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Family Weekend

20 Oct Posted by in Observations, Students | 2 comments
Family Weekend

This weekend was Mason’s family weekend, and I was asked to make a few welcoming remarks. It’s always a nice occasion. I think the parents involved really do enjoy the chance to look around the school, enjoy various activities.  Like many schools we try to provide a mixture of opportunities, including some designed-to-please academic sessions, to give a bit of that flavor.  I hope we always offer adequate opportunities to ask questions.

There are often some funny moments. One of my favorites is mid-to-late Saturday morning when the parents show up for brunch and keep wondering when their still-usually-teenage offspring will ever decide to get up.

As I thought about my comments, beyond the obvious welcome and thanks for attending, I did think a bit about why family weekends have come to be. (Don’t worry; this is not a formal history, though that would not be a bad way to understand a bit more.)  My interest is spurred by the fact that when I went to college, admittedly a while back, there was nary a hint of a family weekend, or anything organized by way to collective encouragement for parents to show up.

The genre apparently began to develop in the 1970s, but it has gained momentum particularly over the past twenty years or so.  Colleges were obviously paying increasing attention to supporting a favorable social environment for students, and family weekend was part of this outreach process.  The weekends were also a recognition – however belated – of the importance of families in providing social and financial support to their student members; they play vital roles in helping schools do their job successfully.  Typically, the weekends don’t require a huge investment, and sometimes they may even promote some additional donations, so from a fiscal standpoint they’re not a big strain.

But I also wonder if the movement does not also reflect some of the changes in parenting and family relations that American society has been experiencing more generally.  Many parents want to stay more involved in their children’s lives, and at least sometimes – as with the kids who report that a parent is a best friend – children respond in kind.  There are plusses and minuses to this development – the minuses mainly on the encouragement-to-dependence category.  But it is a definite trend, and family weekend offers some symbolic celebration of these real or imagined new ties.

Mason did not have a family weekend when I got here 14 years ago, and having seen the success at my previous institution, and aware that Mason was on the verge of becoming a more residential school, I encouraged the event here.  The first year’s effort was quite amusing – we had a host of dedicated staff available, and they easily outnumbered the handful of somewhat bewildered parents.  Every year has seen growth, with this year’s effort, with over 3,000 family members scheduled to attend, the biggest yet. Obviously, I very much hope that a good time was had by all.

Here are a couple of final questions that I realized I could not answer, but want us to explore.  Do we have much success in drawing families of commuting students?  Do we even approximately manage to mirror our student diversity in the families involved? Mason does make some explicit efforts to draw in the parents of commuters, but my guess is, assuming that the family weekend experience does have value in building support for students themselves, we could be doing more in these categories, making Mason family weekend not just increasingly successful but somewhat distinctive.