Off To College

August 31, 2009
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It is, in many ways, a parent's first glimpse into their child's future away from home-twilight in the green and gold glow of Pat Neff Hall, the paint-covered faces of excited students, the determined expression of a track athlete clearing one hurdle closer to the finish line."You are a strong tower. Equipped for every good work. Run as to get the prize."The images on Baylor's Web site, along with their scriptural captions, capture the essence of a bud about to blossom-unlimited achievement, friendships to last a lifetime and a future full of promise await. The words ring sweet to every parent envisioning the start of a transforming journey-the triumphs, maybe even the struggles, and ultimately that proud graduation day when their child is finally draped in the regal garb of a college graduate. But first, you sometimes just have to get past the dirty socks on the floor.Leslie Norman still remembers how the tally came out when her son, Jamie, put pen to paper during his senior year of high school to rank the leading factors in his top two potential universities. It was 68 to 63, Baylor narrowly claiming the top spot. She wasn't surprised as much by Jamie's method for choosing a school, or its results, as by the residence hall placement questionnaire he filled out prior to his first semester as a Bear.

"When he marked himself as a four [out of five] on the neatness scale, I said, 'Jamie, I don't think that's quite right!'" Norman recalls with a laugh. "His response was, 'Well, Mom, I don't want to live with a slob!'"

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While she may have worried how her eldest of four would fare paired with a roommate who eventually did teach him how to iron, there was one thing, she said, that didn't trip her mom radar a bit when packing up her firstborn and sending him out into the world.

"I felt very safe with him at Baylor," she says. "Safe in every sense of the word. I knew a student could go to Baylor and really be challenged but at the same time be nurtured."

Leslie and her husband Jeff reveled in their son's college years, as Jamie became active in intramural athletics and a leader within his fraternity. Now working as a securities and investment advisor in Dallas, Jamie (BBA '06)stays involved in the city's active Baylor Network and is even dating a fellow Baylor grad. And, the green and gold has branched even further into the Norman family. Jeff and Leslie's younger son, Rob, is a Baylor sophomore, and their daughter, Katie, enrolls as a freshman this fall. Although the couple is neither Baptist, nor Baylor alumni, nor from Texas, they've embraced the Baylor tradition into every corner of their family.

"For us it's been about a real appreciation for the importance of relationships," Jeff Norman says. "That's inherent, it's cultural at Baylor--forming those relationships, keeping them alive and extending them far beyond the college experience."

More than a number

Baylor proudly claims its well-earned accolades: consistently among the best values in a private university education, a low student-to-faculty ratio, and average incoming SAT scores topping 1200. Once at Baylor, few parents have any doubt they have entrusted the academic future of their son or daughter to a top-rate institution. But is a university, by nature dealing in sheer numbers, capable of treating its students as anything but?

"Greg's first days at Baylor were full of excitement and adventure as he met his professors and fellow students for the first time," says Baylor dad Bill Stephanos. "He didn't feel lost in a crowd but instead saw the opportunity to connect with faculty as well as students in an intimate learning environment. I was brought to literal tears of appreciation for the University Scholars program and a department head [Dr. Alden Smith] who would take the time and interest to understand my son, his background and the road that led him to Baylor."

It is, indeed, Baylor's faculty that is almost renowned for its ability to stay truly, personally "in touch," not only with students but with parents and extended family alike. From Move-In Day and Welcome Week to Parents Weekend and Homecoming, Baylor faculty prove they're not only the University's academic backbone but its face on campus as well.

"I was astonished that the professors would actually come out on Parents Weekend to meet the families," says Mitzi Collella, whose daughter, Whitney, graduated in May. "When I went to college I knew what it was like to be a number. My college education opened a lot of doors, but I also knew that when I left campus after four years, unless I ended up becoming an astronaut or inventing something that really changed the world, that that school was not going to remember me. At Baylor, whether you are a student, an alum or a parent, you really do become part of the Baylor family. This school genuinely cares about the kids who go there--where they end up and who they become."

