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Dr. Mom

Pete Wojtechko Staff Writer

Every day, she drives her son to school. He sits beside her, brown lunch bag on his lap. The car stops, he gets out. Then she gets out. They both head into the school, up the stairs and down the halls, together. This is a daily routine for Dr. Susan Sommers, carpooling with her son, junior Alexander Sommers. “Here’s the opportunity to really be a helicopter parent if I wanted to,” Sommers reflected on her thoughts before her son began attending SVC. Alex Sommers is one of 39 students currently attending SVC whose parents are employees of the school. On average, about six such students are enrolled to the school each year. For many, though not all, of these students, SVC’s tuition remission program was a factor in their decision to come to SVC. This program is a benefit to all full-time employees of SVC who have worked at this school for two or more years. Following an eligibility application, and then the standard application to the college, the program reimburses the tuition for their children or other dependents if they come to the school. No other fees—such as room, board, books, laboratory or technology fees—are reimbursed, and the students are still subject to all the same behavioral and grade-based policies to remain in the school. According to one professor whose child is using this benefit, the unpaid fees add up to about 12 or 13 thousand dollars per child. Dr. Thomas Cline, who has two children currently attending SVC, said, “I think where the benefit really kicks in” is for “students who are not as strong academically,” and would otherwise not have as easy of a time receiving academic scholarships. Children of employees are also eligible for participation in three tuition exchange programs which SVC participates in, along with many other colleges. Through this program, students have the chance to attend another school for either full or partial tuition remission, depending on the school. Children of employees who work at those schools get the first chance to enter into the program. “We get a big huge list, actually,” said junior Sam Cline, the son of Dr. Cline, on the tuition exchange program. “But you look at the schools, and it’s not that easy. Because they can only give out a limited number of these, it’s not total freedom.” When it came time for senior Carly Marsh, the first in her family to go to college, to choose where she wouldapply, she applied only to SVC. She said that the financial reimbursement was “for sure” a main factor, and that as it was “the first time for us to look around [at colleges], we really didn’t know what to do, but my mom works here, so I was like, ‘Why not just go to Saint Vincent, we’ll see if it works.” Marsh had also taken some classes on campus as a senior in high school, so she was familiar with the setting. “Well, Carly being the oldest one, I didn’t really give her an option,” laughed Secretary to the Dean of the Boyer School, Mrs. Tammy Marsh, who was working in the Registrar’s office when her daughter came to SVC. “I asked her to please come here. She wanted to go off to New York City, so I wasn’t ready to let her go at 17 years old.” While Dr. Cline’s daughter, senior Jayna Cline, “had always considered and planned to go to Saint Vincent,” his son Sam was more apprehensive when he was first applying for SVC. “He wanted left alone, he wanted his autonomy,” said Cline. He said that he followed advice that he was given to “just kind of give Sam some space, and leave him alone, and it’s worked out.” Similarly, for FMO Director Larry Hendrick’s children, “it was actually a discouragement” to be going to a school so close to home where their father worked. “What students don’t realize,” Hendrick said, “is we don’t see them unless they want us to. It’s just like them being away.” Hendrick said he would see his children “sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month.” On occasion, he would be passing students in the hall, saying hello to them as he passed, and afterward think to himself, “Oh, hey, that was [my son] Jake.” What also helps reduce awkwardness is not broadcasting their relationship, Hendrick and some other parents and children said. “Believe it or not, you try to keep that stuff on the down-low pretty much,” said Sam Cline. “Most people have no idea: that’s the way I like it.” Some students, like Carly Marsh, said that having a parent on campus is not very awkward. “She doesn’t show up and embarrass us or anything.” “We don’t see each other very much. Or at all, really, during the day,” said Dr. Sommers, who lives and commutes with her son Alex. “For most of the hours of the day, it’s almost as though he’s not even here. We try to stay out of each other’s way. We pretty much each do our own thing.” Most parents said that they do not see their children very often, noting that they felt a separation was important so that they would not “interfere” with their children’s lives, allowing them to be able to grow and have their own experiences. “When I run into them, my heart flutters,” said Dr. Cline. “Makes me smile just like if they had come home.” Cline said that he sees Sam, who