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Welcome to Parents

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Cabell Hall Auditorium

Good afternoon. I'm Teresa Sullivan, president of the University.

I want to thank the Virginia Sil'hooettes for performing for us. This is just one of several a capella groups we have on Grounds. If your son or daughter enjoys singing, he or she may want to audition to join one of these groups. Information about them is available on the University web site.

After these remarks, I'll give you a chance to ask me questions. Our deans and vice presidents are seated down front to help me if I get stumped.

But let me begin by asking you a question: How many of you are U.Va. alumni – please raise your hands?

To our alumni, I say: Welcome back! To our non-alumni parents, I say: Welcome to our University family. We're happy to have you join us. Like you, I'm new to the University. I became president just 20 days ago. So we will begin together as new-comers. We'll learn together, and grow together over the years ahead.

I hope all of you will feel welcome here as you get your sons and daughters settled and we begin the academic year. One more question: how many of you are bringing your first child to college today – a show of hands? (Raises box of tissues) These are for you. I'll pass them around if you need them. This day marks a major milestone in your child's life and also in your life as a parent. This is an emotional day. Excitement and hope mix with nervousness and even some sadness. Although you face mixed emotions today, this should be a day of celebration more than anything. You should feel proud of your sons and daughters — and proud of yourselves for what you have accomplished to reach this day.

Parents around the nation and the world struggle to get their children into this University; you succeeded. Occasionally we see students who make it into good colleges and universities without family support. But it's usually true that behind every good student stands a good parent, or two good parents. Over the years you have guided your sons and daughters through school, helped with homework, provided structure and discipline in their lives, and made financial sacrifices to get to this day. And now you're here. Congratulations.

For new students living away from home for the first time, simple life skills are often the biggest challenge. All of these students are smart, but very few have lived on their own before. Helping them learn to manage their time efficiently is critical. Getting enough sleep, eating right, getting regular exercise — these are things you need to remind your child to do. First-year students may have more trouble with these basic life skills than with the academic work, which is considerable. For new students who are nervous about being away from home for the first time, nothing beats a hand-written letter from mom and dad. Students love getting a long letter from home — even though they may never write one back to you. This is true even today, when our communication consists mostly of e-mails, texts, or Tweets. The only thing that trumps a letter from home is a care package from home, with snacks and sweets to sustain your child during those late-night study sessions. So try to send one or two of those, too.

As far as the academic work, encourage your child to explore the full range of the curriculum. Encourage your child to engage in research. We have Harrison Award grants that offer this opportunity. Encourage your child to study abroad for a year, a semester, a J-Term, or a summer.

Encourage your student to get involved in public service. Madison House, our student volunteer center, offers 16 programs and coordinates more than 3,300 student volunteers each week. The options are wide-ranging: medical and rescue services; assisting in schools and eldercare centers; housing improvement programs; cultural organizations; and more. Students can learn more about these and other opportunities at the Activities Fair this coming Monday, August 23, 11 AM to 2 PM, on the south end of the Lawn.

Your daughters and sons will be busy in the next few days meeting new people and attending programs that will teach them about University traditions and culture.

I encourage you to stand back and let your child learn by doing. Every child makes mistakes — and so does every parent, as we know all too well. These mistakes are part of your children's education and part of their growth as adults. If you don't give your children room to learn on their own, if you hover too much, you risk earning that most despised label: helicopter parent. How will you know if you're becoming a helicopter parent?

You might be a helicopter parent if you say to your child, "Don't bother getting an alarm clock; I'll call you every morning to wake you up."

You might be a helicopter parent if you have the office phone numbers for all of your child's professors, the Dean of Students, and me on speed-dial.

You might be a helicopter parent if you're shopping for a new vacation home within 500 yards of the Rotunda.

I'm joking, but you get the point. Let your child grow. Allow room for mistakes, because those mistakes become life lessons.

When your children come home to visit you this fall, you may notice something different about them. They may question your beliefs more than they used to. They may no longer defer to you on all topics and opinions; on the other hand, they may agree with you on some topics that you disagreed about before. Respect these new configurations in your child; explore these new differences and points of agreement. Watch this new person emerge with new ambitions and new expertise. This, too, is part of the growth into adulthood.

Your child is joining a community that holds a unique place among American universities. This University's origins are intertwined with our nation's origins. Thomas Jefferson founded it as an institution "based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind." He believed that education would ensure freedom in the young Republic he had helped to create.

