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Student legions descend with more gear than ever

The fine art and sweet science of move-in day

Matt Hacker Teper (left) helped his brother, BU freshman Sean, move in. Parents Irv Teper and Karen Hacker followed. Matt Hacker Teper (left) helped his brother, BU freshman Sean, move in. Parents Irv Teper and Karen Hacker followed. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / September 3, 2011

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In the early 1960s, Boston University built three state-of-the-art dormitory towers in a horseshoe overlooking the end zone at Nickerson Field. Among the amenities in each room were four power outlets, which was a lot for the time.

Today, those same rooms have 16 outlets.

“And it’s still not enough,’’ said Marc Robillard, who has been the director of housing at the school since 1987. “Students just have more stuff.’’

The world is constantly changing, but by now, Robillard has the logistics of this week - the annual college move-in madness - down to a science.

Over a five-day period, his staff will check in 11,500 students, distribute 22,000 keys, receive nearly 13,000 packages, and recycle about 16 tons of cardboard.

That’s the science of move-in week, the physical stuff. The problem is that managing undergrads is more of an art.

Successfully transitioning all those students from home to dorm comes with its own set of challenges, which do not change like the number of power outlets.

Students come with lots of baggage, and that baggage is not entirely physical, especially for the freshmen. They bring parents. And those parents often have a hard time leaving.

“From a university perspective, we want the parents to say goodbye as quickly as possible so the students can begin on that journey,’’ Robillard said.

Often, that’s easier said than done.

With mothers, Robillard has noticed a particular pattern through the years: They head to a store, load up on cleaning supplies, and start scrubbing.

“The room is already clean,’’ he said. “They just have to burn off that energy.’’

As Karen Hacker and Irv Teper stood on Babcock Street yesterday, guarding piles of luggage, electronics, and Bed Bath & Beyond bags, their son, Sean, was inside one of the towers, checking in for his freshman year. The Toronto couple has been through this moment before; they already have a daughter in college. But that didn’t make the day any easier.

“According to him, he doesn’t need us,’’ his mother said.

“We are superfluous,’’ his father chimed in.

Karen Hacker admitted that a part of her was hoping her son would feel as bad about the break as they did.

But when her son arrived, he announced that his room had a view of the field and then said, simply: “I’m OK. I’m ready to go.’’

Yesterday, as freshmen trickled in and the sidewalk on Babcock Street filled with piles of guitars and coffee makers and memory foam mattress covers, it had the feeling of a cruise ship about to load up and set sail. The students had their eyes on the journey; the parents waved bon voyage from the shore.

“You see students kind of vacillating between their family, who they’re going to say goodbye to, and wanting to quickly start meeting people,’’ Robillard said. “The freshman experience is an intense social experience; everyone is judging every other person and trying to figure out where they’re going to fit in.’’

This places schools in a position where they must try desperately to occupy those first few weeks for freshmen until they can find their niche.

As Robillard stood outside the towers around Nickerson Field, it was still the calm before the storm.

The bulk of the students arrive this weekend, and they need to be fed. Robillard, who at some point added director of dining to his title, and with it the responsibility of overseeing about 30,000 meals a day, said that’s another area where much has changed and much has stayed the same.

Students still eat a ton, and the “freshman 15’’ remains a curse. But now, Robillard said, they are pickier.

“In the old days, it was ‘keep the cost down’ and the mystery meat slid through a slot in the cafeteria. Today, it’s about the culinary experience. And we have to pay attention to vegetarian and vegan and kosher and all those things. There’s also the concern about sustainability, so we spend a lot of energy on local, organic, recycling, composting.’’

And at more than $50,000 a year for tuition and room and board, parents, and students, expect the best.

Back on Babcock Street, Randi Travalini was standing guard while her daughter, Felicia, the oldest of her four children, was inside checking in.

“I’m excited,’’ she said. “I’m not sad. Yet.’’

But, she said, she knew that moment was just hours away; even worse, she knew exactly how it would go.

“I remember when I went to college,’’ she said, “and I remember that moment when I was like, ‘Bye. I can unpack on my own.’ It definitely brings back memories.’’

A few moments later, her daughter appeared and they went up to the 13th floor together. Before that moment could come, Randi Travalini bent down, opened a suitcase, and went right past it.

She started helping her daughter unpack.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker