First-Year Residential Seminar participants learning together

“Weird, scary, dorky, antisocial freaks who make really bad ‘smart people’ jokes.” Such were the fears of Andrew Giarolo ’04, a Junior Advisor (JA) to last year’s First-Year Residential Seminar (FRS), about the freshmen that might make up his entry. Happily, he said, he was wrong.

The FRS, established in 1987, is an innovative program that endeavors to break down the barriers between the academic and social lives of students and to integrate their intellectual experience with the rest of their pursuits. In this program, a group of around 25 students choose to live in a single entry and take one course in the fall semester together. The willingness of these students to want to make academia more a part of their everyday lives advances the myth of the smart, nerdy, antisocial entry.

It is true that the FRS entry, which currently resides in Williams F, is a little unlike other entries. “It is a self-selected group of students that has an unusual concentration of interesting and talented people,” said professor William Darrow, who teaches the FRS Introduction to Religion class this year and has done so for several years.

The FRS students might take their academic interests slightly more seriously than the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean academics is their sole focus. It is very possible that you will find many FRS students reading on a Saturday night, but that can be attributed somewhat to the heavy reading load of the religion class and not entirely to a great affection towards poring over intellectual tomes. It is also entirely possible that you will find many of the students in bed before midnight, but that can be credited somewhat to the early morning religion class and not entirely to a rejection of enjoyment.

By no means is the FRS that unusual. “We are just like any other entry,” said Ashley Brock ’05, a JA to the current FRS entry. “I don’t think taking a class together really changes how the entry works.”

The FRS entry goes to entry dinners, takes entry trips, engages in useless conversation and, yes, even parties together like any other entry. The common class complements the entry experience, they said; it does not take away from it. Just like any other entry, the FRS is made up of athletes, musicians, writers, debaters, actors, community service leaders, partiers, procrastinators and whiners.

This self-selected group has a remarkable amount of diversity: 21 students representing 10 states, three countries and a multitude of religions. But it also has an element of homogeneity. Similar to every Williams first-year group, all the students in the FRS are looking to develop deeper bonds with people that share curiosities, and at the same time are looking to expand their interests and experiences. In fact, this search for bonding and expanding was the driving force behind students signing up for the FRS.

“The idea of being integrated with a lot of people who share similar interests is what excited me about the FRS,” said Ananda Burra ’07, a current FRS student.

But the FRS allows for bonding and learning on an elevated level. The religion class, with the sensitive materials it covers, commissions an intense experience that fosters a great deal of debate and controversy. These debates can be productive, but can also be destructive and dividing. Daniel Aiello ’07, an FRS student, is looking forward to the tensions created by controversy. “I am waiting for the battle lines to be drawn and the use of heavy artillery,” he said.

However, the cohabitation that allows for greater understanding and empathy will probably mitigate the violence of the war. The understanding of each others’ backgrounds creates tolerance and respect both in and out of the classroom. “We have a greater respect for people because we are not just studying different religions, but we are living with people of different religions,” said Sean Hyland ’07, another FRS participant.

Living together and studying together creates a kind of team spirit that adds a new dimension not only to education but also to coming together as an entry. Procrastinating, grumbling about homework, being confused, stressing over the midterm paper – all provide a common ground for the students to unite over. The common element of laziness and then hysteria creates a close-knit entry that can relate to each other in unique ways. Deep friendships, and rarely, deep animosities, develop as a result of viewing one’s peers in two dimensions – the academic and the personal.

So, in a nutshell, the FRS students who signed up for a never-ending class are certainly a little different. They are a little bit more daring, a little bit more diverse, a little bit more curious, a little bit more sober and a little bit more united than the average frosh entry. But, all that purports is that the FRS is just an average above-average entry. “We take pause and consider our surroundings more than the average Williams student,” Aiello said, in deep reflection.

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