Bill Ernest will never forget one of his first encounters with Baylor faculty, and a "famous" one at that. As his daughter, Kylee, prepared to graduate from Hong Kong International School after spending her high school years with the family in China, the Ernests returned to the U.S. for a college tour that took them to several schools throughout the southwest. In addition to learning to drive a car, a skill Kylee hadn't needed in a city of 8 million, her father had to be sure her transition back into the American culture--not to mention one 7,000 miles away from him and his wife--would be as smooth as possible.

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"Touring Baylor campus one day on our own, we walked into the very impressive Baylor Sciences Building, since Kylee had always known her major would be science-related," Ernest says. "We were walking through the lobby and a gentleman came up to us and greeted us as we explained we were there from China to tour our daughter on various college campuses. By the end of the conversation, we realized we were talking to Dr. David Pennington, whose name we immediately recognized because his work is very well-known in the field. I think Kylee was a little stunned when he told us who he was, and I just couldn't believe the head of the chemistry department would come right up to us and have that kind of conversation. Having him be so warm and approachable was just incredible."

Never far away

"Our number one goal is to connect parents to the University, and to give them an avenue of involvement and support where they can continue to be a part of their student's educational experience," said Judy Maggard, director of the Baylor Parents League.

Maggard, who has for more than a decade guided parents through the ups and downs of their children's college lives, explains how her role is often simply to ease the uncertainty.

"It's easy for a school to say they're focused on the kids--that's what they're supposed to do--but we're here to tell parents we understand it can be a challenging time for them, too," she says. "We want parents to feel they're a part of what's happening at Baylor, even if they aren't physically here with their kids. Sometimes it's hard because, obviously, staying involved as a parent at the college level is vastly different than it was in high school."

Maggard's office provides everything from a comprehensive calendar for parents distributed each fall, to campus event invitations and a toll-free parents helpline that takes calls five days a week on topics ranging from grades and time management issues to housing, transportation and even interpersonal struggles with roommates, classmates and professors. Maggard also coordinates communication with some 40 parent chapters throughout the U.S. These local groups bring together the extended Baylor family for summer send-off receptions, care package-making parties, fall football tailgates, dinners out and even prayer groups.

Holly DiTallo, whose son Hunter attends Baylor, lives in the Tempe, Ariz., area and leads First Tuesdays, a monthly gathering for local Baylor moms to come together for friendship, fellowship and prayer for their Baylor students.

"The class and compassion shown to Hunter at Baylor made his freshman year a success," she says. "The continuing support system Baylor offers to its students and their parents is something I think a lot of schools claim but rarely can deliver. I can't imagine anywhere else that works so hard to keep families close, like Baylor does. Our relationship has continued to grow deeper as a result."

Intentionally engaged

Many out-of-state parents, especially, find unique and humorous ways to bridge the distance and keep the family dynamic alive. Colella recalls an emotional phone call she received from her daughter, who had just received a surprise visit from dad.

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"It happened to be Homecoming weekend, and he was in Dallas on business," Colella says of her husband. "He detoured to Waco and decided to surprise Whitney at the Homecoming parade. He spotted her and a group of friends from across the street and suddenly jumped into the parade right in front of them, acting like he was leading one of the bands. He pretended to wave a conductor's baton, although there was nothing in his hand, and of course he wasn't in uniform. People were just howling at the site of this crazy person in the parade! He marched right up to Whitney and she burst into tears from shock and happiness. Some of her friends even started to cry and later told her 'I wish my Dad would do something like that for me!'"

For Ray Rodgers, whose two children both graduated from Baylor in recent years, taking an active role as a Baylor parent wasn't just a privilege but a responsibility.

"We've never been a family to sit on the sidelines," he says. "We all want to be regularly, intentionally engaged in each others' lives, and Baylor totally enhanced that. Baylor has given our children the opportunity to develop as leaders, and as parents we've been able, along with them, to form more and more layers of experiences that have really upheld the family unit."

To say the least, leaders-in-training excel at Baylor, where Rodgers' son, Ben, BBA '09, took not just leadership but entrepreneurship to a new level in the Hankamer School of Business. Along with a small group of like-minded pioneers and backed by the support of Baylor faculty, the younger Rodgers, a music and entertainment marketing major, helped develop Baylor's own record label, Uproar Records, which last year scouted, produced and promoted 10 original artists in the local community.

