Gail Offringa

Season 3 - Episode 331

August 7, 2020

Gail Offringa
Gail Offringa

Every parent wants to support their student through the unique joys and challenges of the college years. As Baylor University’s director of parent engagement, Gail Offringa and her team serve parents as they become a part of the Baylor Family and help them navigate questions that arise. In this Baylor Connections, she shares tips for parents to best support their students and anticipate adjustments throughout the college journey, and addresses common questions heading into the new school year.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Gail Offringa. Gail serves as director of parent engagement at Baylor. The parent of two Baylor alumni, Gail joined the then Baylor Parents Network as director in 2016 and has seen it grow over the last few years into parent engagement which connects parents to campus engaging them in their student's journey, answering questions about navigating the college years, providing opportunities to meet other Baylor parents in their area, and more. While the COVID-19 public health crisis has shelved in-person events this summer, parent engagement is well known for summer send-off parties, care packaging parties, and more. Parent engagement sessions are a staple of the orientation experience, and Gail regularly appears in videos and Facebook live events answering questions for parents. Gail Offringa, director of parent engagement, our guest today. And Gail, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you here on the program.

Gail Offringa:

Oh, Derek, I'm so thrilled to get to talk to you today and honored to have the privilege of serving our Baylor parents.

Derek Smith:

Well, there's so much about the college years for parents that it's nice to have a helping hand, a listening ear, someone to help them navigate, and parent engagement in various forms has done that and we're going to talk about that in depth as we go on here on the program. But let's start off with the obvious question here. We're now in the month of August, the semester will begin August 24th, and how is COVID-19 impacting the ways that you and parent engagement interact with parents?

Gail Offringa:

Well, like everything else, COVID-19 has had a huge impact on how we are interacting with parents compared to other years, because we love to meet our parents and students in person at orientation so we can talk with them and share tips with them and answer their questions. And as you know, we travel to about 100 send-off parties in a typical summer around the country to officially celebrate welcoming them all into the Baylor family. Nothing is better for us. But because of COVID that traditional way wasn't possible, but we still wanted to see them face to face, hear us, and get to know our office. So we provided a parent survival course this year that was online through student orientation, and it's now housed on the Hub, our parent portal. And this course gives parents the key points of how they can help jumpstart and shape their son or daughter's Baylor journey, and they got to meet each of us in the parent engagement office. We also hosted four Gail's Corner live sessions in June where we went deeper into areas that historically have been really important for students and parents to know, and these are also available on the Hub and parents have gotten back to us after watching them and been very thankful for that information. We're not having send-off parties this summer, but on August 12th, a week from today, actually, we are joining student life President Livingstone and other campus groups along with the entire Baylor family, and that means new students, current students, parents, family, alumni, and former parents across the nation and around the world to celebrate the upcoming year. And for this celebration, our office provided Baylor [inaudible] boxes to each incoming family that registered to receive one. So they received a box that has the tools for this celebration like a bear cookie cutter, some BU cups for their Dr. Pepper floats, and balloons. It's really going to be a fun extravaganza.

Derek Smith:

Well, Gail, as you described that I know you're a Baylor parent yourself, and you've served as director of parent engagement for four years now. And what stood out to you? Obviously, the situation is not ideal for doing all the things Baylor normally does to really welcome families into the Baylor family. But what stood out to you? What's meant the most to you about some of those efforts that you've described and really seen all over campus this summer?

Gail Offringa:

I've been amazed at so many people who have come to Baylor before are concerned their students aren't going to get the true Baylor experience. And what's really marveling to me is how every office that I've encountered, whether it's student life, academics, the health center, the advising center, we are sitting down every day, coming up with clever ways and interesting ways that students will still have a very unique experience. And I often predict that 20 years from now they're going to be proud of the fact that they were the COVID-19 class, but we're just finding ways that they can get connected. I know with the Line Camp celebrations that student activities came out with, parents and students were just really thrilled and they are getting connected to Baylor. So I think in some ways for our office we've also been able to reach more parents than we have in the past because not everybody can attend a send-off party, not everybody can come here to campus for orientation, so now we're able to get that message out to anybody who wants to take it.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Gail Offringa, director of parent engagement at Baylor. And Gail, I mentioned parent engagement. I think some of our parents who go back a little bit with Baylor might have heard of the Parents Network; going back even a little bit further, Parents League. What should those who maybe knew those in their previous names know about parent engagement now?

