It used to be that students who went away to college were cut off from their families and friends and sent to a lonely new world where they needed to start their adult lives from scratch -- sink or swim.
But that experience, thanks to cellphones and the Internet, is different today. Students can stay in contact on a daily basis with their family and hometown friends while filling their dorm rooms with distracting electronic gadgets to keep them comfortable and entertained. But school leaders say that's not necessarily a good thing when young people are supposed to not only be getting an education, but also learning how to spread their wings and fly.
"It's possible to be too connected to back home, being connected to the point that you don't get involved and meet people or take part in activities at your new school," said Mitch Nasser, director of residence life at McKendree University in Lebanon. "You aren't supposed to just go to class and then go back to your room and talk on the phone, play video games or surf the Internet. You're supposed to participate in activities, meet new people and try new things."
Some students talk to their parents every day by phone while they're away at school, Nasser said. And, while it's nice they get to stay in touch, he said the danger is that students don't learn to solve their own problems when they lean so heavily on their family.
"How much contact is appropriate depends on the person," Nasser said. "It's one thing to be supportive and to listen. But if the student's parents are getting involved and trying to talk to the school or professors on the student's behalf, then it's too much."
Nasser said students don't forget their iPods, cellphones, televisions and video game systems. What they most commonly forget when they show up on campus for the first time is to bring cleaning supplies. Why? Because it never crossed many of their minds, after 18 years of living with their parents, that they were going to be responsible for cleaning up after themselves.
Things were different when McKendree human resources director Shirley Rentz and her twin sister, Sheila Smith, were freshmen at what was then called McKendree College in 1974.
"I think we traveled a lot lighter back then than kids do today," Rentz said. "When we came to school, all the stuff fit in one car load. And the car was pretty full to start with four people in it, including the two of us and our parents."
While there might have been fewer items, that doesn't mean the individual things were any less unwieldy.
Rentz said in addition to her clothes and her class supplies, she brought a full stereo deck with floor speakers and a heavy manual typewriter.
"Our roommates had televisions and brought those," Rentz said. "But it wasn't like today with cable TV in all the rooms. We had to bring aluminum foil to try to help the antenna get a signal so we could get any stations at all."
Because there was less to keep the pair in their rooms, they were more likely to go out and mingle. Smith said she remembers there used to be a lot of live music concerts students would attend.
To further be sure that they got out of their comfort zone, Smith said she and her sister intentionally decided not to be roommates.
"We were always near each other," Smith said. "But by not being roommates it helped us to keep from getting tired of each other."
The twins are from Fairview Heights, just a few miles down the road from McKendree. But they didn't have a car to go back home, and it was a toll call to dial their family's house from campus. So they'd talk to their mom once a week or so when she would go to a pay phone on the Lebanon side of Fairview Heights, where long distance charges didn't apply.
Current McKendree senior Brianne Funk, of Fayetteville, said cellphones and Internet connections aren't all bad. She said she talks to her family a couple of times a week on the cellphone and that she uses Skype to video chat with her friends around the world -- including staying in touch with people back home this summer when she taught in Japan.
"I think you have to have a good balance," Funk said. "I don't let it become a distraction from my focus here. But I think being able to have some contact with home and friends helps me keep a positive attitude."
A member of a sorority, Funk said she is careful to not let her ties back home prevent her from socializing with fellow students or from taking advantage of other opportunities available at the school.
If a freshman asked her what modern conveniences should be left at home, Funk said it's not a phone or their computer -- it's a car.
Having a vehicle, she said, makes it more tempting to go home -- or to leave campus for entertainment or a meal. She said students should eat in the school cafeteria because it's a great place to meet people and talk -- and it's a lot cheaper than getting fast food in town.
Lindenwood University-Belleville started off as a commuter campus for adults who wanted to further their education. But, like its sister school in St. Charles, the Belleville campus began four years ago to offer full-time programs to undergrads.
Lindenwood President James Evans said the school wants to offer the full university experience in Belleville. While it doesn't yet have traditional style dorms, the school bought apartment buildings, a former hotel and dozens of single family homes around its campus to offer housing for students who want to live at school.
Evans said he envisions new dorms to be built at the site sometime in the not too distant future.
Lindenwood-Belleville Vice President Jerry Bladdick said he agrees that participating in campus activities and socializing is a key component of the college experience. He said about 75 percent of students at the Belleville school are student athletes. The school also is in the process of adding fraternities and sororities, a pep band, more sports programs and it offers Olympic style games at the beginning of the school year to encourage students to meet each other and form relationships.
Kara Shustrin, program specialist in student affairs at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, said she thinks its important not to shun technology, but to make sure that it's used appropriately.
"I think all of us feel that technology can be extremely beneficial when it's used correctly," Shustrin said. "We do see students more often these days walking around campus while talking on the phone and with their iPod on, not engaging with the people around them as much. But we certainly don't discourage students from using technology to stay in touch back home.
"For our international students, it's a very valuable tool to be able to use cellphones or video conferencing like Skype," Shustrin said. "We've also found that social networking has helped the university to let students know what's going on and try to get them excited about activities."
While some educators worry about "helicopter parents" who hover over their child's shoulder every step of the way, Shustrin said SIUE finds that those cases are few and far between. She said, according to university research, students pick up the phone to call home much more often than the other way around.
Shustrin added that SIUE has a program called MAPworks through which it tries to keep tabs on potential problems new students have assimilating.
"One of the things we do with residential students -- and that we're trying to do it with commuters -- is tracking how students are adjusting academically and personally," Shustrin said. "We hope to identify students that aren't connecting socially or academically. If they're homesick or if they're struggling it helps us to get a handle on it."
While those bumps can be tough for 18-year-olds to get over, Nasser said it's well worth it in the long run.
Nasser said it is definitely important students live on campus for at least part of their career.
"The college experience really helps people to prepare for life in the real world," Nasser said. "Being in the middle of things, joining clubs, participating in activities and getting along with others. Involvement is the thing that gets you hired in the real world. Plus young people need to learn how to manage a household and a budget."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or call 239-2626.