Parents are nervous, proud, sad, elated all at once at summer orientation

Prajan Chauhan, shown here with his parents, chose UCSC because of its rigorous computer engineering program.
Camille Marie Bagnol's mother, Charito (right), was worried about the safety of the large open spaces on campus, but it was the forested environment that drew Camille to UCSC. Summer orientation helped relieve Charito's concerns.
Leonard Raznick and Laura Retzlaff fell in love at Merrill College in the '80s, and now their oldest son, Nathan, will be starting at UCSC this fall. (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Parents attending this year's freshman orientation at UCSC learned that despite the ominous signs posted on trails, not a single student has been attacked by a mountain lion at UCSC.

They also learned these facts in answer to their other questions:

  • Yes, the campus has a long history of activism.

  • No, there aren't bears in the woods.

  • Students like co-ed bathrooms. Really.

"We get all kinds of questions," said Rosa Plaza, who, as director of orientations for campus, hosted six open-house-style events that brought 3,000 proud and anxious parents to campus this summer. Parents had questions about students getting home for weekend visits ( is one way to find carpools), what care packages should include (rolls of quarters for doing laundry), and if there were poisonous snakes (there are rattlesnakes in the county, but there have been no reported sightings on campus).

A khaki-wearing father wondered about earthquakes and fire (an automated system called CruzAlert sends out messages to students' cell phones and computers in case of emergency).

And plenty of moms looked warily at the paths that wound through the wooded campus (a system of "blue light" emergency phones can summon a Community Safety Officer or police officer to escort students to their dorms if they feel unsafe).

Part balm for nervous souls, part information service, part the first step in letting go, the annual freshman orientation drew scores parents such as John Scott of San Diego who couldn't seem to decide what they felt about sending their child off to college.

"I'm elated," said Scott of his daughter Virginia's plans to attend UCSC, "but sometimes I find myself tearing up, too."

Parents lugged tote bags full of information pamphlets, peered into dorm rooms, and wondered aloud whether the hard-earned money they were about to spend for a college education would give their son or daughter the boost they needed in these uncertain times; whether UCSC would be a good fit for them.

"I always take pride in my son. I wish him to be successful," said Mukesh Chauhan of Tracy as he gathered information about student checking accounts at the event's Resource Fair. Sending his son to UCSC in a time of rising fees and a tightening economy had been a big sacrifice. "But it is an investment that will help him in the future," he said.

View a slideshow of Summer Orientation

His tall, dark-haired son, Prajan, who came to UCSC because of its rigorous computer engineering program, said he understood what it took for his parents--an electrical engineer and a Subway store manager--to send him to college.

"I feel the burden of doing well. It's what drives me," he said.

"For me, it's a matter of: Will he survive here?" said Karen Adair of Ukiah of her son, Tyler Soberanis, as she sat on the steps of the College Eight patio. Tyler, she said, is a young man with a rich imagination and a love of math and art. He plans to enter Crown College in the fall.

"I wanted to know if this was a place where he can explore and discover and take off," said the single mother of three boys who is self-employed as a graphic designer.

She looked at the throng of parents and new students around her. "I think this is a good place to let him go."

Elaine O'Reilly of San Diego agreed. She thought her daughter Molly, who plans to study marine sciences, would love the campus. "It's like going to school in a national park," O'Reilly said.

But it was the wooded campus that had made mom Charito Bagnol of Victorville nervous.

"I worried that her classes wouldn't be close to her dorm, and I was kind of scared about all the trees and bushes," she said.

"She's a hard-core worrier," said daughter Camille Marie Bagnol with a grin. In fact, said the incoming biochemistry major, it was the forested environment that drew her here.

"It also offered what I wanted--a smaller community" she said.

Her mom was quick to add that finding out there was a police and fire department on campus helped ease her mind. "I feel relieved," she said.

But two parents didn't need any convincing that UCSC was the right place for their son.

Leonard Raznick and Laura Retzlaff of San Francisco fell in love at Merrill College. They graduated from UCSC in 1984 and 1985, respectively.

"It's so welcoming here, so culturally diverse," said Retzlaff, whose curly brown hair was threaded with grey. "It's a warm, small community where you can find a place to fit in."

They had wandered the campus and sat in on an orientation session in the same Oakes College classroom where Raznick had taken an Introduction to Feminism course from Bettina Aptheker more than two decades before.

"That class was such a transformative experience for me," Raznick said.

Excited that their oldest son, Nathan Retzlaff, had picked their alma mater and "a little jealous" they couldn't come back and take classes themselves, they had one piece of advice for their son.

"Take advantage of the education and social opportunities. Work hard and don't get too caught up in playing around," Reznick said.

Retzlaff put it more succinctly.

"I told him, don't blow it," she said.

What was your experience at Summer Orientation? Do you think UCSC was the right choice for your student? Join the discussion! Log on to UCSC's Online Community to chat and compare notes with other parents.

Peggy Townsend is a Santa Cruz writer. Her son graduated from UCSC in 2008.