has a work-study job in his department, several times a week and sees his daughter Jayna a little less. While he would attend their swim meets and occasionally see them at mass on campus, he said he has never been to their dorms and never been in their classrooms, because although “my love for them means I want to be around them, I’m not going to tell them what to do, or what classes to take or how to study, because I believe that they have to grow up.” Cline continued, “They need to deal with roommates, they need to get to class on time on their own, learn their own study habits and just kind of grow up. And it’s worked out pretty well so far, knock on wood.” Similarly, Hendrick said, “We won’t be around forever. This college is the trial to get the kids ready for life.” Carly Marsh, daughter of Tammy Marsh, said, “I think the only downside [is], because part of college is growing up and getting away, with [a parent] here you don’t really get that complete and total independence, because you still have someone you can bum money off of, or just talk to about your day.” Although there is an independence because her mother does not always know what she or her sister, freshman Chelsea Marsh, are doing at any given point during the day and are free to make their own choices, “it’s just a matter of that lack of attachment is what you don’t have. It’s very convenient, and it’s very nice, and you definitely take it for granted.” Last summer, Carly found herself 8 hours from home in New York City for an internship. Between the distance, culture shock and some poor initial experiences, she said that she came to realize how much having her mother on campus affected her. “The first two weeks [in New York] were the worst. I was ready to quit and come home,” Carly recalled. “For me, being in New York, not having any connections to actually see somebody that I’m close to family-wise, was a big shocker, and it’s probably what most people experience their freshmen year whenever they move on to a college campus. Because I’ve never had that, it was just like, ‘Oh my God, I’m 21, why is this happening to me, I should be independent.’” While Sam said that he at first “resented being so close” to home and his family when he was supposed to be out growing in the world, he said that “you mature and you realize it’s not that big a deal” and that you “can get food besides the caf, or Dad can bring up shampoo.” Along similar lines, Carly said that “I think I accumulate more in my room living so close to home and having my mom here than I would if I lived far away and it was a hassle to get things. Moving out at the end of semester is always terrible!” In addition, she said that “if I need money, I can bum it off of her” and can have a face-to-face conversation with her mother if she needs. Sam said that–aside from being close to home, being able to get some needed items dropped off by his dad, and getting some scheduling advice from him—having a parent on campus is “not any different, not easier, not harder” than the experience of any other student. Dr. Cline said that he feels another benefit is that “children of any academician have the advantage of knowing how important education is,” an understanding of where certain majors can get you, as well as “an advantage of us knowing when spring break comes, generally what courses need to be taken when,” and general answers to questions “from book-buying to roommate issues.” He said that they can “help out [our students’] advisors,” and are “accessible if [our kids] need us.” Another advantage that a number of students mentioned was a familiarity with the campus and some of the SVC faculty, since many of them grew up around the campus as their parents worked there. “This is a good place for faculty to have children,” said Dr. Sommers. “It’s a very family-friendly campus, and most faculty, in a pinch, bring their kids along,” even occasionally finding another instructor to “babysit the kids if they’re feeling just a little under the weather while we go to class.” “Seeing a little kid run up and down the halls is never a surprise,” she said, “and that’s a good thing, I think.” As a result of her child being around the school so much while he was younger, “It was less scary to go to college,” Dr. Sommers said. “Going to college is a scary thing.” Also, Sommers added, “He knows where all the candy bowls on campus are.” As far as advantages for the parents go, common benefits suggested by those spoken with included getting to see their kids fairly often, and having an easier time getting their kids to college. “The big advantage for me,” said Dr. Sommers, “is it wasn’t stressful. I see a lot of parents just go through incredible contortions to help their students find a college. They’re anxious about them going away, all these preparations, and for us it was just a very normal, natural step.” Mrs. Marsh said that having her daughters on campus “may have enhanced [our relationship], and let me keep them in my life a little bit longer,” though they are out at college at the same time. As far as downsides to this arrangement go, Carly Marsh said that “basically, there’s no hiding anything. With your mom working here and people