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September 13, 2012

Making Pitt Work:

Parent liaison Sandy Talbott

pitt workPitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.


The start of the new academic year brings both excitement and anxiety as students embark on their University careers.

And not all the trepidation and uncertainty is felt by the students.

As parents part company with their collegiate offspring they can rest easy knowing that Sandy Talbott is only a call or email away.

As Pitt’s parent and family liaison, Talbott is part of a growing number of parent program professionals in higher education whose job it is to assist parents with questions and concerns and to connect them with available University resources.

While some schools have had parent programming in place for decades, the field has boomed in recent years. A 2011 national survey by the University of Minnesota found, based on 227 responses, nearly 32 percent of parent and family programs had been established in the previous five years, and more than 52 percent had been established since 2000. In contrast, only 1.4  percent of the responding institutions had parent/family programming before 1970.

And, while college students of past generations may have arrived on campus with little preparation, increasingly extensive orientation programs — for students and parents — have been developed in recent years. The most recent survey by the National Orientation Directors Association (NODA) found that 93 percent of schools responding offer parent programs at orientation. Six percent even have special programs for siblings. And, the NODA survey found, 80-90 percent of parents participate in orientation.


parent liaisonPitt’s Office of Parent and Family Resources and the parent liaison position were created in the summer of 2010.

Student Affairs spokesman Shawn Ahearn said senior staff from the division visited the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill — both of which have strong parent and family offices — to benchmark ways of improving Pitt’s programs and services.

“We had several strong programs in place, such as Family Weekend and many activities during homecoming, but we felt like we could enhance the student and parent experience by having a dedicated staff member to proactively foster relationships, expand our programs and services, and generally assist parents or guardians who had questions,” Ahearn said.

As part of the Student Life department within Student Affairs, Sandy Talbott is part of a large team of people whose jobs intertwine and overlap to provide students with the best possible college experience.

In conjunction with Student Affairs, the Pitt Alumni Association, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid and other areas within the University, she plays a role in such diverse undertakings as orientation, summer PittStart sessions, Family Weekend and other events aimed at connecting students and their families with life at the University.

In summer she talks to parents during PittStart orientation events and participates in webinars sponsored in conjunction with the First Year Experience program. Arrival Survival brings responsibilities for portions of the orientation programming, then comes the University’s Family Weekend in October. Toward spring, attention turns to the coming year’s orientation and parent events and the cycle begins again.

Talbott, who has been at Pitt for five years, credits her previous position in the School of Social Work’s graduate admissions office as good preparation for her new role. There, she said, she learned about the University’s programs and services and worked with a diverse group of students, faculty and staff.

However, little could prepare her for the experience she garnered when, shortly after accepting the liaison position last January, she faced a flurry of calls and emails as bomb threats disrupted the Pittsburgh campus between mid-February and mid-April.

“We did have a lot of people concerned,” she said, stressing that she wasn’t left to field parents’ calls on her own.

“Every time there was an ENS notice, contacts would blip up,” she said, adding that Student Affairs set up a phone bank to handle the volume of calls.

“It was good to be able to tell parents that we are doing everything to ensure the safety of your student,” she said, adding that she too is a parent of a Pitt student.

Her son, who lives off-campus, wasn’t among the students rousted from their dorm rooms in the wake of pre-dawn threats, but he was evacuated when threats were made to academic buildings. “I was able to commiserate and share in their concern,” she said.


“Supportive parents can make or break the success of a student,” insists Talbott, who said her job is to ensure parents are aware of the resources Pitt has to support them and their students.

“This University is very large but we have a very intimate philosophy when it comes to dealing with parents and involving them,” she said.

The University provides a Parent and Family Handbook as well as a web site at In addition, Talbott fields questions and concerns by phone or through an email address reserved for Pitt parents. She also keeps in touch through e-newsletters sent twice a semester to more than 20,000 Panther Parent Association members — a group to which parents of Pitt students automatically belong.

While most parents are connected electronically and can take advantage of Pitt’s online resources, “some still don’t do computers,” Talbott said. “Instead, they pick up the phone and want to talk to a real person” to get information, she noted.


