Families matter at BGSU: A Q&A with Amy Swank
For Amy Swank, college is a family experience.
She recently joined Bowling Green State University as the director of the newly created Office of Parent, Family and New Student Connections and brings more than a decade of higher education experience, along with a national reputation, as being an advocate for students and families on college campuses, from recruitment to graduation.
Swank, who co-authored "College Ready 2021: Expert Advice for Parents to Simplify the College Transition," comes to BGSU from the Pacific Northwest after building a similar parent and families office at another university. She has hit the ground running in Bowling Green, spending the summer meeting with new students and their families at SOAR before the start of the fall semester.
Within moments of meeting Swank, her passion for supporting families of college students is obvious. Because for her, it's personal. Get to know Amy Swank in this Q&A, where she shares more about her background and how BGSU will support families every step of the way.
How did you get started working with parents and families of college students?
I taught K-12 for seven years and loved it, but I always felt like something was missing. When I had the opportunity to move into supporting families of college students, I knew it was everything I wanted to do. I feel like I'm still an educator, but in a different way.
Serving families, especially serving first-generation families, is part of my story. Neither my mom or dad went to college and I was the first of my siblings to graduate. My mom and dad wanted to be there for me, but they were nervous, they didn't trust the college experience and they didn't know how to help me in that season of my life, so they backed out a little. When I have the opportunity to serve college families, I often think of my mom and dad because they needed an office, an advocate, to learn about how to support me. All college families need that. Families have supported their kids their entire life, and when they arrive at college, we don't want to say, 'Your role isn't important anymore, it's your time to sit on the sidelines' because the opposite is actually true. Families are so influential and their role is key to student success. I feel so connected to students and their families, I couldn't image doing anything else.
Why do parents and families need to be supported through their student’s college years?
Colleges and universities are focused on supporting students, but families are in places and spaces of their student's life that we, as a university, will never be. Families have been a part of the everyday management of a child's life - from their arrival until they are ready to go to college. They have sat around dinner tables and encouraged homework, they have driven their kids to SAT testing and they've influenced their student's life. When their student arrives at a college campus, that is all that student knows, and that is all the family knows, too.
There are some colleges that say drop off your student and drive away. I love that BGSU doesn't do that. We're not here to disrupt that support system. Our role is help support our families - our guides from the side - and give them the tools, information and resources to continue to help support their student in a new and healthy way. Those relationships are instrumental in student success and it would be a disservice to our students if we took away their No. 1 supporter and the people who have championed them their entire lives. We're focused on harnessing those relationships. Students are emerging into their adulthood and independence, so how do we take family influencers and make them partners, whether they are 5 or 5,000 miles away. I think of it as a reframing of a relationship that will help their students be more successful, more focused on their goals and ultimately persist to graduation.
How do you define families?
When we say 'families' we mean families of origin and families of choice. When we accept a student to BGSU, we are accepting an entire support network. And for each student, that support network looks different. Sometimes, it is a family of origin, sometimes it is a chosen family and some students select the family members who they want to be part of that support system.
Family is the support system that feels right to you. There are coaches, mentors and chosen families, as well. We want our families to connect with us however they're most comfortable - whether it's a phone call, a one-on-one meeting in our office, or connecting on social media. We will meet you at your comfort level and we welcome all ways to connect with us.
Did the global pandemic shine a new light on parent and family support?
The pandemic has driven colleges and universities to make changes in how we support student success. If we take a step back and look at how it affected families as a whole, we saw families invited into an education space in ways they have never been before. They had a view over the shoulder of a Zoom class at the dining room table. Families saw how universities communicate and work in a new way. They have a different viewpoint, and in some ways, different expectations now.
What BGSU recognized was there was a gap in family support - families were looking for answers, looking for ways to support their students in remote learning, move out quickly, and change and adapt. BGSU responded by creating this office, the Office of Parent, Family and New Student Connections. There has been a shift and refocus, not just in our office but across the entire University, to engage our families in a healthy dialogue and relationship. We all need to be thinking about how we redefine this guide-from-the-side role to be positioned as a champion and supporter as their students emerge into adulthood. These family relationships are instrumental in student success. We're focused on harnessing those relationships, and reframing them in recognizing students are emerging into their adulthood with new independence.
How will the new Office of Parent, Family and New Student Connections reshape parent and family connections at BGSU?
From top down, there is a recognition that families matter at BGSU. Families are, and can be, the partner that we need to help our students be even more successful and persist to graduation. That's a beautiful partnership and it's not just coming from our office, it's felt across BGSU. The institution as a whole recognizes families can help us serve students in a different way.
I hope families will see a true partnership. They will have the tools and information they need to be able to support their students in ways they haven't had prior. They will see increased communication through social media, newsletters and our website, and have the opportunity to meet with us. Our role is to anticipate the needs of their student, based on the season their student is in at BGSU, so families are prepared to be that partner, that cheerleader, to help their student succeed. Our students listen to their influencers and that partnership is invaluable.
Updated: 04/06/2023 12:00PM