Fridays with Fuhrmann, a rite of passage

Breaking Home Ties, Normal Rockwell
Breaking Home Ties, Norman Rockwell

Greetings from the road! I am waking up this morning in the bustling metropolis of Miles City, Montana, conveniently located on I-94 about 700 miles east of Minneapolis, where I started yesterday morning, and 700 west of Spokane, where I will end up tonight. My wife and I are taking our youngest daughter off to college in Bellingham, Washington, on a long cross-country trip across the northern United States.

The personal story itself is not particularly noteworthy, but it does give me an opportunity to reflect on this important ritual in so many American lives, where Michigan Tech is front and center: leaving home and going to college. Every fall we and hundreds of other colleges see this writ large. In fact, this year in the ECE Department we are experiencing an 8% increase in undergraduate enrollment – the largest in the College of Engineering – as we welcome about 190 new first-year students to campus. It is good to have a chance to see this from the other side. It helps me to understand what an important responsibility we have in the life journey of these remarkable young adults we call our students.

Most of the more experienced faculty members in the ECE Department have been through this. We get what it means to give a gentle push and let go, as our children take their first steps as independent adults living away from home. This may explain, in part, why the older faculty tend to end up teaching the earlier courses in our curriculum. Pedagogy is very important to us at Michigan Tech, and it becomes more important as one goes earlier in the curriculum. The typical instructional career path in this and many departments starts with new faculty members teaching graduate courses, where the material is more important than the pedagogy, and as they gain experience teaching they work their way down the curriculum where the opposite is true. As a crusty old veteran I get a lot of satisfaction teaching a course in engineering mathematics for freshmen and sophomores.

Truth be told, we don’t have all that much contact with first-year students, my course being one exception. At Michigan Tech the first-year curriculum is the responsibility of a separate department called Engineering Fundamentals, and they do a fantastic job. All of the “traditional” departments in the College of Engineering are grateful and indebted to EF for their hard work and dedication.

Parents of course play a critical role in the hand-off. The relationship between the university and parents is somewhat curious. It would appear that our basic message to parents is: “Thank you for entrusting your children to our care and paying their tuition. Now go away.” Most of us, especially those of us with college-age children of our own, are actually perfectly happy to talk with parents and extol the virtues and benefits of a Michigan Tech education. At the same time, most of our parents understand the importance of backing away and letting their children take responsibility for their own lives. A lot of our parents are Michigan Tech alumni and can tell stories of the “good old days” when the disconnect was far more abrupt than it is today. Every so often I have to communicate with the so-called “helicopter parent”, but it is not an especially big issue and I don’t mind listening to their concerns. On rare occasions we have to invoke FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prevents parents from access to everything they might want to know about the college life of their children. I imagine this comes up more often for our academic advisors, and in the Office of the Dean of Students, than it does for me.

A lot of American students today, for one reason or another, choose to attend schools close to home or even live at home. This runs counter to my own experience so it is hard for me to relate. Back in 1975 I knew I wanted to be at least a day’s drive away and so ended up choosing a school 400 miles away from Mom and Dad. All of my own children have ended up at schools about 2000 miles from home or more (not sure what that says…I’ll take that as a positive reflection of their desire for independence…) At Michigan Tech, by virtue of our location, almost all of our students travel quite a distance to Houghton. The population centers in downstate Michigan, home to the majority of Huskies, are some 500-600 miles away. I believe this has a big influence on the nature of our student body and the sense of community built in our little outpost in the Upper Peninsula.

The sun is rising on a beautiful day here in Montana. I am looking forward to a couple more days with my wife and daughter before I have to do the same thing that all of our other Michigan Tech parents do: say goodbye. Time to hit the road!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University