Gail Offringa:

Okay. Well, first of all, the Parents League, the people who knew them years ago should be really proud because we are really rare amongst all colleges and universities that Baylor has an office that is totally dedicated to parents, because Baylor knows that parents and loved ones are vital to student success. And if the parents are engaged with their students university success rates soar, and we've been doing this for about 40 years where we've gotten parents engaged at some level. So now we've just kind of ramped it up a little bit and offer a few more ways to get engaged. So some people might follow us in the university on social media, they might attend sporting events, musical concerts, theater, or campus events. But then we have others that choose to volunteer for us, and that's a great way to get engaged to serve as hosts for our Parents in Prayer network or the send-off parties that we have. And these volunteers are really integral in helping make Baylor the unique place that it is because every month groups of Baylor parents across the country get together to pray for each other's students, to pray for each other, and to pray for Baylor, and it doesn't get any better than that. Parents will frequently approach me and tell me that that one-hour-per-month meeting is the best thing that they did while their student was here because it was different for them than to pray with their kids for people who have Baylor in common versus praying for their students in their home, church, or Bible study. And then hosts will approach us and share that while they facilitate the Baylor parents to be blessed in these meetings, they receive so many blessings by volunteering as well. Then we also have parents who feel led to engage philanthropically. So Molly Ferguson who supervises the parent engagement office also oversees our parent philanthropy program, and Molly works with a team of development officers across the country to connect parents in an effort to build a strong network of support for the university because as a private institution, Baylor relies heavily on the generosity of our alumni and parents to grow the endowment and vision for the future. So, Derek, you can see that there are many ways that people can get involved at Baylor, none of which require a lot of time. So we always say if you feel led to support Baylor in any of these ways, please join us.

Derek Smith:

Well, you talk about the Parents in Prayer taking place all over the country. I know normally this time of year, you and your team would be incredibly busy with summer send-off parties all over the country. It's people locally in their communities getting together, not just close to Baylor, but really from coast to coast. For parents who might be intrigued by that but be new to that, I'll ask this again at the end of the program, but I'll ask you now what's the best way for them to engage with parent engagement at first and learn more?

Gail Offringa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). At first with our office you mean or at first with other parents?

Derek Smith:

Yes.

Gail Offringa:

At first with our office... Well, first of all, they should have, and if they haven't they still can, watch the Parent Survival Course on the Hub. That's just a wonderful way to understand what we do to help them help their students. That's the key to our office. They can also get connected to us through social media. Many of them are connected on our Facebook groups. We have Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter. Any of those formats, they can definitely get engaged in as well so they can like us and share things that we do to help reach out to other parents as well. And I think those are really the best ways for them to get connected to us if they're far away, especially. And then they will also be on the lookout once school starts to check their email and the Hub regularly, because we are just now in the process of booking some of our meetings, many of which will be virtual, so it will be very easy for them to participate, for example, in Parents in Prayer this year.

Derek Smith:

And when you talk about the Hub, that's an online platform for parents that really has everything they need to connect and learn what's going on at the university?

Gail Offringa:

Absolutely, and it's our parent portal and it's a place where they can go for informational, but concisely put, information. So they should get in the habit, really, of checking that portal regularly because it gives them information on what's happening at Baylor and it gives them some student tips that they might not find anywhere else. Very easy to use, and they can focus on what are they interested in at Baylor, because then we will tailor make what they receive to what their interests are. It's a wonderful, wonderful format.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Gail Offringa, director of parent engagement at Baylor. And Gail, you've talked about being there to help parents navigate the college years. I know the Parent Survival Course is a great introduction to that for new parents, but let's talk about that because right now obviously during COVID-19, you're getting questions that probably we never anticipated we would be answering a year or two ago at this time. And then there are also the staples, the kind of questions that every parent has as they enter the university or as their child, their student, progresses through the university. So let's talk about that a little bit, and you could maybe help even talk a little bit about what are the questions now that you get all the time and what are some specific to COVID, but what are some of the most common questions that your office is receiving right now?

Gail Offringa:

