Tears, hugs, and then your child is a college freshman

Incoming freshman Deanna Cook (center) couldn’t get into her dorm room because of a broken key.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Incoming freshman Deanna Cook (center) couldn’t get into her UMass Amherst dorm room because of a broken key.

AMHERST — The calendar disputes it, but summer is over. How can you tell?

Check out all those U-Haul trucks barreling down the Mass. Pike. Scan the anxious faces of kids cramming boxes into the backs of minivans.

If you look closely, for every dad doing the empty-nest touchdown dance, you can spot another discreetly blinking back tears as he hauls the minifridge up the steps and into his daughter’s dormitory.


In college towns across New England, and around the country, it’s a Labor Day weekend moment of pride and poignancy.

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It’s what people like Dawn Bond call showtime.

“We take care of your students when they’re here with us and thank you for trusting us to do that, because it’s a serious thing,’’ Bond told me the other day over lunch at a dining hall at the University of Massachusetts, where she is director of residential life operations. “I love the parents. I call them mom and dad.’’

For anyone who has packed that minivan. For the students whose stomachs swirl with a mix of fear and excitement as they approach the campus quad. For parents fretting about that final letting-go hug, there are people like Dawn Bond who carry this message:

It’s all going to be OK. We’ve got this.


“I think everyone feels off-kilter even if they’re not showing it,’’ said Bond, 48, a onetime UMass hall director who now directs a staff of more than 300. “You are probably going to feel lonely your first semester. You don’t have to make 100 friends. One or two good friends is good.’’

Dawn “General” Bond keeps things moving on moving day at UMass Amherst.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Dawn “General” Bond keeps things moving on moving day at UMass Amherst.

And so is Dawn Bond.

Around here, they call her General Bond. Why? Because she helps bring order to the move-in-day chaos of lost keys, overloaded elevators, and hairtrigger tempers that comes with a sunrise starting time, highway traffic, and frayed nerves that stretch from the steering wheel to the rear seat.

As UMass Amherst prepared to welcome its largest-ever entering class of 5,800 — 74 percent from Massachusetts — Bond convened a war-room-like meeting with her lieutenants, who wore blue jerseys and can-do smiles.

“I don’t think it’s cuckoo out there right now,’’ she told them.


But they all knew what was coming.

There were questions about mail delivery. Electric message boards were ready to flash word about altered traffic patterns and one-way streets. A staging area was set up behind McGuirk Alumni Stadium, where cars would be dispatched to the dorms at the rate of 18 every 90 seconds, all day long.

All of this with a single goal: to make incoming students like Anirudh Laddha, a 19-year-old freshman from India here to study economics and computer science, feel right at home.

“I’m a little excited,’’ he told me. “I’m a little confused. I’m still waiting to meet my roommate. We had a proper conversation for like two hours over the phone. We’re waiting to go for a hike, most probably next week.’’

And then he flashed a smile. His father talked about upcoming conversations via Skype. His mother, Anita Laddha, fought back tears. “I’m nervous and a little scared that my son is going to be alone for the first time,’’ she said, speaking for many mothers who would soon follow her up the steps to the dorm.

Outside, a team of student ambassadors called Minute Movers assumed the more confident demeanor of 21-year-old veterans of the move-in-day dance they have learned to master.

“I knew nobody when I got here,’’ said Shira Kahn-Samuelson, from San Jose, Calif. “I was the first person from my school to ever come here. It was scary. I think it took two weeks before I knew my way around campus. After that, I felt better.’’

Dawn Bond grew up an hour away from Amherst, in Dalton. She moved into MacKimmie Hall as a freshman in 1988. One of her best friends in high school was her roommate. Big mistake.

“We were best friends,’’ she said. “We loved each other. We were terrible roommates. We were totally incompatible. We were opposites on every front, but we did not know that. She moved out after the first semester because she and I weren’t getting along.’’

She advises freshmen to let the luck of the draw determine who’s sharing that bunk bed with you. “How many times in life are you going to be assigned someone you don’t know and learn to live together?’’ she asked.

Some 40 percent of freshmen select their roommate. Everyone else takes Dawn Bond’s suggestion.

During her years on campus, the anxiety level has risen, Bond said. Too many helicopter parents. Too much social media. Too many students staring at their phones instead of their friends.

“You can always be followed and photographed,’’ she said, holding up her own cellphone. “Your story is out there. Do you know how happy I am that there wasn’t a Facebook when I was in my twenties? I don’t need any of that out there. None of it!’’

The UMass for which she now works isn’t the same school as the one from which she collected her degree in 1992.

The incoming freshman class has a high school grade point average of 3.9. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get into the state’s flagship university this year.

This is not your parents’ UMass anymore. All three of my children collected their undergraduate degrees from the school, and it’s not even their school anymore. They remember the days of the St. Patrick’s Day wild beer bash known as the Blarney Blowout.

When I visited UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy in his office the other day, he smiled wanly and told me the blowout days are over.

“It’s gone because we actively worked to discourage that and not make it one of the top 10 things you must do when you’re at UMass Amherst,’’ he said. “A bucket list, for heaven’s sake. They’ve replaced that with take-a-selfie with the chancellor.’’

You can get a bobblehead keepsake of the chancellor these days. I picked one up before I left campus.

Subbaswamy, who goes by the nickname Swamy, became chancellor in 2012 after holding positions at the University of Kentucky, the University of Miami, and Indiana University.

So he knows a thing or two about college life and the rite of passage that is taking place.

When he received a scholarship to attend Indiana University in Bloomington in 1971, he was just 20, had never traveled abroad, and was scared to death.

“I was tired and I fell asleep,’’ he recalled about his arrival on campus before the dining halls had opened for the semester.

“I wake up and it hits me: I’m all alone. I have no idea what I’m doing. I was in tears. If there was any way that I had the money and the wherewithal to get back on a plane and go back, I would have gone back. I was homesick, and I was terrified.’’

This is a chancellor who can relate to the roller-coaster rhythms in the coming days as his campus springs back to life.

“The first semester, in fact the first year, is a very critical time,’’ he told me. “A transition occurs and the 18-year-old has a freedom that they’ve never had before, for the most part. I encourage parents to keep tabs on their students through the end of the first semester. In other words, ‘How are you doing? Are you going to class?’

“Be a little intrusive. If two months go by and you haven’t heard [from them], that’s not a good thing. The equally important thing is to trust your student. If you have done a good job of parenting for 18 years, they will make the right choices. Trust them and don’t be overly intrusive. There’s a balance there, because sooner or later they’re going to stand on their own two feet.’’

Classes begin Tuesday morning.

Set your alarm clock.

UMass Amherst students (from left) Giaoying Huang, Ethel Deng, and Yuqi Liu got their bearings on campus.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
UMass Amherst students (from left) Giaoying Huang, Ethel Deng, and Yuqi Liu got their bearings on campus.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at