What is an appropriate gift, if any, to someone I barely know who is leaving for college?
August 19, 2010 7:46 AM   Subscribe

What is an appropriate gift, if any, to someone I barely know who is leaving for college?

One of the excessively friendly (By excessively friendly, I mean "find me in restaurants, wave at me in traffic and have me pull over to talk" behavior many of them display; if this is behavior suggested in the Starbucks or Panera employee handbooks, their HR people have gone mad) baristas at one of the coffeehouses I frequent has invited me to her "going away to college" party. I am told that most people get gifts upon graduation.

Is there a current American custom of gift-giving on going away to college? If so, what's the generigift, given that I barely know the young woman in question? The ever-fungible, I-have-no-clue cash? An iTunes card? Something else? What level of expenditure is typical? (No, "whatever you feel comfortable with" is not a useful answer) I've seen questions about this on AskMe, but for relatives, rather than, well, this situation.

Aside from some incidentals (obviously Scottish, going to a college not far away, involved in Christian youth groups, has two tattoos), I do not know her much at all. Normally this sort of thing is a snap for me but I am floundering, given that I have little to go on and how weirded out I am in being invited in the first place.

I don't want to be the asshat who shows up without a gift when one is called for and I don't want to be "creepy" (gkhak!) by showing up with something when nothing is called for. What's the Midwestern, middle-class norm here?
posted by adipocere to Human Relations (29 answers total)
I'm Canadian, but I've only ever heard of graduation gifts being given by family, and maybe close friends. I suspect the "going away to college party" is just what it sounds like, and she probably doesn't expect a gift.
posted by torisaur at 7:49 AM on August 19, 2010

A card wishing her all the best and $10.

Personally I think it's a little weird you were invited at all. I'd give her the card at her work and say you're unable to make the party. It would not be a bad thing in my mind if you skipped a gift and just said you can't go to her party.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:51 AM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: I think an ITunes card is just about right.
posted by R. Mutt at 7:54 AM on August 19, 2010

I think a card and a small amount of cash would be appropriate if you choose to go. But I wouldn't, particularly not if her parents/family members are going to be there and they have no idea who you are.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:54 AM on August 19, 2010

Response by poster: The party starts at her workplace, with her co-workers, and moves on elsewhere. The people setting up literally grabbed my hands and said "Pleeeeeeeease?" to me showing up. It's weird to me, but I would rather not disappoint anyone or hurt their feelings by not showing up.
posted by adipocere at 7:59 AM on August 19, 2010

Not sure about the etiquette, but I'm in the middle of reading Body Piercing Saved My Life, about Christian rock and Christian youth culture. Totally interesting even as an atheist who listens to none of the music, so it might be a nice specific gift if you did want to bring something.
posted by carbide at 8:00 AM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: I think the card and cash, or iTunes card, are both great ideas. (I'm a midwesterner!)

My go-to gift for kids of friends of mine (where I don't know the kids well) is some kind of laundry caddy with detergent, fabric softener, a stain pen, and a roll of quarters, which probably comes in around $30, if that gives you an idea for calibrating gifts ... that's for someone I don't know but I have a relationship with their family. $10 for someone you hardly know seems plenty generous.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:07 AM on August 19, 2010

Oh, and there IS an American custom of gifts at graduation parties -- although I'm not sure this is that kind of party -- and it's usually small things for dorm living (coffee mugs, bath towels, laundry supplies, stamps used to be popular, etc.) and/or inspirational books and/or small monetary gifts.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:10 AM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: I don't want to be the asshat who shows up without a gift when one is called for and I don't want to be "creepy" (gkhak!) by showing up with something when nothing is called for. What's the Midwestern, middle-class norm here?

Well she's the one that is asking someone she barely knows to her going to college party, so I don't think you have to worry about her thinking that a gift is inappropriate. As others have said a card + cash/gift card would be what I would do. Cash always seems like an Uncle-ish gift in these kinds of situations, so I usually go with the gift card route, but that may just be me.

Also as for the amount I would say $10 or $15, anything less is small enough to be kind of pointless and anything more isn't really appropriate for someone you barely know in my opinion. And iTunes is a decent generic one, although for going to college maybe Target or something might be better. If you go to a grocery store or some other place that sells all kinds of gift cards you might be able to come up with a good one just by seeing which stores they have gift cards for.

