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E-mail Angel Keeps University of Minnesota Parents in the Know

January 3, 2001

Cindy Krueger lives 250 miles from the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, but she knows an awful lot about what goes on there.

The Appleton, Wis., mother of two Minnesota students knows that students in residence halls were concerned about alcohol use this fall. She knows that there were two attempted sexual assaults on campus in October, and that the university has a night escort service to walk students across campus. She knows that midterms can be tough on freshmen and that cookies or a call from home can help.

Krueger knows so many things that when she mentions some of them to her daughters, they ask, "How the heck do you know that ?"

"Marjorie told me," Krueger answers.

"Marjorie" is Marjorie Savage, director of the university's parent program, which runs an e-mail service that for many parents has turned into a reassuring and remarkably personal connection with a campus that has more than 40,000 students.

Krueger, for example, has never met Savage. But sometimes she calls her "Margie."

"I get e-mails from Margie all the time, and you can e-mail her about anything," Krueger said.

"We need her. At least I do."

The e-mail bulletin, which about 900 parents receive, sprang about two years ago from the quarterly newsletter Savage's office produces for about 17,500 parents of full-time undergraduate students. The office also maintains an informational Web site aimed mostly at parents of undergraduates. But the one-on-one nature of the e-mail list seems to have touched people the most.

E-mails go out every couple of weeks. Sometimes they're simply bulletins: Tuition is due; this is how students can change their majors; here's a calendar of homecoming events. Others offer information about where to refer troubled students or chatty advice about how to help students cope with college.

"For a lot of students, mid-term exams are a wake-up call and a reality check," Savage wrote in an October e-mail. "They are suddenly realizing how they stand in comparison to other students. Those who are used to getting good grades without studying may be learning that college courses are more challenging than what they're used to. And those who studied hard and still only received mediocre results may be frustrated. ... This is a good time to send encouragement by e-mail, but also consider sending something to your student by regular mail. A full mailbox is a wonderful thing. Cards and letters are great, and a package of cookies would be a bonus."

The 'nitty-gritty'

Bobbie Bringe of La Crescent, Minn., has a sophomore, Christopher, at the university 125 miles away.

"Sometimes I feel like [Savage is] living in the dorms with the kids," Bringe said. "She's talking about the real nitty-gritty things; she's, like, right there with the kids. The other things the 'U' puts out are so global. ... With him at such a huge university, it's nice to have an ongoing correspondence."

Savage empathizes with far-away parents. She jokes that her own sons wouldn't attend the university because she worked there. One went to college in Texas, the other in Rhode Island.

"I have the experience of sending my kids halfway across the country," she said. "I know what it's like for a kid to call home and say, 'Mom, I'm sick.'"

Elaine Hester of Glen Ellyn , Ill., a suburb of Chicago, is especially interested in items about student life at the university. Her oldest child, Jonathan , just finished his first semester at the university.

"His leaving is very, very difficult; it changes the whole family dynamic," she said. The e-mail service "is just fabulous," she said. "I really do feel very connected. ... You feel like people care about your child."

Savage hasn't shied away from bad news. In October, she reported that while more parents were reporting that their children had roommates or neighbors who were drinking and causing disturbances, residence hall staff reported considerably fewer reports than usual about student drinking.

That could mean that students are less tolerant of drinking and are complaining to their parents more, Savage wrote, that more students talk to their parents about drinking or that they are reluctant to report other students. She encouraged parents to talk to their children, and told them that extra police patrols would be on duty on weekends. "Staff cannot do anything if they don't actually see evidence of drinking," she wrote. "Hearing about it the next day or after a student has tossed out the evidence doesn't help."

Also in October, she advised parents that police had issued a safety advisory after two attempted sexual assaults on campus.

No one has tried to censor the parent e-mail service, Savage said, although certain items have prompted "discussions."

"We see students around campus, and we meet with staff, and we know what's going on," she said. "I strongly believe it's important to get the real information out. People can deal with reality, but they can't deal with something if they don't know about it."

Sarah Burrington of Rochester got the e-mail about the attempted assaults. Her daughter, Leah Carson, is a sophomore.

"My daughter is busy enough that she doesn't communicate with me on things like that," Burrington said. "I felt like I was really in touch with what's going on up there. I contacted my daughter and we talked about it. I was glad to know. The more information you have, the safer you feel."

A personal touch

Savage's e-mails encourage parents to contact her individually if they need to, and many have. She says that early in the school year she gets 20 to 30 e-mails from parents every couple of hours. While that's dwindled to 20 to 30 a day now, she always replies as soon as she can.

Usually, she answers questions within a day by referring parents to people who can answer questions about such things as housing and financial aid and broken residence hall computers.

"I just can't get over the fact that she replies individually to people," Bringe said. "She must be some kind of superwoman."

Krueger estimates that she's e-mailed Savage 20 times over the past few years. Worried when one of her daughters was ill, she e-mailed Savage, who found someone to drive the girl to a clinic.

Savage "is like a real person to me," Krueger said.

In fact, although parents want the factual information in the e-mails, what they seem to value most is having someone they feel they know as a contact on campus.

Ask Hester, who lives 340 miles from the university. Her daughter, a high school junior, is interested in following her older brother to the university.

"It seems to be very nurturing for a school of its size, which is just amazing," Hester said. The e-mail list, she said, makes her "feel sort of warm and fuzzy."

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