"The 'community' stance that Baylor takes, both within its walls and around Waco, is authentic," Rodgers says. "And the living out of that position is evident. Not only that, but the concept of the 'Baylor family' is done extremely well. It makes our children's education a true collaboration."

Colella says her daughter entered college, as many Baylor students do, a capable, bright young woman with the world at her feet, if not somewhat unsure of how to take her next steps.

"I think, even at that point, Whitney already had all the pieces that made her who she is," Colella says. "But I was really amazed at how those pieces developed and fit together as the whole of who she became at Baylor. As a parent, it's rewarding to see that process happen in your child."

Through Whitney's experiences as a Community Leader in Baylor's Campus Living & Learning program, Colella says she watched, somewhat apprehensively at first, as her daughter took on the time-intensive and emotionally-taxing commitment to mentor young women in their first years of college life.

"It was definitely an eye-opener for her," Colella says. "She grew from someone who was not the most comfortable confronting people's problems, to a person who others not only relied on but sought out for support, encouragement and prayer. Eventually she began to consult us less and relied more on her own experiences to resolve challenging issues. Baylor has given her so many opportunities that we may not have paid any extra money for, but that have grown her into a more mature person by being an active participant in her education and personal development."

Family affair

For plenty of Baylor students, the green and gold extends from deep within the roots of a family tree. Mark Oliver, BBA '79, remembers a very different-looking Baylor than the one his middle child of five, Jordan, attends today, but "that feeling" still overcame him when he stepped on campus with his son.

"We visited campus as a family, although there wasn't a whole lot of doubt that Baylor was the place for Jordan," Oliver says. "We didn't feel hustled in and out, like we were there to pay our bills and then, 'See you on the first day of school.' People cared, and they didn't go about it just because they were told to."

Comparing Jordan's Baylor experience to that of his two older children, who chose a larger state school, Oliver said his son's own decision to continue the family legacy took the Baylor grad and dad back to the heart of a university that hasn't changed much over the years. Commenting on the many renovations and building projects undertaken during the last 10 years in particular, he couldn't help but describe it as "a very grown-up Baylor." And appropriately so, as Oliver literally spent his adolescence "growing up Baylor." His father, Don, attended Baylor in the 1940s and served as one of the athletics department's first sports information directors. After a few years away, the family moved back to Waco when Oliver was 11 years old, and he has "lived and died" Baylor sports ever since.

"The mentoring Jordan received, in particular that first year through his involvement with the Golden Wave Band, was beyond impressive," Oliver says. "The faces have changed, definitely the campus has changed, but there's still an atmosphere of brotherhood, a mutual respect of people. If anything it's stronger now than when I was there. You don't see the same thing other places."

Core of Christianity

Baylor parents agree that the school's moniker as the world's largest Baptist university is more than a headline on a recruitment brochure. Baylor's commitment to provide a Christ-centered environment for its students is one that is wholeheartedly upheld from the cafeteria to the president's office, and everywhere in between.

"Greg has a better understanding of the values that support and empower the community and the individual," Stephanos says of his son.

"The spiritual direction Baylor provides has really given Kylee a sense of support and well-being," Ernest reflects on his daughter.

"It's almost easy to take Baylor's academic caliber for granted when you consider the Christian heritage that is so rare, and so real," Jeff Norman says of his children's experiences.

"As a dad, I'm most proud of the fact that Baylor isn't afraid to tout what it is," Oliver says. "Baylor is committed to its Christian beliefs, and it is instilling those values in our young people. If you come away from Baylor with nothing more, I don't see how you can help but get a world-class education in the process."

At Baylor, measuring achievement of a university is defined by more than its professionally successful alumni, more than its state-of-the-art facilities and more than its published faculty research. Baylor is all those things, yes, but its highest mission is developing students who run as to get the prize, indeed, equipped for every good work, poised to leave a mark on the world through their leadership as followers of Christ. As strong towers go, parents agree--Baylor is building them.

For more on Baylor's resources for parents, visit