Barry Mills on the First Days of College and that ‘Separation Thing’

As Bowdoin prepares to open its 209th academic year, President Barry Mills describes the excitement of those first days, and offers some friendly advice for anxious parents.

Bowdoin is open and back in business. On Tuesday the College welcomed about 80% of our first-year students. It is honestly one of the most exciting and fun days on campus. The first-year students and their families mostly arrive in town on Monday night. Brunswick’s hotel and motel parking lots are full, local restaurants are booming, and there is a line out the door at the Gelato Fiasco for dessert.

Res Life staff lend a helping hand

The students and their families arrive on campus early Tuesday morning. The game plan is for the students to simply drop off their stuff at their rooms, and then attend the various orientation events during the day. No official moving into the rooms or setting up is allowed, since the rest of our first-years don’t arrive until Saturday.

There were all kinds of orientation forums for the parents and students. I’m told the orientation sessions for parents were very well attended. And Smith Union’s Morrell Lounge was very active with students configuring their computers, signing up for mobile phones, learning about campus services, and with parents encouraged to sign up for the Bowdoin Daily Sun. It was funny to see the look on the parents’ faces when our BDS rep told them that a subscription to the blog is free—finally something free at Bowdoin!

Unloaded 'stuff' as pre-orientation begins

I have moved two boys into college and I have to say it wasn’t exactly fun. At both places we were pretty much left on our own to load up the stuff and to get it up to the room—both in an urban situation with a very crowded elevator and at a more rural college, up four flight of stairs. There was no help and not a whole lot of direction from anybody. But at Bowdoin we have many students stationed at the entrance to the dorms to answer questions, and large bodies to help the parents and the first-years carry all that stuff to the rooms.

Once the “stuff” is delivered, the computers configured, and the campus walks are over, the parents and some students come to “Studs Hall” to hear a welcoming address by Dean Judd and me. The place was full this Tuesday and the group was very enthusiastic.

After the talks—and in many cases, before—the parents and students say their good-byes and the college experience begins for real for both. The students are off to Farley Field House for a picnic and a night sleeping on the floor, as they mobilize for pre-orientation trips around the state of Maine and community service trips in Brunswick. It is fantastic to go out and watch these students meet each other for the first time as they begin their college careers.

The parents come to the lawn at Cleaveland House for tea and cookies and a time to decompress. They share stories with other first-year parents, and they meet Karen and me. All in all, it is a very full day filled with excitement and some anxiety for all.

Setting up for a first night in Farley

Setting up for a first night in Farley

At my talk, I remind parents that at Bowdoin we encourage parents to stay involved in the lives on their children and family members when they are at College, but with an appropriate distance and respect for their children’s college experience. Too many college presidents and newspapers scold parents for being overly involved in their children’s lives. I find this ironic, because I believe our society should foster these relationships. However, I do remind the parents that they do need to give their children space.

Many parents told me they enjoyed my talk and were thrilled with my message encouraging them to stay involved in their children’s college experience and Bowdoin. Of those I spoke with, most get the message about balance. But there are always a few who just can’t separate or leave it to their kids. Rumor has it that three moms figured out how to get into their children’s dorm room on Tuesday night to set up the room for the three roommates. I don’t know who these folks are, but they do. My message stands: please stay involved in the life of your children at College, but I hope you can work on the separation thing.

Soon, these parents will come to understand what a great place Bowdoin is and how well the place suits their children. Once that happens, I’m sure these parents will feel more confident and better able to separate. Life is a process.

In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at


  1. Anne Crane says:

    Thank you and everyone involved for a most comforting and welcoming orientation. I left feeling like this is the best place for my son to be and I know he will flourish in this welcoming, caring and intellectually vibrant community. It was the biggest affirmation for me as a parent that my son chose Bowdoin (and got accepted) for all it has to offer.

  2. Ben Massa says:

    We were amongst those “anxious” parents but we left Bowdoin confident in our daughter’s decision. Good luck to the class of 2014. We are sure they will be a credit to Bowdoin and society.

  3. Marguerite Tompkins says:

    This was a great day. Thanks to everyone at Bowdoin who made it so.

  4. Kathy Strout says:

    Two years ago, on another hot and sunny day, I left my daughter for her first year at college. I cried all the way back home, 3 hours of unconsolable sobbing. When I left my son on Tuesday I was smiling, at peace with the journey he was about to go on. The day was so smooth, the campus climate so warm and friendly, carefully orchestrated, kudos to you all! My husband was pleasantly surprised at the lack of tears, agrees, the welcoming community that Bowdoin has is truly a peace of mind for me as a mom who is dropping off the last of her brood and facing the so called “empty nest”. Thank you for your careful consideration to all the emotions parents have!

  5. Katrina Rosculet says:

    Our reaction to move-in day at Bowdoin was “what planet are we on?” Similar to Dr. Mills, our prior experience last year with our son was at a large Ivy League and very urban school where it was clearly sink or swim, you are on your own. There were long lines at elevators, no help or direction from anyone, it was pandomonium. We left our son with large lumps in our stomachs wondering how he would fare in the morass. At Bowdoin, upperclassmen in color-coded tshirts suddenly appeared and our car was emptied out in one trip. These same students took the time to offer kind words and smiles to our daughter, and I found that I actually ENJOYED the day. Bravo, Bowdoin and many thanks.

  6. I arrived at the campus around 7:15, I meet a young man riding a small tractor or something. He got off answered my questions and gave me a tour of the campus. He even called to see if it was ok to park where I was parked. Thank you! When my daughter finally woke up she was assisted by two young men who was willing to carry her heavy boxes to Hyde Hall without any complaints. I was able to feel what she felt when she visited last October. I believe this is the college for her. Today she was feeling nervous about her schedule and even the President was willing to assist her. Thanks so very much, I only have one baby and I know you will take care of her.

  7. Nancy Lamo says:

    I was also surprised at what a relaxing day Tuesday 8/24 turned out to be! Very well organized day, nice relaxed pace, plenty of smiling, friendly folks available to answer questions and provide direction. Thanks for a lovely start to our daughter’s Bowdoin experience!

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