Sure. Well, it's funny because I was thinking about this the other day and whether there's COVID and the pandemic going on or not, I think that all questions that we receive are motivated by one underlying question: All parents want to know how can I best prepare my son or daughter so: (1) That they will be okay; and (2) that they'll thrive. And that's really been our job as parents. And so the first thing I want to address is please, parents, understand that any time that you would have sent your child off to college, you would feel some level of anxiety about it kind of like an exaggerated anxiety of the day you put them on the school bus or the first day they drove off in the car alone after getting their license. Now we add to that the pandemic where so much of our world is different and uncertain and changing, but just know that all of the anxiety that you are feeling is not all the virus's fault. Some of your anxiety is something that you would feel during this transition no matter what. So I think that's really the main thing to remember right now. And then: (2) I laughed about how when my first daughter came to Baylor I sought to control the tangibles, and that's what I see a lot is when people they want to control: Let's get some towels and bedding and toiletries and snacks and medical kits, and how is she going to get her laundry done? And I say to take some of those stressors off the table, let your kids handle those things for themselves, and as a parent you can focus on the more intangible things with them to help prepare them to function when they're here. So parents will ask questions about the tangibles because they don't even know what to think about what are the intangibles. So I suggest talk to your children about how do you use your health insurance, because they probably never had to. What's the difference between emergency care and urgent care? How do you make an appointment with the healthcare center? What do you do if your car breaks down? How do you live within your budget? How should you assert yourself with your professors, roommates, and new friends? Those are really important things that are going to hit them like a ton of bricks, so it's good for parents to talk to them now. And then the second most common thing we talk about and get questions about is I call them the common stressor intangibles, and I always say help them address these in advance as much as possible to take what they can off the table before they start school. So students will talk to me about how they're nervous about managing their schedule properly. So talk about it. Time management is a big deal for them. So I would require them to set up a time management schedule right now before they move here in a few weeks and so it won't become the snare that threatens their grades. Why should you be bound up in anxiety about budgeting time, tests, projects, and all the social fun you're going to have when you can schedule that out in advance? What is your plan? If you have academic challenges, let's talk about that before you face those challenges. The same thing with your living arrangements. How are you going to follow your contract? Talk to your roommate maybe about small issues so they don't become big issues. So talking through these intangible things are far more important with your student before school starts, and it's going to establish a great solid foundation for your child. I mean, we get all those questions, but these are the ways that we can help parents address that up front.

Derek Smith:

You mentioned some of those challenges, whether it be maybe they're struggling in a class, for instance, certainly the health center. It sets up the point that Baylor offers a ton of resources for students from whether you talk about the success center, whether it's tutoring or help [inaudible] in a class, whether it's preparing for a career that actually you might think of that as an older student thing, but it can actually start for younger students as well. Freshmen and sophomores, there are opportunities for them. But for students and parents alike, navigating those offices, knowing what resources are available, can be a little confusing. What are some of the ways that you help parents understand what's available for them and their student?

Gail Offringa:

That's a great question because I see parents really trying hard to navigate it well, and it's just confusing, like you said, because college life is certainly far different than it was in my day, that's for sure, and it's extremely challenging for parents because it's almost like they're entering a whole new world with its own language and is a place where they don't have access to their students' lives like they're used to having. So I like to tell parents let's think about the problems that might arise in two different ways. Most are non-emergency problems, few are emergencies. And so I advise parents to think [inaudible] because the biggest mistake that parents make in transitioning students to college life is that they jump in too quickly to do things for their young adults that are non-emergency problems, and by doing so they can send a message that they don't think that their child is capable of handling it on their own. So the key to navigating Baylor is that your sons and daughters need to be the primary navigators for their non-emergency challenges, not the parents. That's a big one. But what we do suggest is that they walk alongside them to guide them and ask them, "Well, where do you think you're going to find that information?" Baylor has so much in place for their student, like you said, Derek, and the student needs to look for it. And I say their best resources are the upperclassmen. They can ask upperclassmen questions, and they'll get an answer in about 10 seconds. And so by the parent directing them to figure it out, they're helping them develop a resourcefulness in a way that they've never had to before. And then secondly, our office is here to help parents guide their students. So parents will call us often and say, "Well, what should I tell my son, what should I tell my daughter?" and that's perfect because then we tell them the process so they can in turn guide their child. Another thing that arises is that sometimes the parents will call me about a non-emergency situation and I have to do some digging, and then I discover that the parent has called four other offices on campus the very same day. So now five of us are chasing the same information to solve this one problem. So I advise parents to just be patient for those non-emergency situations and give us time to find the solution. Emergency situations are very different, of course. And I mean, I've witnessed wonderful and immediate responses to these circumstances. So I caution parents always keep in mind because your student is upset does not mean it isn't always an emergency, but know that if it is an emergency, we react very quickly.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Gail Offringa. And Gail, you talk about parents asking questions about how they can help their students, and sometimes that changes. The four-year journey each year brings distinct opportunities and challenges for their students. What are some ways parents can think through the different steps of their student's journey, whether they're a freshman this year or at any level along the way?

Gail Offringa:

