Campus to begin reevaluation of first-year residential life

This year, a large portion of campus has begun to more closely scrutinize the first-year experience at the College, focusing on the entry and JA systems as the main areas of concern. Over Winter Study, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) e-mailed a survey to all students asking about “student satisfaction with the first-year experience,” and the committee is currently working to compile and analyze its accrued data. The Multicultural Center (MCC) has taken an active interest in identifying ways in which entries could be more conducive to intellectualism and the College’s broad diversity. Even the members of the JA Advisory Board (JAAB), a group of former and current JAs who lead the JA program, have begun to reflect on their own organization’s successes and shortcomings. Discussions between these and other groups are just beginning, but this is a topic that President Falk is ready to consider: “I want to ask big questions about the experience of first-years at the College in 2011,” he said.

Reasons for reevaluation

Concerns about the entry system stem mostly from three main sources: dissatisfaction with the system, especially as it applies to issues of diversity, confusion about the JAs’ role and fears about alcohol in the entry.

“Recognizing the successes [of the entry system], none of us feels like it’s enough for it to be great for only the majority of students,” Falk said. “If some first-years aren’t having a good experience and there is anything we can do to address that, we ought to be addressing it.”

“Right now [in the entry] there’s a lack of true dialogue about the diversity we create and why it’s so important,” said Lili Rodriguez ’01, director of the MCC. “We place students in a challenging and awkward situation without thinking about the strategies that also need to be implemented to make diversity work. You can’t just mix people up and assume learning will occur – you need to provide the appropriate context and programming that will help students want to step outside of their comfort zones.”

Concerning the role of JAs, Dave Johnson ’71, associate dean and dean of first-year students, explained that JAs bear the brunt of criticisms of the larger entry system. “JAs are in this no-man’s limbo of student-run, non-administrative-governed haze,” he said. “As a potential weak link, I think a lot of people are asking how we can have volunteers working with our most vulnerable population. People want to know who’s in charge of the JAs, who they report to and if they’re doing the job they need to do.”

“JAs do so much,” said Sulgi Lim ’06, assistant director of admissions and chair of the Committee for Diversity and Community’s (CDC) recent subcommittee on the first-year experience. “While still maintaining the autonomy of the JA system, the institution can take on some of those roles that are a lot to handle for a 20-year-old student.”

“I don’t want to put a responsibility on the JAs that is more than we should be asking of them,” Falk said.

Jack Wadden ’11, member of both JAAB and CUL, talked about skewed expectations of the entry system and JAs: “Entries are supposed to be your family – your safe space – but at the same time they’re supposed to challenge you and put you out of your comfort zone,” he said. “Can those two goals be accomplished at the same time? That’s a tough task.

“Likewise, JAs are supposed to be there for you – they’re supposed to be your social planners, therapists and academic advisors while also being unpaid, full-time students,” Wadden continued. “Those just aren’t realistic expectations … and all of our amazing campus resources have become ‘plan B’ for many first-years because they expect their JAs to fill those roles.”

Alcohol use and possible abuse in entries is also a major concern for campus administrators.
“Alcohol is certainly a part of [the campus’] worry,” Johnson said. “It’s the most visible and dangerous kind of catastrophe our students can be in.”

“Concerns about alcohol are certainly not the driving force in our thinking about first-year residential life,” Dean Bolton said, “although … I do worry about doing our best to keep students safe. Plenty of campuses have had students die of alcohol poisoning, and it’s realistic to be concerned that it could happen here.”

“We need to have policies around alcohol that are realistic about the law and realistic about students’ behavior, that are transparent and that are as true of first-year life as they are about any part of our residential life system,” Falk said. “We can’t shy away from that conversation. It’s difficult, but we owe it to ourselves to have it.”

Committee on Undergraduate Life

Marlene Sandstrom, chair of the CUL and professor of psychology, said her committee’s focus on the entry system is the latest in a series of studies on residential life at the College.

“The creation of the neighborhood system and subsequent evaluation of that system has taken up the bulk of the CUL’s attention over the past few years,” Sandstrom said. “Given this, the CUL has paid relatively little attention to the first-year experience or to life in the entries. When I took over as chair this fall, Dean Bolton suggested that we attempt to learn more about how Williams students experience residential life during their first year on campus.”

“[As opposed to the neighborhood system], the first-year residential life program has been much more stable over time,” Bolton said. “But even early in the assessment of the neighborhood system, it was clear that the next step … was to focus on the first-year experience. What are the parts of the entry and JA systems that are working well for students? Where are the places where the systems might be strengthened or changed? I don’t have answers to those questions yet, but I do think it’s critical that we ask them.”

