to the school's president, Peter B. Barr.

For the school, 90 percent of the students come from in-state. Many of them are first-generation college students. Many times, it's the parents who take some convincing when it comes to sending their children off to school. The parents often need to understand that letting their children go doesn't mean they'll be gone forever, he said.

Melissa Gattuso, regional coordinator of the GEAR UP campaign that promotes higher education in more than a dozen of West Virginia's more disadvantaged high schools, wishes there were better ways to reach those parents who are unsure about the prospect of college for their students.

Teaching those parents to choose their words carefully could go a long way, according to Gattuso. A discouraging word here or there might mean the difference for students who live in places where going to school simply isn't part of the culture.

Gattuso says parents should try not to make their students feel guilty for leaving to go to school. For parents who want to be more proactive about helping their students with preparing for college, there are plenty of things they can do, even if they didn't graduate college themselves.

Going along on campus visits is one important way both parents and students can get more comfortable with specific schools, said Sabrina Cave, executive director of the Mountaineer Parents Club at West Virginia University and the associate vice president for Student Life Communication.

Parents clubs at many schools are a good way for parents to be kept better informed about what is going on at their children's schools, she said.

One of the first and most important steps toward going to college is filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and that's one area where students will need their parents' help, according to Cave. Parents need to understand, she said, every single student must fill out this very important form whether they plan to accept aid or not. Students also will need information from their parents in order to accurately complete the application, including information about parents' income, she said. The forms can be turned in after Jan. 1, with a March 1 deadline — and must be completed each year.

To stay on track with the FAFSA and other important paperwork and college requirements, Cave recommends working closely with high school guidance counselors as well as the financial aid office of the school where the student plans to attend. When financial aid workshops are offered, parents should participate, she said.

Being on the lookout for local scholarships is something parents are great for, she added.

In a sense, once students are off to college, they are on their own; but when students, especially freshmen, encounter a problem, it's most often their parents who they turn to for answers, according to Cave. With today's technology, students and their parents are potentially more in touch than ever before — according to a survey, she says, they even make contact on average between five and seven times a day through different avenues like email, text message and Facebook.

Sometimes the best way to help can be learning to let go, according to Cave.

“Parenting a college student is much different than parenting your high school student,” she said.

Pointing students in the right direction when they have a problem is more beneficial than trying to solve the problem for them.

Parents can be the most helpful by becoming familiar with the right resources to direct their students, according to Cave, whether it's knowing where to receive health care on campus or encouraging students to talk with their professors during office hours.