Karen Levin Coburn, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Students and Associate Dean for the Freshman Transition
'Letting Go' Helps Families with Transition to College

by Terri McClain

For many young people, college itself is a transitional stage of life, a time of becoming. And at Washington University, two crucial points in that transition—the coming and the going—are marked by ceremony. Each class comes together for the first time at Freshman Convocation, and for the second and last time at the departure ceremony known as Commencement.

During the semesters and years that lie in between, students become integrated into the University community. They learn the culture, build relationships, acquire new skills, explore expanding interests, and grow more independent of their parents.

All of this is made easier, says Karen Levin Coburn, assistant vice chancellor for students and associate dean for the freshman transition, if the transition from high school to college—the freshman transition—is a smooth one. The smoother the freshman transition, the sooner new students can become confident, involved, and creative members of the University community.

"This is Karen's area of particular expertise and focus," says Jim McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. "I would say arguably that we have one of the most extraordinarily effective freshman experiences of any institution I know. She has taught me to be a student of the experience. In other words, she realized that young people are always changing the place in which they are studying, living, and working—and one has to be a student of that experience in order to make changes that improve it."

Coburn's role is to provide leadership in the University-wide effort to welcome new undergraduate students (both freshmen and transfers) and to help them make the most of their opportunities here. For freshmen, the process begins early, well before their first day of class.

The Freshman Reading Program, initiated by Coburn, introduces first-year students to the intellectual life of the University. Incoming freshmen are sent a book or series of readings over the summer, which then are integrated into activities and classes throughout Orientation and their first semester. This fall, students will read Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, who will come to campus as a visiting Hurst professor in September.

"When freshmen come to campus, they meet with a faculty member in groups of 20 to 25 to discuss the book," says Coburn. "This introduces them to the kind of debate, inquiry, and discussion they will be experiencing throughout their academic life. It also provides a common experience early on and helps them to connect with other people on their floor and in their residential college before classes even start."

For the past eight years, Freshman Orientation week has been launched with the Freshman Convocation: a "colorful ceremony" says Coburn, that is intended to mark the transition in a symbolic way. After a program in the Athletic Complex that includes a faculty procession in full academic regalia, as well as addresses by the chancellor, a faculty member, and a senior student, the freshmen proceed from the Athletic Complex to the Quadrangle.

"Their parents, holding glow sticks, line the walkway symbolizing the pathway to knowledge," says Coburn. "The chancellor and the faculty speaker, carrying torches, lead the procession of students accompanied by a cadre of bagpipers. When they reach the Quad, parents and students join each other and celebrate with Ted Drewes frozen custard and live music."

"As the person who oversees Freshman Orientation and the first-year experience, Karen has an enormous effect on many of our students and how they come to find their place on the Danforth Campus," says Steve Givens, associate vice chancellor and executive director of university communications. "She is such a great contributor to the life of the University and its students because she brings a sensitivity and a warmth to all that she does. Washington University would not be the same without her."

Concurrent with Freshman Orientation is Parent Orientation, which also falls within Coburn's field of expertise.

"We have been running Parents Weekend and Parents Orientation for a long time," she says. "Our goal is to help parents feel comfortable, to help them understand how the University works, to help them understand what we expect of the students, and to help them understand positive ways that they can support their child's success and emerging adulthood."

"Karen is so good at what she does because she's able to see the bigger picture," says Rob Wild, A.B. '93, assistant to the chancellor. "She is someone I deeply trust to provide good advice and insight into the personal challenges faced by college students, as well as how we as a University can help them overcome those challenges. She understands the critical role that parents play in getting their students to college and how they can best support their children when they are in college."

"My role is to collaborate with my incredible partners ... to help freshmen and their parents become comfortable with the University, understand how it works, and take advantage of what it has to offer."

Coburn and her co-author, Madge Treeger, M.A. '75, a former member of the University Counseling Service, wrote the first edition of Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years in 1988. Now in its fourth edition, published in 2003, it has sold more than 300,000 copies and is recommended by high schools and colleges throughout the country. The book will be published in a Chinese edition next year.

The publication of Letting Go has led to numerous radio and television guest appearances, including Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, CNN's Parenting Today, and NPR's Talk of the Nation and Weekend Edition.

"Parents are definitely an important part of the equation," says Coburn. "They are partners in the transition process and in helping their students be more successful. Parents have always played that role, but it has intensified. This generation of parents is more connected to their children. And, as a result of today's communication technology, students are more likely to contact them for day-to-day advice. We encourage parents to learn what the University has to offer and to coach their children to turn to people and resources right here on campus for assistance."

Coburn created and oversees the University's Parents Web site, as well as an electronic newsletter for parents. She also works on initiatives that affect freshmen throughout their first year and serves as a four-year academic advisor. Her other leadership responsibilities include the Habif Health and Wellness Center, which offers comprehensive health services for students, and the Office of International Students and Scholars, which assists international students with immigration procedures and offers cultural and academic programs to help ensure their success. She also serves as a women's crisis counselor.

"Karen's wisdom, compassion, and creativity have positively impacted numerous students, faculty, and staff," says Jill Stratton, associate director of residential life. "Over the last 14 years, I have turned often to Karen for her guidance and support while learning from and observing her strong advocacy and activism around issues related to women, social justice, and diversity."

"One of the things that's extraordinary about Karen is her versatility," says McLeod. "Since she's been here, she's advised students, she's been a professional counselor, she's built our career services area, and she's been engaged in a wonderfully broad range of activities. She manages a number of very critical departments."

Coburn concludes: "The freshman transition is a complex process. And it's a process that continues throughout the first year. My role is to collaborate with my incredible partners—faculty, administrators, staff, and upperclass students—to help freshmen and their parents become comfortable with the University, understand how it works, and take advantage of what it has to offer."

Terri McClain is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.