Window on Williams: barrier breaker or maker?

Controversy has surrounded the Window On Williams (WOW) program since its inception in the early 1980s. While detractors argue that WOW deepens the divide between minority groups and the white majority, the program’s defenders say that it bridges the gap between students’ home environments and Williams.

Because WOW calls attention to its participants’ minority status, instead of trying to be race-blind, many feel that the program is setting minority students up for failure. Indeed, some students said that the call inviting them to WOW was the first time they were seriously confronted with being a minority.

“I was kind of intimidated by all the people calling me up, acting like they were my long lost sisters or something,” said Miyun Kim ’04. “I never really thought of myself as Asian before.”

Supporters of WOW disagree with this attitude. “I don’t think that race-blindness is the end goal of society. I think the end goal of society should be race-consciousness,” said Felton Booker ’01, a facilitator of the program through the Multicultural Center (MCC).

“We know that minority students are more likely to be detached from the group if they come from an area that is demographically different from Williams,” Booker said. “The purpose of WOW is to allow minority students to build a community within themselves before entering campus.”

Whether this internal bonding adds to integration or to segregation lies at the heart of the debate. In particular, some believe that it is a mistake to situate WOW before the students’ first entry meetings because it implies that a student’s identity as a minority is more important than his or her identity as a first-year. “I agree with the intent of WOW, but not the timing,” said Booker. “I think the entry should be a student’s first contact with the college community. So I think WOOLF [Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-Years] and WOW should be moved after the first entry meeting.”

Medha Kirtane ’00, the assistant director of the MCC, expressed concern over how great an adjustment it would be to alter the schedule. “It would be a substantial change,” Kirtane said. “If we moved WOW, we would need to move the WOOLF trips and the preseason athletics also, since cliques form in these groups just as easily as in WOW. Segregation takes place in sports and WOOLF too.”

Another criticism of WOW is that invitations are extended to minority students only. Although white students may attend if they actively express an interest in coming, as one first-year did, this rarely occurs. However, the coordinators of WOW say that there are other programs to serve as diversity education for non-minority students. The Students Promoting Awareness Respect and Community (SPARC) workshop will involve all first-years in entry discussions on Sunday, Sept. 24. Also, as part of the Williams Community Building Program (WCBP), “Shades of Purple,” a video about community on campus, is shown to all first-years.

Even among the minority students invited to WOW, though, many choose not to come. Their reasons for not attending range from apathy to shyness, but the fact is WOW does not reach all it intends to reach.

“A lot of the facilitators didn’t even come as first-years,” said Kirtane. “Some people need it at that moment, and for other students a need grows later on. As a first-year, I didn’t need it for survival; I needed it for broadening my perspective. I initially came as a skeptic.”

Additionally, critics point out that WOW addresses only racial and ethnic concerns, but provides no support for those from different class backgrounds or sexual orientations. It can be equally intimidating for a student from a less wealthy background to encounter the noticeably affluent Williams campus as it is for someone of a different racial background.

The program was originally designed to help minority students integrate into the primarily white Williams campus. The Black Students Union (BSU) originally created WOW to aid incoming black students. In 1992, the Multicultural Center (MCC) expanded the program to include Latino students, and in 1994 Asian students were added.