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Parents Join College Freshmen for Core Studies

A growing number of colleges across the United States include a course in the classics of western literature in their core, or required curriculum for first-year students. A small liberal arts school in Washington State takes that concept one step further and invites parents along for the journey with a web-based course that gives parents some common ground to connect with their kids and with a virtual community of peers.

Going to college is the first time many parents are separated from their kids, and can't be there like they're used to. So, many colleges welcome parents to campus for a weekend visit to see how things are going. Among the scheduled events at Parents Weekend at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington was a discussion group for parents who are participating in the web version of the required freshman literature course. The assignment this day is from the Biblical Book of Job, which falls about midway into the 11-book reading list that begins with Homer's The Odyssey, and ends 14 weeks later with the Confessions of 4th century Christian philosopher Augustine. Parents take the course at the same pace as the 400 freshmen.

The idea for Parents Core came to veteran teacher Rogers Miles one day in 2002 as he was grading student papers. He says parents are a largely ignored constituency in higher education. "They pay the bills and the children go off and they don't hear very much. And, they ask 'how is it going?' And, if somebody asks them how is it going with their student, all they can say is, 'I guess it's going fine.' And," he adds, "I felt that Parents Core would give parents a feeling of what parents were getting for their money and what kind of education this place was offering."

Twenty-six teachers from academic fields throughout the college teach the course on campus. Parents at home are directed to a website that gives them access to discussion groups and a virtual refrigerator that - just like the real appliance in many American kitchens - proudly displays students' papers. This semester, the parent cyber neighborhood includes psychologists, teachers, doctors, a timber company operator and a former Lutheran minister.

When they are not talking books, they share stories about their kids in a cyber-section called Trading Notes. Personal comments volley back and forth among parents offering observations, advice and support. Ellen Ruben from Los Angeles says it makes her feel truly connected with people. "Whereas I might have felt that I am the only one whose son is writing me maybe once a week. That is not the case. Other people have the same issues. So, it is very comforting," she says.

Dick Gilkeson is also a regular contributor and says he was crushed when his son told him he wasn't sure Whitman was the right school for him. "I really had hopes that he would love this place," he says. "And, so I went to the chat area and said here is what my son said and two or three people said, 'Whoa, sounds like that was a pretty heavy thing for you.' So, I felt I had a place to go to deal with that type of situation," he says.

Beyond the adjustment to college life for both the student and the parent, the readings help connect the two generations in ways Jan Sollom-Brotherton from California never realized. "I can know that Noel is reading the same texts and thinking about the same things even if we are not discussing it and later on we have a wealth of shared common experience that we can interact on," she says.

Ellen Ruben - who was also on campus for Parents Weekend - stopped in to talk her son's core professor. "He was telling me about an amazing presentation that Troy and someone else did yesterday," she says. "Did I hear anything about it? Of course not! Do I plan to ask him about it? Absolutely! I can't wait because apparently it was phenomenal. But I wouldn't have a context for discussing that with him were it not for the Parents Core class," she says.

The course also provides unintended benefits for parents who are introduced to books never read or can rediscover ones they're forgotten from their college days. Rogers Miles - who monitors both student and parent sections of the class - says the course is ultimately about life-long learning and attachments that go well beyond the classroom.