That's another great question. And one thing I think parents need to realize is that in normal times and in times like the present, their son and daughter will have challenges and they will have victories. So I say the best way that parents can be there for their children is to plan ahead, parents, in your own mind for those times when your son or daughter may call you upset about doing poorly on a test or having a difficult interaction with a roommate. It can be so hard to parent in those situations, but it's really best to take a step back and hear them out as you would a friend because sometimes they just need to vent, and let them express their emotions and then ask them, "How do you think you should deal with it?" Help them problem solve versus jumping into the problem with them. Sometimes I learned finally to just say to my daughters, "May I suggest something?" instead of telling them, "Well, you need to go do this", right? And then secondly, help set guidelines for their kids in anticipation of these challenges. Talk to them. "Hey, if you've had a really bad day or you've done poorly on a test, call me, let's talk about it." So what are the expectations from both of you as far as communication goes? And then I also say a big thing is plan when and how often they will come home to visit so that if your student calls begging to come home because it's a big adjustment, you're able to "no" in advance: No, I'm going to tell them no. They have to stick it out for at least four weeks or whatever your decision is. So those are things to do. Plan ahead in advance how you're going to handle those, because your emotions can take over really quickly.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections visiting with Gail Offringa, director of parent engagement at Baylor. Gail, as we head into the final few moments on the program, I want to shift gears a little bit. We talk about what the Baylor family means, particularly. Maybe for new Baylor family members, listening to your story is particularly interesting. We mentioned you had two daughters who attended Baylor, and you eventually followed them here from the East Coast and eventually got the job as director of parent engagement. Sort of based on that experience, I'm curious how would you describe what the Baylor family has come to mean to you from the time your daughters were here until now?

Gail Offringa:

That's a great question, Derek. As you just said, I was an out-of-state parent sending my daughters here from Massachusetts and I watched both of them blossom and emerge extremely well prepared for their careers once they graduated. And then I came to work here, and I saw so much that would have made me even happier had I known it earlier. And first of all, you need to know that it is a common goal of everyone who works here at Baylor that every single student thrive, succeed academically, and then move on to succeed in their life's calling. And it's something I hoped was the case as a parent, but now I have witnessed firsthand that teams of people will work together and are eager to help students accomplish it all. But the most life-changing Baylor family defining moment for me came when I was only two months on the job and sadly involved the Baylor family coming together to help one of its own in a tragedy. It was October of 2016 and David Grotberg, a Golden Wave band member, was struck and killed while riding his bike off campus in a hit-and-run accident the week before homecoming. I had the privilege of helping along with dozens of Baylor faculty and staff, most of whom I had not yet met, host the grieving family of nine on campus. Their desire was to walk in David's shoes and come to know the Baylor that David loved so much. It was the week of homecoming, which you know is the busiest time all year and involves the entire campus. David's parents, five siblings, and two grandparents flew to Waco. One woman opened her home to allow the whole family to stay there for the week because they needed to stay together. Another donated a van that was large enough for us to drive them around in the same vehicle. The honors college staff and students set up a schedule to be on call when needed, such as packing up belongings or taking the siblings to Cameron Park Zoo. They visited and shared their love for David with the family. There was a memorial service, an on-the-field tribute during the homecoming game; the list goes on and on all during homecoming week. Faculty, staff, and students galore filled five full days [inaudible] Baylor for his family. And I always look at it. I describe it as an orchestra that was directed by God, performed by the Baylor family working on God's behalf to comfort this devastated family. And David's father has always said, "Our biggest fear was that we would lose David's Baylor family", and nothing could be further from the truth. So to me, it truly represented family at its best, the Baylor family, and I'll never forget it. And today I'm great friends with the Grotbergs. They stay at my house because two of their other daughters both now attend Baylor, and so we're hoping that we'll get their other son and the younger two daughters to attend as well.

Derek Smith:

Wow. That's powerful, and certainly David... Well, a lot of us who were around here then remember him and his legacy and I think a lot of people who didn't know him will as well, but that's a powerful story about the Baylor family coming together and an example of just one of the many ways that your office can play a role in certainly events large like that and smaller, but are big in the life of parents. So Gail, I really appreciate that story and you sharing so much here over these last 20 minutes or so. As we close, I'll ask again for parents who are intrigued by what they've heard, what's the best way that they can learn more about parent engagement or get involved?

Gail Offringa:

Sure. They can join the Hub, like I said, the parent portal. Be on the lookout for invitations to our parents and prayer meetings. They can call our office, even if they just want to talk something out. That's what we're here for. Follow us on social media. But what I always like to say to parents is most of all it's time for you to step back and watch in awe because God's plan for your son or daughter is about to play out right before your eyes, and we're here to help you.

Derek Smith:

That's great. And you mentioned the Hub, Gail. If people just Google Baylor Parents Hub, that's the first thing that comes up on Google, so they can learn more about that.

Gail Offringa:

Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative). The Hub or Baylor parents at campus ESP. But if they type in that Baylor Hub they should get to the link.

Derek Smith:

Absolutely. Well, thank you very much, Gail. It's been great to visit with you. We appreciate it. And best of luck as we head into this semester. It's going to be a little bit different, but we know so many people come together on the behalf of students. So we thank you for that.

Gail Offringa:

Thank you so much for having me, Derek. Have a great day.

Derek Smith:

Okay. You, too. Gail Offringa, director of parent engagement, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder you can hear this and other programs online: baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.