“Parents are truly appreciative,” she said, noting that part of her job is to inform them of things their student may forget to tell them: details about the buses to home for the holidays, for instance, or information about the Outside the Classroom Curriculum, a program that can help students mix and mingle in activities with faculty, administrators and other students who share their interests. She also ensures that parents know about important resources on campus such as the Counseling Center, the Office of Career Development and Placement Assistance and the Student Health Center.

Sometimes her role is to help parents deal with their own concerns as their child makes the transition to adulthood. “It’s going to be an adjustment for everybody,” Talbott acknowledges. In addition to orientation programming on the art of college parenting, she has a list of books and resources to recommend to parents who are anxious about their empty nest and letting go as their child steps out on his or her own.

Part of Talbott’s time is spent explaining to parents what she  — and they — can’t do. “I often have to encourage parents to have their students initiate a lot of the action on their own,” she said.

For instance, due to privacy laws, parents can’t make appointments at the counseling center on their student’s behalf or view their student’s grades unless the student specifically authorizes it.

She also recommends that parents steer clear of academic issues, leaving it to the student and faculty member involved to work it out. When parents call to insist their student should have received a better grade, she encourages them to have their child talk to his or her professor about the issue.

If there is a problem with a roommate, barring an outright safety issue, she encourages parents to remain supportive but low-key. “Everyone has a transition. Sometimes with time, patience and understanding, students find out they’re not that far apart,” she said. If time fails to resolve the issue, perhaps students need to recognize that roommates sometimes have to merely be roommates rather than best friends.


While Talbott’s role is to serve as a liaison to parents of all Pitt students, most of her contact is with parents of freshmen. “Once they get acclimated, they’re less likely to contact the liaison,” she said.

The types of questions she fields depend on the season of the year.

They run the gamut: from practical questions about hotel accommodations in Pittsburgh or shipping students’ possessions in advance, to transition issues such as difficulty with roommates and homesickness.

Talbott stresses that she’s not a decision-maker and that her role is not to trump decisions made by people in authority in other areas. Rather she is the Pitt insider who can connect parents with the right University resources to get the help they need. “I can direct them to answers,” she said.


Parents typically are excited, positive and optimistic about their student being at Pitt, even though they come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, Talbott said. “It’s exciting and fun to watch and hear people talk about the expectations they have for their student and fun to help them help their student.”

She deals with parents ranging from inexperienced moms and dads who are sending their firstborn off to school to veteran parents who have navigated multiple children through the college experience and therefore have high expectations.

Another subset are the parents who are Pitt alumni eager to have their sons and daughters experience what they did. “A lot has changed,” she said, adding that it can be a challenge for some enthusiastic alumni parents to let their children experience Pitt for themselves.

A group Talbott finds it especially rewarding to work with are the parents who never went to college themselves and need help navigating the whole experience with their first-generation college offspring. “It’s very fulfilling to me to be able to help them understand some of what their student can expect and what they can expect,” she said.

Then there are the “bulldozer parents,” the newer, pushier version of yesterday’s helicopter parents. Rather than merely hovering, they try to pave the way for their kids. “They want the student to follow behind and do everything the parent has mapped out,” she said. “Overall, it’s a small fraction, but at the same time it’s a very vocal fraction.”

Dealing with those parents — who are not unique to Pitt — requires special tact in explaining that it’s part of the college experience for students to mature and develop to the point where they can make their own decisions and reap the benefits of their successes.


Talbott is reaching out to counterparts at other institutions nearby. She said she has been networking with Duquesne University as it establishes its parent programming and hopes to reach out to staff at Penn State and West Virginia University this fall to share best practices.

She also is working on other ways for parents to connect.

A new Panther Parent Ambassadors organization is enrolling members for the first time this fall.

This group will serve as volunteers at campus events and also will be encouraged to arrange events, such as game watches or senior sendoffs, in their home areas.

The goal is to establish groups similar to Pitt’s alumni clubs, with parents meeting in their own home regions to support each other and be a resource for parents of new Pitt students.

“It’s being established for parents to connect with one another,” Talbott said. Eventually, she would like to develop a Panther Parent advisory board.

More than 160 parents, some of whom are Pitt faculty and staff, have expressed interest in the ambassador program and several assisted at the Student Life table during Arrival Survival last month.

“It’s fun to see parents exchanging information,” she said, adding that the experience was valuable both for the volunteers and for the newcomers they served. “Who doesn’t like to help somebody else?”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 45 Issue 2

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