By the way, from your description it kind of sounds like she has a crush on you (I may be reading more into it than is actually there though).
posted by burnmp3s at 8:10 AM on August 19, 2010

If it were a party thrown by her family, I would say definitely give a gift of cash ($10 would be plenty, $20 generous). In the midwest when I was graduating, it was typical for the family to spend a couple hundred dollars on a party (usually backyard barbecue with music, possibly swimming and some catered fried chicken) where each guest brought a cash gift for the student to take with them to college. Basically a fundraiser (I cleared over a thousand dollars that way :)

This doesn't seem like that sort of party though. If it's thrown by her friends and coworkers, then it seems more like just a going-away, let's party together one last time sort of thing. So I don't know that a gift is necessary, but the iTunes gift card, or a similar gift card to Amazon or a book store, seems appropriate if you don't want to show up empty handed.
posted by twoporedomain at 8:11 AM on August 19, 2010

Are you an adult? Just because a teenager grabs your hands and says "Pleeeease" doesn't obligate you to go to a party for someone you barely know. It sounds like the appropriate thing to do would be to say you have a conflict and not attend.
posted by telegraph at 8:11 AM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'd go with the card and iTunes gift card suggestion. It's polite and it's nice, but it's nothing that needs to be too personalized.
posted by BZArcher at 8:12 AM on August 19, 2010

Maybe I'm unfamiliar with college gift giving (I have never seena nyone bring gifts to a college 'going away party'), but handing over $10 sounds pretty lame.

If it were me, I probably wouldn't go.
But if I did decide to go, I probably wouldn't bring anything.
If I found out everyone else was bringing something or people kept telling me I should bring something - I guess I would just give her a card.
I'm guess she's under 21, otherwise the only other thing I would bring would be a bottle of liquor.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:14 AM on August 19, 2010

Response by poster: One of the people grabbing my hands was a grown woman, in her thirties, with children. So, not just the teenage set is imploring me to show. It didn't feel like a pro forma request. This has made me uncomfortable enough that I am having a hard time ignoring my "flee and never go back" instinct, which, if I listened to it, would ensure I never left the house.

On the other hand, I also get phone calls from people I might see once a year saying "Why didn't you show at this party?" It's not like I juggle or do anything the least entertaining at these events, but, wow, do people notice and provide a lot of feedback if you don't show once invited. Gah, awkward either way.
posted by adipocere at 8:38 AM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: Cash and/or iTunes gift card is perfectly fine. It's what she "needs" and comes in a common form she expects (e.g., you wouldn't give her a salad set like you would for a wedding). I'd think that anything else more personal would be the weird option, and not just because you don't know her that well. That's the kind of thing I give my cousins, too; something pretty broad like that is usually the best thing, since their tastes can change so quickly.

I was in sort of a similar situation. My armored car lady, of all people, invited me to her wedding reception. Now, granted, it was a second wedding where they'd gotten married earlier in the day and were having a pig roast at a local park, but she gave me an invitation and said she hoped to see me there. So I had it sitting around for a while, and on a whim mentioned it to my boyfriend because I thought it was so wacky, and he said, "Well, we're going to go, aren't we?" and ponied up 25 bucks himself. We actually had a pretty fun time, and we saw some other folks we knew -- the lady who runs the deli next door (also one of her customers), the other drivers, who were also very friendly, that sort of thing.

So even if you just stop by for a moment, it'll mean a lot to her and remind her that people think she's more than just the average service worker. Everybody likes to be told they're good at what they do, especially when they clearly put their personality into it. So go, and have fun!
posted by Madamina at 8:39 AM on August 19, 2010

(P.S. Remember that you don't have to stay, even if you've gone out of your way to be there. If it gets uncomfortable, or you just want to pave the way for an early exit, just say that you have a family function later that evening. Be vague, and you can take as much or as little time as you want.)
posted by Madamina at 8:42 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Amazon vouchers, to buy college books?
posted by MuffinMan at 9:02 AM on August 19, 2010

When I was headed off to college, some friends of the family gave me a large pack of highlighter pens, saying that I would need them for notes, textbooks, etc. Very simple and sweet-but-not-sentimental, it lasted me two or three years and was a useful thing to have on hand. (Go to Office Depot, pick up a box of assorted highlighters, put a bow on it, done.)

