New Player on Campus? The PTA

U. of Hawaii group, seemingly a first, seeks to represent parents' interests and help students adjust.
August 27, 2005

Parent-teacher associations tend to evoke images of bake sales and protracted budget debates about the relative importance of stage curtains or classroom supplies. But what appears to be the only PTA for a college, at the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus, has a different agenda: curtailing binge drinking, improving campus housing, and easing the transition to college for new students.

The Parents and Friends of UH-Manoa, a year-old group at the university's flagship campus, was formally approved this month as a chapter of the Hawaii State Parent Teacher Student Association and the National PTA. While scores if not hundreds of colleges have formal or informal groups for parents, officials of the national organization said they were unaware of any other PTA specifically formed for parents of college students -- although they were reluctant to christen the Hawaii group as the first in history.

Theresa Wee, a Honolulu pediatrician who is an alumna of Hawaii's Manoa campus and has had two sons attend there, is the PTA's first president. She says the group emerged in embryonic form about a year ago when Hawaii officials invited parents of about 3,000 residential students to a "brainstorming" session about how to involve families in the university's culture.

A small cadre of parents affiliated loosely at first, and were immediately thrust into controversies over a shortage of housing for students and underage drinking. When those contentious discussions settled down last fall, "we wanted to do some positive things, like some fund raisers, and so we looked into forming a 501(c)3" organization, groups to which donations are deductible on federal taxes. As the group explored various options for doing that, one of the parents, who was involved in the PTA of her child's high school, suggested exploring that route.

"We had someone from the Hawaii PTSA come over and talk to us, and realized we had many similar goals, and that we could rely on a lot of resources through them," Wee says. "As we talked more and more, we thought, 'Hey, this might not be a bad idea.' " Formal approval by the Hawaii and national PTAs came this summer, and members of the university parents' group have since gone through PTA training.

The group's goals, says Wee, include keeping parents informed about issues on the campus and giving them an outlet to voice their views in those discussions, and providing support for students -- especially the many at Hawaii whose families are on the U.S. mainland, half an ocean away -- "to enhance their college experience."

Those objectives square with the aims of the many other parent groups at colleges across the country, says James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America, a national advocacy group. 

"Whatever it's called, I think it's good that schools and parents are working together to address transition issues," Boyle says. "Given the attrition rate that we see, particularly in the freshman year, to the extent that students have a support system that is both at school and at home, it's really helpful."


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