Krista Pickett ’13, CUL student chair, emphasized that the committee began its inquiry without any expectations of where it would lead. “We came into this survey without any pre-set plans or agenda items for reform regarding the first-year experience,” she said.

“The goal is simply to take the pulse of students and get a better sense of what they love and value about the first-year experience, as well as what they see as areas in need of more attention,” Sandstrom said.

The CUL’s survey asked upperclassmen and underclassmen alike to reflect on many parts of their entry experiences. Questions were phrased as statements with which responders could strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree or have no opinion. Some questions, such as “My entry experience facilitated my personal growth during my first year,” asked students broad questions about their first year at the College. Others, including “At times during my first year, I was a target of unfair stereotyping or discrimination at Williams,” focused on social dynamics, both positive and negative, of the entry. Many of the questions asked about alcohol and its prevalence in the entry. Room was also left after every few questions to include free-form responses.

Questions were developed by CUL members in order to gauge both the strengths and weaknesses of first-year life, according to Sandstrom. “The student members of the CUL … an aspirational list of what the College should strive to provide for students during their first year – a welcoming environment, support, security and structure for academic and social development,” Sandstrom said. “Based on this overview, the committee drafted the specific questions included in the survey.”

“We thought a confidential survey would allow students to express their opinions and tell their stories,” Pickett said, “and I’d imagine we will receive equal amounts of both positive and negative feedback.”
At the end of Winter Study, the CUL had received responses from half of all current first-years and a third of all upperclassmen, according to Sandstrom. The committee left the survey open for a few weeks into the semester, but members have begun to review the results this week.

“We [are examining] the quantitative responses as well as the open-ended responses, which a good number of students included,” Sandstrom said. “We will attempt to summarize the responses by indicating which aspects of the first-year experience seem overwhelmingly positive … and which are experienced as challenging or difficult for a sizeable subset of students. We will then pass that information on to the deans’ office.”

“I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the many hundreds of responses [the CUL] has received interweave with the anecdotes and stories I’m learning as I talk to people,” Bolton said. “I expect that the results … will lead to some further questions and discussions with student groups around particular themes that emerge.”

Committee on Diversity and Community

The CUL is not the first committee to take on the entry system in recent years. Starting in fall 2008, the CDC created a subcommittee called the JA/entry subcommittee, whose goal was “to consider what the experience of being a first-year or JA in an entry was like,” Lim said.

“We didn’t want to come at this with an idea that something was wrong and we needed to fix it,” Lim said. “We weren’t officially affiliated with the JA and entry program – we were a group of concerned citizens who wanted to be helpful without having a specific role.”

Over the course of two years, the committee met with Johnson and JAAB to better understand how JAs are selected, added specific questions to the PULSE survey that focused on the entry experience and piloted additional training sessions for JAs throughout the year.

“In their first year, [the committee members] wanted to get a better sense of what the JAs’ role was, and they did that mostly through surveys,” said JAAB member Danielle Diuguid ’11. “They wanted to increase interaction and transparency between the administration and JAs, and one of the suggestions was to create a JA representative on the CDC.” Diuguid contacted Mike Reed, vice president for strategic planning and institutional diversity, about taking on that position and subsequently joined the subcommittee for its second year.

In that second year, the subcommittee worked to act on its previous findings. “We held a retreat with JAAB in fall 2009 with [several College staff members and administrators] to brainstorm ideas about how the CDC could help JAs,” Lim said. “Dean Dave and the JAs are really on the field every day tending to issues in the entry and taking care of frosh who are having troubles. As people one step removed, we wanted to know what we could do to help them out … and we found that JAs wanted more feedback and more concrete information.”

The subcommittee ended up organizing two additional training sessions in January 2010 to supplement those before the year’s start. One session covered alcohol and the other covered rape and sexual assault counseling. According to Lim, 12 JAs came to one of the sessions and 20 came to the other, both of which were optional.

Although the CDC “decided to stop pursuing JAs” at the end of last year “because we felt any changes going forward needed to result from discussions within the JA leadership and between them and the administration,” said Lim, the subcommittee’s work has not been in vain. This year, JAAB organized the first-ever mandatory January training session for JAs, which was held on Jan. 23 at the Orchards Hotel. Multiple College staff members gathered to listen to JAs’ stories and give their own advice.
“I think the retreat was a good opportunity for JAs to gather and discuss what’s working well and what isn’t in their entries,” Armstrong-Pratt 1 JA Nick Fogel ’12 said. “I think it would be great to have more opportunities for JAs to come together and talk about how things are going.”