knowing who she is, if anything bad happens, you say or do something wrong, word will get around. It’s like, you better go and tell them first before they hear from Bob Baum or so and so, even if it’s a good thing.” For some parents working on the campus, their involvement with the school sometimes keeps them from being able to be with their children at certain campus events, as is sometimes the case with Larry Hendrick, who has “yet to come to a [family] day” because he works at them. Some students also noted a somewhat larger amount of pressure they felt in having their parents on campus, particularly in their freshman year. Sam Cline and other students mentioned that one issue with having a parent well-known on campus is that it becomes harder to make your own impression, as that of your parent and the things which he or she said about you tend to precede you. “Going into classes freshman year, a lot of professors would be like, ‘Oh, you’re Tammy’s kid!’” said Carly, “and they’d just have all these expectations of you.” Some students said they felt a responsibility not to let their parents look bad, either. “I think [there was] a bit of pressure,” Sam Cline said of his freshman year, “because I didn’t want to tarnish his record. But I don’t really feel that anymore.” Meanwhile, Dr. Cline said he felt that his being a professor on campus did not put any more pressure or encouragement on Sam than if Sam had gone to any other school. “I think it’s the other way around,” he said. “I think I want to perform really well in the classroom every day, so that [my children’s] friends respect me, and it gets back to [my children] that [their] father is a prepared, scholarly person.” Dr. Cline also mentioned that having children as students in the school has “given me a great appreciation for students at Saint Vincent, that Saint Vincent students have an awful lot going on. It’s a good reminder that they always have other things than my class.” He said that while this does not mean he makes his classes any less rigorous, “it means I think I’m more understanding.” Some negative situations in this parent-child arrangement can arise from carpooling, too, as is sometimes the case with Dr. Sommers, who said that “the only thing that just drives me nuts is that I’m a very independent person, and on days when I’m done and he’s not,” she is stuck on campus for longer than she needs to be. “But if that’s the worst I can come up with, that’s not very bad.” Although, Dr. Sommers noted that she would find it “very awkward” if her son was in a class she was teaching. “I wouldn’t have wanted him in my classes, because that’s just a little too incestuous, not just a little bit too weird. What would he call me, Dr. Mom?” She said that she “would obviously be very concerned about the appearance of favoritism,” and said she thinks she “would probably overcompensate and just be really hard on him. And that’s not a good thing, either.” Dr. Bill Hisker of the McKenna School had three children attend SVC in the ‘90s. One summer, he taught his daughter, an anthropology major, in a business class. He said that when other students in the class would ask her, “’How do you do this,’ it was pretty clear she didn’t have any inside information” by her answers. “As long as both [parties] understand that it has to be a professional relationship,” Hisker said, “and you don’t create situations which seem unfair, you don’t have to worry about that.” Hisker said his daughter would “refer to me as Dr. Hisker, because that’s who I was.” Hisker said that he also taught his brother at SVC. “His wife would say to me, ‘How could you give him a B?’ And I would say, ‘Because he earned it!’” Sam Cline said that he felt if his father would have ever taught him in class, “He’d be the one to give me a C just to prove he wasn’t showing favoritism.” However, Sam is on the golf team, which his father coaches. Sam said, “Golfing for Dad is awkward,” adding, “that’s something I really don’t like to tell people,” because people tend to jump to conclusions and assume there is some automatic favoritism. “Coaching’s tough,” Dr. Cline acknowledged, who also coaches his daughter on the women’s golf team, “because I have to be a little bit extra tough on them, so that all the other athletes see that they’re not being treated favorably.” He said that he feels that sometimes he might have been “a little too hard” and that coaching is “probably the most awkward thing.” Both Sam and Dr. Cline agreed that what helps most against any appearance of favoritism is to simply point to the statistics of an athlete, and see how well they stand on their own two feet. Larry Hendrick, who has coached his son in hockey all his life up through his time at Saint Vincent, said that the key is to understand that “a team is put together to win” and that everyone on the team needs to realize that for that to happen, there is no room for playing favorites. According to Dr. Cline and several other parents, though, what’s going to be a “big downside” is that he’s going to miss his kids when they graduate Saint Vincent. “I’m going to miss my first two born when they’re gone.”


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