UMW Parent and Family eNews recently sat down with Vera Smith-Winfree, Parent Leadership Circle member and mother of Ellis Winfree ’23, to talk about the transition to Mary Washington from his home in Connecticut.
UMW: How did Ellis choose Mary Washington?
Vera: Ellis first learned about UMW when he met former swim coach Abby Breathauer while attending a swim camp as a high-school sophomore, and UMW was on his radar from that point on. He was looking for a school with rigorous academics that wasn’t too large, a great swim team, and a campus that felt like a home away from home. When he looked closer, UMW had all of the above. When we visited for Destination UMW (admitted students day), he said, “I think this might be the place for me.” Deep down, I knew it was, too.
UMW: How has the transition gone? What has made it easier? What has been challenging?
Joining a campus community when you already have a tribe makes a world of difference. The swim team was very welcoming from the beginning; the coach and some of his teammates stopped by to welcome him during move-in. A really nice gesture, not only for the student but also for the parent. Having that immediate connection is a huge advantage for a student-athlete. I believe it has made the transition a lot smoother for him.
The Student Transition Program (STP) was also a great experience. On numerous occasions, Ellis has told me how helpful STP Director Justin Wilkes has been as an advisor, not just during the summer but throughout the academic year. He was a key component in Ellis’s transition, and I have tried to make sure he knows how instrumental he has been and how much I appreciate the sincere interest he takes in his students.
One challenge has been learning to structure his time as a student-athlete. It takes time to manage classes, school work, practices, traveling to meets, adjusting to a new living environment, and learning all of the nuances of campus.
UMW: What are some of the challenges you have faced as an out-of-state parent?
Transportation to and from campus is our biggest issue. I wish UMW had its own airport shuttle! We plan pretty far in advance to get Ellis back and forth. Amtrak has been our preferred mode of transportation, and I’m grateful that the train station is right in Fredericksburg.
Another adjustment has been communication. The University communicates with students and expects them to communicate with parents, but sometimes things are lost in translation. I have a background in higher-education administration, so I understand the emphasis on communication with students rather than parents, as it encourages them to be independent and advocate for themselves. Perhaps the University could consider additional measures to equip students to have important conversations with their families, especially when it impacts the whole family. The family is also part of the University community.
UMW: Have you received any great advice that has helped you navigate the experience of parenting from afar?
Sometimes we as parents need to help our students understand that a misstep or unmet goal isn’t the end of the world. Poor decisions will happen, but that doesn’t make them a bad person or a failure, but rather, opportunities to learn from your experiences. Give them room to make those mistakes and those poor decisions. When they come to us after the fact, we need to remember they don’t always want us to fix things, but a listening ear.
UMW: What do you want parents of newly admitted UMW students to know?
I really love the campus; it’s very welcoming and pretty diverse. I’ve enjoyed exploring Fredericksburg, too.
I think every student would benefit from a summer program, whether it’s STP or NEST (New Experiences for Students Transitioning). These programs enable students who have never been away from home to discover campus resources and make connections. I wish all colleges offered similar programs. If possible, encourage your student to attend.
Vera Smith-Winfree and her husband Glenn Winfree, members of UMW’s Parent Leadership Circle, live in Connecticut, where Vera is the executive director of a chamber of commerce and Glenn is head of an independent school. For more information about the Parent Leadership Circle, please contact Development Officer Beth Hunsinger ’01: firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-907-8906.