“For me, the retreat was about different people realizing that the JAs aren’t just knuckleheads buying alcohol,” Johnson said.

Multicultural Center

The Diversity Action Research Team, a committee organized through the office of strategic planning and institutional diversity, has uncovered significant dissatisfaction with the entry system through its first-generation research project, which has been ongoing for the past three years. Those findings have pushed Rodriguez and other MCC members to think critically about how entries could be more fulfilling for all students.

“If someone has a bad entry experience, it’s going to impact how they interact with others for the rest of their time at Williams,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t want freshman year to be a failure … and I think there’s a lot that needs help.”

This fall, Rodriguez appointed two MCC interns, Alexis Akridge ’14 and Malik Nashad Sharpe ’14, to look through Record archives and compile information about how entries have evolved since their inception in the 1920s. Their final document, titled “History of the Entry System,” has given Rodriguez unique insight into how the system now works.

“We need to go back to the basics of what the true purpose of an entry is,” Rodriguez said. Entries were originally created as a way to extend intellectualism outside the classroom: The equivalent of today’s entry snacks, for example, was a weekly round-table discussion “organized as a literary society for the discussion of questions vital to human welfare and stimulating to human interest,” according to Akridge and Sharpe’s “History.” However, that all changed with the advent of fraternities.
“The fraternity structure negatively impacted the growth of the entry system,” Rodriguez said. “Because entry activities interfered with fraternity rush season, we got rid of a lot of the cool academic stuff that we need to bring back.”

Rodriguez laid out her fundamental issues with the entry system: “Students in America and around the globe come from segregated communities – many individuals do not begin to think about their identities until a few years into college,” she said. An entry ideally represents a microcosm of the wider campus diversity, but “right now we’re creating diverse entries with people who aren’t ready to talk about that diversity. There are lots of kids of color who don’t want to be seen as the racial minority. Likewise, there are a lot of majority group students who aren’t comfortable talking about privilege. How do we better prepare them to have these conversations?”

Diuguid also mentioned the problems with framing the entry as a microcosm of campus: “I get where that idea is coming from, but if you hear it from a student’s perspective, it might be seen as a form of tokenism,” she said.

Thinking about the original goal of entries, Rodriguez said she hopes intellectualism can be brought back into the entry experience. “Many students have told me they think that at 4 p.m. intellectualism at Williams stops,” Rodriguez said. “We can remedy this by bringing intellectualism to snacks, which right now only function as social gatherings. I think it would be awesome if once a month faculty members ran inter-group dialogues during snacks while JAs met together to talk about their struggles.”

“Including [faculty and staff] doesn’t mean we’re taking over,” Rodriguez added. “We just want to help alleviate some of the challenges JAs are facing. It’s hard for JAs to start those kinds of conversations when they too are exploring their own identities.”

Rodriguez also talked about revising the College’s expectations for the entry system: “We’re setting up too-high expectations right now,” she said. “We should be celebrating the fact that it’s going to be a challenge – it’s not going to be a happy-go-lucky place. We do this because it’s challenging and you’re going to be a better person for it, not because it’s meant to be a happy family.”

Despite opposition from Johnson and JAAB, Rodriguez also is not opposed to offering monetary compensation for JAs. “The job is taxing, so [JAs] should be rewarded for their effort. It would be more to just make it legitimate that this is a job.”

Overall, Rodriguez emphasized her commitment to positive change: “As an alum, I think [this residential system] is the best in the country. As a psychologist, I think it needs an intentional structure and series of programs,” she said. “I don’t think we need to give up the system, but we certainly need to revise it.”

JA Advisory Board

JAAB is made up of seven seniors – the two co-presidents of the former JA class and five other former JAs – and the two co-presidents of the current JA class. According to co-president Lizzie Barcay ’11, the main role of JAAB is “to look at JA training, amend it and then run it with the next group of JAs.” JAAB members also serve as mentors to current JAs.

This year, however, JAAB members have created another committee, the Junior Advisory Review Committee (JARC), which is charged with more seriously addressing the issues with the JA system that have come up in the past couple years. “JAAB doubles as JARC,” Barcay explained, “and Dean Dave, Lili Rodriguez and Sulgi Lim have all been a part of our conversations. We’ve met every other week this year.”

JARC’s main goals for this year have been reforming the JA application, interview and selection process. “We want to be more confident in our decisions and in the process that gets us our future JAs,” co-president Kwame Poku ’11 said.

