Silly rabbit, peer-to-peer sites are for kids. But at the University of Alabama, they’re for parents, too.
This fall, Alabama launched two new peer-networking Web sites, one for freshmen -- myBama Freshman Connection -- and the other for their parents: myBama Family Connection. The sites are essentially Facebook for the ‘Bama set. So far, students generally seem thrilled to have the site and some are even encouraging their parents to use it.
But in the age of the “helicopter parents,” who can hover over their college children via e-mail and cell phones, other students are guarding their optimism about a new resource that tells parents on its home page: “You’ve got your eyes on the UA freshman experience without infringing on your student's newfound independence.”
Like the Facebook, freshmen put up pictures and profiles, and can join groups on subjects as diverse as football worship to math study groups. Parents, on their separate site, don’t get to join study groups, but they are invited to “share stories and get advice from fellow parents,” according to the site, and they can e-mail questions and get a response within 72 hours. The goal of the sites is to increase retention of students, said Jennifer Jones, director of academic retention and student affairs assessment, who said she got about 60 questions a week via Family Connection over the first three weeks of class, but now gets only about three per week.
“When students feel connected to the community, and they have support from parents and the university” they’re more likely to hang around, Jones said. In addition to networking, the sites provide links to articles and campus resources on topics like, “Relationships in Transition,” for freshman, and “Safety On and Off Campus,” for parents.
Shannon Langan, a freshman who encouraged her parents to use Family Connection, said she enjoyed the upperclassmen blogs linked to on Freshman Connection that detail the Alabama experience. “I liked seeing all the activities they’re involved in, and why they came here.” Langan e-mailed the link to the parents’ site to her mom. “I figured it was better than the two-hour phone calls I’d be getting if they heard something from a wrong source, and then I’d have to correct it.,” she added.
One instance when Family Connection may have headed off some parental concern was when a message went out to all the registered parents about a two-day closure caused by Hurricane Katrina. Langan said her mother has used the site to learn about campus resources. “That’s how she found out about the Center for Teaching and Learning,” which provides tutoring, Langan said.
About 30 other institutions have put in place both a student and parent peer-to-peer site, according to Tracy Howe, co-founder and executive vice president of sales for GoalQuest, which tailored the sites for Alabama.
Even though Family Connection does not share any information specific to a student, some freshmen don’t necessarily want their parents to have better access to university staff. “I wouldn't want my parents … getting everyone else on my case,” wrote a student with the Freshman Connection name “LilAngel.” “I mean, if you're doing really really bad, the parents are gonna find out eventually, but why make it so easy for them to pry into everything?”
Other than bombarding staff with questions, parents cannot actually pry into anything private using Family Connection, and Jones hopes it will better direct the efforts of parents who are reaching out anyway. Said James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America,  a nonprofit advocacy group for parents of current and future college students: “It’s a smart way to feed the parent beast. I think it will be a minority of parents who will be active in utilizing this, but to know it’s available does offer comfort to parents.”
In one case, the mother of a freshman used Family Connection to let Jones know that her son was not adjusting well socially, and not getting out of the dorm enough. Jones followed up with the student’s residence hall staff, and was able to get the student some support. Jones said the mother was appreciative, and that “based on what I heard,” Jones said. “The student was not upset [at getting support]. The student identified they needed help.”
Students who were interviewed mostly did not seem to mind if their parents contacted university employees. “It’s not like they search through personal stuff,” said one freshman, Kyle Hamilton. “I don’t have a problem with them trying to contact [staff]. It might help in some ways. They might have better idea of who you are.”
Added Bamabrat86: “I guess it could be viewed as a little nosy, but my view on it is more of a harmless one. It doesn't bother me if my parents talk to my advisers, but if they did, that would mean I'm probably doing bad,” she wrote. “Not to mention the fact that my folks aren't very technology savvy,” she added.”
In fact, only a handful of parents have posted picture-bearing profiles on Family Connection, and students are obviously exploiting the networking aspect much more. “I've been having fun with it,” wrote cupcake. “I didn’t know anyone when I got here and I’ve made some friends already through this thing.”
The myBama connection sites are still adding new features, and there may end up being some unexpected ones. “That seems like a good way for single parents to meet each other,” said Boyle.