Washington People: Leslie Zacks

Zacks pulls back the curtain on campus life for curious and concerned parents

Leslie Kleinberg Zacks walks her dog, 42, on the South 40. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

“My new Covid pastime involves actively participating on the Facebook parent page for my son’s university, Class of 2025. But with a twist. Little by little, I have revealed to the group my dirty little secret: I actually live on that exact campus. I have for years. Yeah it’s totally weird. I don’t deny it.” – Ten Things Your New Adult Will Learn Within 24 Hours Of Arriving On Campus

WUSAs, RAs, RCDs — there is no lack of experts, acronymed and otherwise, ready to support new students at Washington University in St. Louis. But what about new parents? Who can they lean on when their kid reports the food lines are too long, the workload is too much and, by the way, a tornado is heading straight for their dorm?

Enter Leslie Zacks, the reliably sane, occasionally snarky voice of calm on parent Facebook pages. To be clear, Zacks has no power to solve any of the aforementioned issues. Nor does she wish to; Zacks believes that college students, even those who just learned to do their own laundry, can solve their own problems. 

But as a resident of the South 40 and wife to faculty fellow Jeff Zacks, professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences, Zacks is uniquely positioned to pull back the curtain on campus life. This semester, she has posted photos of the best dishes at the Bear’s Den; the Gregg House hallway where a dozen sophomores and one adorable baby waited out a tornado warning; and a black lace bra discarded near the Swamp (“Hey gang, here is proof positive that WashU is NOT the school where fun goes to die.”).

“When our kids go away we, as parents, get the worst,” Zacks said. “It’s like our kids are saying, ‘You are my safe space, so I’m going to dump all of my stress and negativity on you. And then I’m going to hang up and go out with my friends.’ We are left feeling that everything is a disaster and we need to do something. What I try to do is to show the other side of the experience — here’s a picture of your kids playing cricket, here are the cupcakes they’re giving away at the free symphony concert.”

Zacks and her family — Jeff, children Jonah and Delia and beagle 42 – moved into Thomas H. Eliot Residential College in 2018. As a faculty fellow, Jeff Zacks plans academic and cultural programs and offers himself as mentor to the college’s 300 residents. Leslie Zacks, an information technology executive for a health-care company, has no official duties but loves hosting waffle breakfasts, participating in South 40 traditions like Symphony on the Swamp and helping students, whether they need a room key, a brownie pan or a sympathetic ear. 

“A lot of people ask why we would choose to live among teenagers,” Zacks said. “But Jeff chose Washington University because of its commitment to undergraduate education. He has always made a point of teaching undergraduate courses and having undergraduates in his lab. So this just felt like a natural progression in our relationship with Washington University.”

Despite benign appearances, the Facebook <insert college name here> Parent Page is a semi-functional, definitely hazardous carnival fun house that seems inviting but clearly isn’t. – So You’ve Joined Your Kid’s College FB Parent Page

When son Jonah joined the Class of 2025, Zacks found herself caring for a new community — the members of the parent Facebook pages. Most posts are of the “Where can my kid find an apartment . . .an urgent care. . . a decent slice of pizza” variety. (The latter was a real query. Not one parent stood up for Imo’s?!) 

But like all social media platforms, the pages occasionally fuel anger and panic. Sometimes Zacks lets the flames burn out  — she’s not there to defend the university, nor does she expect to change minds. But other times, Zacks sets the record straight.

That’s what happened last fall, when parents worried that outsiders would target campus after a student removed American flags commemorating 9/11. The incident made headlines across the nation and sparked heated debate on campus and across the country.

“Things were spinning out of control,” Zacks recalled. “I got online and was like, ‘Guys, your kids are safe.’ But I realized it wasn’t enough, so I grabbed my dog and started taking pictures of him with totally happy students in front of serene campus spaces. I realized I could provide a substantial, calm perspective.”

But mainly, Zacks tries to seek solutions. When parents were upset about food lines and portions this fall, Zacks acknowledged the university, for reasons beyond its control, was struggling to meet its own high standards. Instead of excuses, she offered alternatives, posting pictures of visiting food trucks and filling stir-frys.

And this semester, when parents bemoaned the lack of summer internships, Zacks and fellow parent Jennifer Tobiason Martin launched the LinkedIn group Washington University Parent/Student Network, where students can connect with parents in their field for job opportunities and career advice.

“What a great idea, and leave it to Leslie to make it happen,” said Vanessa Stanley Mandel, parent of a first-year student and an administrator on the parent Facebook page. “I don’t even know her, but I’ve come to really appreciate all that she brings to the page.

Zacks reflects on these experiences in her essays for Medium, a platform for bloggers. Her latest essay, “So You’ve Joined Your Kid’s College FB Parent Page,” was applauded by WashU parents and went viral on parent pages across the nation.

Among her words of wisdom:

  • Let go: “This is your child’s journey now. Not yours. The first rule of FB Parent Page engagement is that most of your questions are not yours to ask or answer.”
  • Check your sources: “Because Parents. Know. Nothing. None of us do.”
  • Dial back the outrage: “Ranting and venting is useless and makes you seem like an ungrateful, entitled lunatic.”

“I tend to write about these common frustrations that we’re all having, these common absurdities that we’re observing,” said Zacks, whose Medium bio reads, “Mom with a career. Filled with love and rage. It’s cool — I’m not for everyone.”

“I’m glad that people have responded positively. I’ve even heard from Chancellor Martin! But the only difference between me and everybody else is that I take the time to write down what we’re all thinking.” 

Zacks chronicles her life on a college campus on her Medium blog. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington Univerity)

We’ve lived here for 22 years, but for the first five I routinely told people that “we just moved here from the Bay Area” until my husband, for whom we came to STL, told me to cut the crap. But somewhere along the way, St. Louis wormed its way into my heart like a persistent and resilient stray pet that I flatly refuse to acknowledge is mine, yet I consistently feed every morning and worry about on cold nights.WashU St. Louis Parents Facebook page, Jan. 13.

The Zacks’ time on the South 40 ends this spring, and soon the couple will move into their new home in University City. Last winter, they were unsure if they would return for a fourth and final year. COVID-19 was raging and the vaccine had yet to roll out. 

“It would have been easy to go, and I was tempted,” Zacks said. “But my husband said, ‘Let’s hang on for one more year and do all of the things we came here for.’” 

So far, the Zacks have hosted a pumpkin carving contest, a “Gatorsgiving” feast, and they hope to bring back weekend waffles. Zacks also distributed doggie treats to residents with an invitation to visit 42. 

“Now he weighs 300 pounds,” Zacks said. “It’s funny that most of our personal engagement involves food.”

Zacks expects that she will become less active online as she becomes less active on campus. She’s excited to spend more time dining at the her favorite restaurants and exploring Missouri’s hiking trails.

“I think like anybody who goes to a four-year university, I’ve got a little senioritis,” Zacks said. “But I will always love the fact that we did this. What a privilege to live here and make an impact on these kids’ lives.”

Editor’s note: Writer Diane Toroian Keaggy also is a parent of a Washington University first-year student and a member of two parent Facebook pages.