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When you can’t be there in person.

This is a thought that plagues many families who send a loved one off to college. This Fall 2021 marked the first time that hundreds of thousands of students left home for the first time to pursue their higher education. Today’s landscape has made this especially difficult.

Since March of 2020, most young adults who were planning to graduate high school and “go away” to college had their plans disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This translated into many students making alternative arrangements by being homebound. Some decided to take a gap year. Others decided to complete their freshman year from their childhood bedrooms. Many first and second-year college students may be grappling with living in a college dorm, having a roommate, and learning to navigate a college campus.

The good news is that technology offers at least a partial solution to the question of how to support your college student. Facetime, text, and other forms of social media can allow you to stay connected with your student, not to mention email and texting, as well. Today’s young adult population has grown up in an era where cell phones and wifi have always been the norm and have become even more accustomed to virtual connections given the COVID-19 pandemic. To this end, our students are yearning for us to meet them where they’re at and to pick up the phone. So, what do parenting and supporting your college student look like these days?

Meeting our students where they’re at requires us to become flexible and open. A tried and true method for supporting others while also empowering them to be responsible for their own decision-making is motivational interviewing. This method was developed by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick in the 1980s to help individuals with substance use issues and has been applied in other areas such as mental health issues and adolescent development.*

Below are four processes for applying motivational interviewing in support of your college student.

  1. Engaging: Listen to your student’s experiences and do your best to empathize with how they are experiencing their new reality. Your job here is to not fix their problems but to listen. Helpful responses might be, “…what else…” or “…tell me more…”
  2. Focusing: Guide your student towards the behaviors and/or actions that appear to be most important to them. This can be a fun brainstorming process where your student expresses goals and what is most important to them.  Some talking points could be, “…how can things be better…” or “…what do you want to get out of this experience…”
  3. Evoking: Ask your student about their ideas and reasons for making changes which might include exercising habits, study habits, sleeping habits, or eating habits. You might add, “…what makes this change important to you…” or “…what makes you confident you can do this…”
  4. Planning: Support your student with building an achievable plan. Continue to reinforce your belief in them to make changes and ask key questions to find out what support they will need to sustain their plan. You might add, “…how can I support you with this plan…” or “…what other resources are on campus that can help you with your plan…”

These processes are not linear and can be applied simultaneously. Remember, motivational interviewing is a collaborative, goal-oriented method of communication to empower your student. It may take practice to incorporate this approach into regular virtual touchpoints. Bear in mind this is both a learning and growth process so the key here is to engage with your student early and often.


*Rollnick, S., & Miller, W. R. (1995). What is motivational interviewing?. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(4), 325-334.


Born in the San Gabriel Valley but raised in Moreno Valley, CA, Dr. Lisa Caldera is a first-generation college student from a low-income family background. She became the first person in her family to earn a doctorate and dedicated her research to undocumented college student experiences. She serves as the Senior Associate Dean leading a team of case managers who oversee crisis response, support, and resources for all Stanford undergraduates.