He built his University as a village — the Academical Village, as he called it. You see this village when you walk out the front door of this building. The first professors here lived in the pavilions on the Lawn, and taught in their living rooms. The students lived in the dorm rooms in-between. The design enabled close interaction among faculty members and students. Close connection among students and faculty members still defines life at this University today. Faculty members engage students formally in the classroom and informally in conversations outside of classes. They integrate teaching and research in their courses, drawing no sharp distinction between the two.

While they are students here, your sons and daughters will participate in long-standing systems of student self-governance and honor. The Honor System plays a central role in the community here. The honor pledge is a literal and binding contract, but signing it is a symbolic act as well. By signing, these students bind themselves to each other and to this community.

Your sons and daughters were super-stars at their high schools — 90% of them graduated in the top 10% of their classes. As parents, you have become accustomed to seeing your children succeed at the top. Here at U.Va., all of the students are super-stars. Being a super-star feels different when you're surrounded by super-stars — it's a great equalizer.

Your child will discover that the conditions of competition have changed. The pressure of heightened competition can be difficult for students who are worried about disappointing their parents. By the second year, most students have got a handle on it. But it may feel overwhelming at first.

When you see your child or talk to him or her on the phone, be on the look-out for warning signs of mental stress or depression. Some signs of depression are:

Changes in sleeping and eating habits

Increased irritability

Withdrawal from others

Poor concentration

Getting stuck in sad or stressful thoughts

Constant worry or predominant sadness

Physical symptoms, such as fatigue, anxiety, frequent headaches, muscle soreness, and gastrointestinal distress.

Watch out for those signs. Listen actively. If your child seems upset, say, "You seem upset. Talk to me about it." We will encourage our faculty members and administrators to watch students for these warning signs, too, and to encourage students to get help if they need it. Students can get help at our Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). They can call for appointments, and walk-in services are available too. Information is available o the University website. One more request: Let Student Health know what prescriptions your child is taking. Help us remind your children to keep their prescriptions filled, and to stay on top of their health needs generally.

Charlottesville is a relatively safe town. But for your child, living here is not like living in the cocoon of your home. Encourage your children to take common-sense steps for their own personal safety: Don't walk alone after midnight. Don't walk after dark with ear-buds plugged in and your eyes glued to the screen of an iPhone. Remind your children to un-plug, and pay attention to their surroundings.

Many in this community are still aching from the death of Yeardley Love last spring. As we begin the new academic year, we want to continue the conversations that began in the wake of Yeardley's death. With that in mind, we have scheduled a Day of Dialogue for Friday, Sept. 24. It will be a day of open and vigorous discussion about violence, violence prevention, and best practices for campus safety. Our goal is to create a caring community, one whose members recognize their mutual responsibility for each other. Encourage your son or daughter to participate in the Day of Dialogue.

One important resource for your child is our emergency-notification system that simultaneously distributes text, e-mail, and web messages to cell phones during a crisis. If your son or daughter hasn't already registered, encourage them to do it now at www.virginia.edu/uvaalerts. From time to time, we test this system to ensure that it functions correctly. We will have our first test of the emergency-notification system on August 31st at 10:50 AM. All who have registered will receive a test message at that time.

A few key resources will help guide you through this first year. The Handbook for Parents provides information about the University and opportunities for your children and for yourselves. Copies are available in the lobby, and it's also posted on the web at www.virginia.edu/parents. We also have a Parents' Helpline: 434-243-3333, or you can send e-mail to: parents@virginia.edu.

I encourage you to get involved with UVaFamilies. Membership is automatic and free. We have regional events with alumni clubs that exist everywhere; travel programs; activities on Grounds; and life-long learning opportunities.

Come visit us often. Come to sports events, performances, honors ceremonies. Please join us on Family Weekend, November 5-7. Mark the date now, and plan to come.

In closing, I want to say that it's a privilege to serve as this University's president — to work among such distinguished colleagues and to get to know wonderful students, parents, alumni, and friends.

This is a University with a unique history and a place with great traditions — but the work we do here is for the future. Thomas Jefferson said it best, when he wrote, "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." Our dreams for the future are embodied in your sons and daughters. Thank you for entrusting them to us, and thank you for being here today. Thank you.

Now: questions?