The Fundamental Limitations of College Parents

by Jenora Vaswani

College parents. They’re the surrogate family that you never realised you’d been missing, the ones who’ll take you under their wing and show you around. After all, isn’t that all university is supposed to be and more? Possibly.

Coming to Durham, I had no idea college parents were even a thing. Two incredibly enthusiastically detailed Facebook messages later, I’d been indoctrinated into a family complete with two parents and a college brother. It was fantastic! Not only did I have someone to field my obscure questions about what kind of food there was, whether the showers had decent water pressure and how long it’d take to leg it to lectures, I’d also been introduced to three people who’d presumably be in my life for the next couple years or so. So far so good.

Yet, after the whirlwind of unpacking and socialising and more socialising that Freshers’ Week was (hello fellow introverts), the idea of a college family subsided into a mild obscurity punctuated by the intermittent ping from our group chat. Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and considering the fundamental limitations of the college parent system.

As a part of the college culture, college parents are great. Not only do you become part of a family, your first year devolves into a series of deciding who you want to be college married to, and swapping college proposal stories – the crazier, the better. Equally, the frequency with which you observe same-sex marriages just adds to the liberal acceptance within the college community of the range of sexualities that exist. Grandchildren pop into existence, fully grown, and shake hands with their grandparents. It’s all a part of the richness of the college experience.

However, to think of college parents as a support system is to regard it as mediocre at best. On the one hand, you do get wonderfully supportive cases. A friend of mine relayed the time her college dad sat her down with calming rain music and helped recover her essay from the depths of laptop limbo. But more often than not, the enthusiasm of the first couple weeks peters off as term progresses, as work gets in the way, and summative deadlines begin to loom. Equally, as third years sometime become parents to another set of freshers, they subsequently graduate at the end of the year, and the freshers are left to fend for themselves.

Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration. We’re all adults now (aren’t we?) doing adult things like living on our own and having a separate bank account. Neither should this discount the sheer level of organisation that goes into the coordination of an entire cohort of freshers alongside their corresponding parents. The matching of subjects between parents and children, and the endeavour to provide international students with at least one international parent is a massive project that entails a bucketload of time and dedication.

Perhaps the term college parents is just misleading. The system itself is a great idea. However, the artificial fostering of a community falls flat at times, and the connotations of support and nurture that the word ‘parent’ carry don’t follow through. Sometimes people don’t click. Sometimes they’re just busy. The initial engaged socialisation fades into a quiet politeness. Call me a cynic, but at the end of the day, the college system is a good laugh and little more.


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