I was also once in your position, invited to a graduation party for someone I barely knew, and ended up getting the graduate a guidebook about the city where he was going to study. He seemed to like it. (Or he was really polite, at least.)

There's definitely a culture of gift-giving surrounding high school graduations in the U.S. but it would be perfectly okay if you showed up and gave her a card with a note in it. I wouldn't spend a lot of money, though.
posted by corey flood at 9:06 AM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: Card + iTunes gift card + decline party invitation since you probably won't know anyone. Write something nice about the service she's given you over the (years? months?) and wish her the best in the future. Think of it as a more-personalized tip for the service she's given you and a chance to do something nice for someone who, presumably, has brightened up your mornings for some time now.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:17 AM on August 19, 2010

A card wishing her all the best and $10.

This, minus $10. You're not obligated to give a gift. Seriously, considering how little you know the girl and that you feel uncomfortable about it, I would think of your going to the party as your gift. If you really don't want to go to the party, bring her the card at work and apologize, citing other obligations.

Have you considered the possibility that she has a crush on you? It's hard to tell from your question.
posted by purpletangerine at 9:26 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Give her a cute thermos and fill it with quarters. Quarters are always in short supply (laundry, vending machines, etc.) and my thermos was my most useful item this year. Get one with a handle.

You definitely aren't obligated to give her anything, or even go. But it was nice of her to invite you, so it would be nice of you to go and give her something thoughtful.
posted by karminai at 10:22 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got a very large coffee mug -- large enough to fit a can of soup, or ramen in -- for graduation from someone I didn't know very well. It can't have been more than $15-$20 but I still have it ten years later and use it all the time. It was a great gift.
posted by kdar at 10:34 AM on August 19, 2010

No presents, just your presence. Graduation gifts are only from family and close friends. It sounds like this barista really has a crush on you and wants to see you outside of a work setting so any romantic advances aren't creepy.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:45 AM on August 19, 2010

Six years later, I'm still using two of my going-away-to-college gifts: My awesome nylon mesh fold-flat laundry baskets, and my Leatherman multi-tool.

The multi-tool was particularly indispensable for its included corkscrew, still the only one I own. It's amazing how many folks in the dorms would get bottles of wine, but lack any way to open them.
posted by SemiSophos at 11:22 AM on August 19, 2010

Best answer: You are not obligated to give a gift, but if you choose to, a book would be a pretty safe bet. It shows a bit of thought, and it's not too personal or expensive.

"Oh the Places You'll Go" by Dr. Seuss is a standard.

Other options:
"Getting the Best Out of College" by Anne Crossman
"101 Things a College Girl Should Know" by Stephanie Edwards
"The Art of Happiness" by Dalai Lama
"Please Send Money" by Dara Duguay

... or any number of College Survival Guide type books.
posted by couch fort dinner party at 12:51 PM on August 19, 2010

Get a small card. Put $10 in it. Put it in your purse. Go to the party intending to just stay a little while. Have a good reason for leaving early, in case you want to split. If there are no gifts, hang on to your card. If there ARE gifts, whip it out. Keep an open mind, you might have a good time.
posted by raisingsand at 4:51 PM on August 19, 2010

do you want to go to the party? if so, go. but, no gift is required. if you don't want to go, don't go. casual friends don't require attendance or gift. if you feel you must gift, $10 or $20 gift card to market of some sort near college. college kids always need money for stuff.
posted by swmobill at 6:39 PM on August 19, 2010

In college I was in a somewhat similar situation. I went to the party. Once there, I realized that the folks involved had decided that I was a good conversion prospect. My invitation had more to do with a quota on their end than friendship.
posted by R. Mutt at 8:54 PM on August 20, 2010

Response by poster: I did the card, iTunes gift card, and one of the college survival books mentioned upthread. I wasn't the only person showing with items, so it felt more or less appropriate. Then I skated out after not too long. Whew!
posted by adipocere at 7:17 AM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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