Virtual Parents Week Showcases a Socially Distant Oberlin


Theo Coulson

Oberlin transitioned its usual Parents and Family Weekend activities online this year.

After spending 18 years with your child, sending them off to college may seem like both a blessing and a curse. This year’s pandemic and political tensions have raised the stakes of an already fraught departure. Thankfully, an unconventional Virtual Parents Week assuaged parents’ fears by showing them that their kids really are alright in their new community. 

Due to COVID-19 safety measures, fall drop-offs on campus were kept short and simple, and parents weren’t able to explore their children’s new home for the next three months. College is many young adults’ first long-term venture away from their parents, and with the added obstacles of social distancing, parents had many reasons to worry about their kids’ physical and social adjustment. 

I felt quite worried about it initially, both because of the risk posed by the virus and because I knew that the rules put in place to help campus function would make [my son’s] first-year experience suboptimal,” Ellen Dreyer, parent of a first-year, wrote in an email to the Review.

Another first-year parent, Monica Nevius, described contradicting feelings of worry and gratitude. 

“On the one hand, I was worried for my daughter’s health and thought she might be a lot safer at home,” Nevius said. “On the other hand, I didn’t want her to wait around for the next phase of her life to start.” 

The second weekend after fall break, when the College traditionally holds Parents and Family Weekend activities, usually alleviates some of the anxiety for empty nesters. Because of the pandemic, no guests are allowed on campus, and there isn’t even a fall break to schedule around. Nevertheless, Tina Zwegat, associate director of the Student Union, organized a Virtual Parents Week over Zoom to familiarize parents with student life and transfer some typical Parents Weekend activities to a digital format. 

“Even if [parents] couldn’t come to campus, we wanted to bring campus to them,” Zwegat said. 

Typically, Parents Weekend closes with a President’s Breakfast on Sunday morning, with up to 800 attendees. This year’s events proceeded in the opposite order, and kicked off with President Ambar’s virtual “fireside chat.” 

“The whole point of Parents Weekend is that we highlight the different accomplishments that students are doing, and it’s not all academic,” Zwegat said. 

These accomplishments included the usual junior and senior music recitals, now on Zoom, as well as a reading of students’ work from the class “Playwriting in the Time of Black Lives Matter,” live from the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse. 

“That was really awesome because I could see what the students did,” said parent Melinda Ballou. “You got to have a sense of that professor and the community that was created.” 

Parents were also invited to the President’s Lecture with Tim Weiss, Conservatory Professor of Conducting, about the responsibility of classical music programming. 

“The level of musicianship my husband and I witnessed blew us away,” Dreyer wrote. 

One thing that no Zoom call can recreate, unfortunately, is truly being with your child. While a family might typically fly out and be able to take their child to dinner in Cleveland, meet their professors, and explore the town of Oberlin, this was not a possibility this year.

“It’s cool to get a sense of what Oberlin’s about and talk about ideas and see what’s going on there, but we’re his parents, and we want to see what’s going on for him,” parent Patrick Ballou said.  

While this wasn’t a normal Parents Weekend, parents did express some relief at how normal certain aspects of their children’s first year of college felt. 

“I’m incredibly grateful to Oberlin for giving you all a campus experience,” Melinda Ballou said. “It means the world to us to have our son be able to be in community, even in a more limited way.” 

While Zoom experiences are fundamentally different from real life, Zwegat feels that the value of programming this Parents Weekend has not changed given its different format.

“I think it’s still just focusing on inviting the parents to experience Oberlin in the way that we experience it on a daily basis,” Zwegat said. “Whether it’s them coming to campus [in-person] for a three-day period or experiencing it through webinars or live-streaming, the intent is still to highlight students’ successes and to celebrate what we’re doing on a daily basis.”

While the world looks a little different this year, it’s nice to know that some things haven’t changed — parents can still find ways to stay involved in their kids’ lives, whether their kids like it or not.