The JA application, which used to be one longer essay, now asks 15 direct questions about applicants’ strengths and weaknesses. These questions are intended to get applicants thinking earlier about what their roles as JAs would be, according to Barcay and Poku.

“The application forced people to really put time into it,” Poku said. “We’re hoping [submitting an application] is no longer just a rite of passage for sophomores – you really have to take it more seriously.”

Similarly, whereas interviews used to consist of a mix of group and individual interviews, now applicants will have three separate two-on-one interviews. Additionally, each of the three interviews focuses on what Barcay and Poku termed their “constellations of questions”: one on personal inquiries, one on difficult situations and one on group dynamics and diversity.

“I think the interview is miles away from where it was last year,” Barcay said. “Six out of the 24 selection committee members are getting to meet each applicant [in the interview context]. We’re also really getting to compare answers, having divided them up into ‘constellations’ with two ‘expert’ interviewers presiding over each.”

The selection process within the committee has also changed this year. “We’ve built more shades of gray into the process, so it’s not merely a yes or no vote,” Barcay said.

“You’re put on a spectrum, which is less volatile than a categorical answer,” Poku added.

JARC examined possible changes to several other variables in the selection process, but those efforts were sidelined for this year, explained Barcay. “In order not to be rash, we’ve made smaller changes than we thought we might,” she said. “We didn’t want to risk making the selection process less reliable by changing too many variables at once.”

JARC members have also become more aware of the need to address diversity in the entry. “There were moments in my entry that I was not trained for,” Poku said, “so we’ve begun to put more emphasis on diversity in training.” Additionally, through the group dynamics constellation of questions, applicants now talk about diversity for 30 minutes in their interviews.

Barcay and Poku also emphasized their efforts to build more accountability into the JA system. “We may be building in a set of criteria that, if met, would require a JA to be removed from his or her position,” Barcay said. “The JA system should be policing itself – there’s a certain standard we need to hold ourselves to.”

“Everyone on JAAB has felt the need to create a system that not only punishes but also deters JAs from falling out of line,” Poku said. “We need to have something official in mind that says, ‘This is what we do, and this is what we do not do,’ in both a positive way and a negative way.”

In the end, JAAB members are receptive to change, but they hope it will occur at their own pace.

“We’re not shrugging off complaints about the system,” Barcay said. “We understand that the administration feels a need to put pressure on us and change us, and we’ve been working to incorporate those changes in a way that will maintain all the good things that the system has to offer.”

“We’re moving from being reactionary to proactive,” Poku said, “but it’s going to take time and effort.”

Future discussions

While the CUL has not expressed any interest in radically changing or abolishing the entry system, there are still those who are concerned about the growing trend of reevaluation.

“Everyone loves to blame the JAs when they hear one bad thing about the entry,” Johnson said. “I still feel that our first-years are safe, and that’s the first order of business.”

“As a current JA brought up over our January retreat, it’s not a perfect system because it’s not a perfect college,” Barcay said. “If entries are microcosms of the College, problems in the entry are going to be indicative of problems at the College.”

“There are so many positives that really get overshadowed by these major concerns,” Poku said. “The good things don’t get reported – surveys don’t ask about how your JAs were positive role models or how they changed your life. The people with the loudest voices are often those who had bad entry experiences.”

Johnson also expressed concern about transitioning to any sort of compensation for JAs. “There is no RA system – no paid position – that can make this better,” he said. “I think [the current system] already works better than any residential system we could ever dream up … I’m totally invested in it and totally invested in keeping it independent.”

Still, Johnson and JAAB members are aware that reevaluation is necessary and important, and they want to be a part of future conversations.

“The entry system is failing students from the get-go, and that is unacceptable,” Wadden said. “[The things that aren’t working] need to be exhaustively examined, and the system should constantly re-examine itself in order to be more dynamic and change with the needs of Williams students.”

“We want a more open conversation with the CUL,” Poku said, “and we hope that any policy-changing decisions are made in collaboration with the JA governing body.”

Falk and Bolton agreed that future conversations may be difficult, but they are confident that this new inquiry will bring about positive change.

“We have high hopes and goals for our entry system, and they are tough to achieve,” Bolton said. “We know that, and we need to pay attention to it.”

“What I hope comes out of this conversation is an honest understanding of what we do and don’t do well with the first-year experience,” Falk said. “Then we’ll create a series of strategies to continue doing the things we do well and change the things we don’t do well.

Falk stressed that JAs should not take administrative concern personally: “If we examine the system and find there are things we could do better,” he said, “it’s importantto understand that it’s not criticism of those people who are working so hard for first-years.”