Banging a bulky couch up three narrow flights of stairs, scraping paint and shins along the way. Hauling box after back-breaking box through the late-summer heat, chaos all around. Somehow, the minivan is still half-full.
For college students and their families, move-in day is an emotional rite of passage, and usually a physically draining one as well. But as students return to the Boston area for the fall term, schools are lending a hand — along with carts and dollies — to make the stressful experience more manageable and get the school year off to a smooth start.
Northeastern University and Fisher College in the Back Bay even provide private movers and maintenance workers to transport student belongings to the dorm.
"It's like a NASCAR situation," said Thomas McGovern, Fisher's president, likening movers' quick, cohesive action to pit stops. "The parents are very grateful."
At Simmons College in the Fenway, move-in teams from the school greet new students and their families right at the car, industrial-size bins at the ready for bulk transit. Boston University calls upon its "Scarlet Squad" — a group of red-shirted upperclassmen and college staff — to welcome newcomers and help unload, while down the road, Boston College's "Welcome Wagon" has hundreds of volunteers on hand to help unpack cars.
The effort is in keeping with colleges' ongoing push to ease what can be a delicate transition to college life with a display of community spirit, and part of the growing range of amenities they provide to sweeten the campus experience.
"The day is so fraught with emotion for students and their families," said Sarah Neill, dean of student life at Simmons. "We're trying to do whatever we can do to make it more pleasant."
Some critics dismiss this type of help as coddling, another example of how colleges pamper students and try to win over parents so they feel as if they are getting their money's worth.
But colleges say students and families are thrilled, and often visibly relieved, by the assistance.
That was on display Wednesday at Northeastern, where movers greeted road-weary families at their cars and unloaded their belongings. Parents and students alike looked as if a weight had been lifted, as indeed it had.
Sungnam Choi, who was dropping off his daughter Joanne, figured he was in for at least an hour of unpacking. Before he knew it, two young men were filling up large bins. He hardly had to lift a finger.
"I thought I'd be carrying all the boxes, back and forth, back and forth," Choi said as he walked down the street to his daughter's high-rise dorm. "This is really nice. Wonderful hospitality. A great way to start the year."
Kwame Bidi, a mover at Northeastern, said many parents and students were initially taken aback by the offer to help, but then couldn't thank him enough.
"I had to explain that we were hired by the university," he said. "But then they said, 'Oh this is great!' "
Part of the reason Fisher hires movers is to minimize disruption to neighbors and quickly clear cars off Beacon Street, McGovern said. As soon as their cars are unloaded, parents are directed to the underground parking lot at Boston Common.
But at a time of intense competition among colleges, particularly in the Boston area, the perk is also meant to set the small school apart and send a message that it is willing to go the extra mile.
"We're not BU or BC," McGovern said. "We have to work harder."
Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, a professional group of college student affairs administrators, said the moving-day help reflects the way colleges seek to present an accommodating, supportive image and ease parents' concerns about leaving their children.
"It's all part of making a good first impression," he said. "You want the parents to feel their children are in good hands."
It also shows the lengths colleges are willing to go to win parents over and reflects a shift in expectations among parents. The more they are expected to pay, the more they expect.
"It fits into a customer service philosophy people have about college today," Kruger said. "As tuition has increased, so have expectations."
At many schools, the assistance extends beyond move-in-day. Texas Tech University, for instance, provides students free taxi rides home from anywhere within the city limits, a service paid for through student fees. Davidson College in North Carolina has long provided free laundry service.
At Emerson College downtown, where 900 new students moved in earlier this week, each family is greeted at the curb by a enthusiastic band of orientation leaders who begin singing and chanting the student's name in welcome. As music blares from the sidewalk in front of residence halls, the returning students start carrying suitcases into the dorm.
In Chestnut Hill, where BC freshmen arrived this week, student volunteers rush to greet arriving students. While new arrivals go off to sign in and get their room key, volunteers start unloading cars and labeling boxes and bins with masking tape. The drivers, usually fathers who are only too happy to avoid a long stretch of heavy lifting, are then sent off to park.
"By the time he gets to the room, Mom's already making the bed," said Monica St. Louis, the college's assistant director for community standards.
Parents have on occasion tried to give tips to the student volunteers, but they are not allowed to accept them, she said.
There is one downside to all the helping hands. For parents who aren't quite ready to say goodbye, sometimes the moving process feels a little too fast.
"Some definitely want to linger," Neill said.