When I first became a JA, I told myself I was going to be the best JA ever. I was going to hang out with my frosh all the time and they were all going to like each other. Everyone would be best friends, or else. I had it all wrong; My definitions of a good JA and a good entry were completely out of order, and thankfully a former JA helped point me in the right direction.
He taught me that a JA’s goal is not to force an entry to be close, but rather to help all his frosh find their own homes at Williams, either within the entry or outside it. My misconceptions are shared by far too many people. They have unrealistic expectations for their first-year living experience and are disappointed when they cannot match those expectations. However, no system could meet these unrealistic expectations.
The entry system is great because it allows JAs to be different from residential advisors (RAs). As volunteers, JAs have the ability to become friends with their frosh, allowing first-years to feel comfortable enough to reach out for the advice of a friend who is well equipped with knowledge of the multitude of resources available on campus. As a first-year, I would have been too afraid of looking stupid to talk to an RA about my academic troubles, but I was not afraid to talk to my friend – my JA – who convinced me to meet with a dean and helped set up a meeting.
JAs are also able to facilitate safe drinking in a unique way. First-years will drink, and JAs can guide them on how to do so safely. Instead of punishing or monitoring drinking, they can ensure safe drinking and confirm that there are always viable alternatives available for non-drinkers.
The great strength of entries, though, is the fact that they enable people from different backgrounds to live together. In last week’s article on entries [“Campus to begin reevaluation of first-year residential life,” Feb. 23], Lili Rodriguez ’01 was quoted as saying, “You can’t just mix people up and assume learning will occur,” but I could not disagree more. No workshop or exercise will ever teach you as much about another person as aimlessly chatting in the common room. Yes, JAs need training on making people feel comfortable joining the group, but overall the entry is ideal for bringing different people together.
The article mentioned worries about putting too much on the backs of JAs, but I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. JAs know they are signing up for a difficult and emotionally draining role, yet a large part of the campus signs up anyway. I like the idea of making the application more difficult, as the most important prerequisite for being a good JA is commitment. You must commit massive amounts of time just hanging out in the entry in order to be a good JA. You need to be there to make people feel welcome and to make it cool to be in the entry. But there is no reason to pay JAs, as Rodriquez suggests. In fact, I would argue that JAs are the best compensated people on campus: They are paid in friendships made and personal developments achieved. Adding monetary compensation not only adds bad incentives for becoming a JA, but also kills the JA system. Paid JAs are employees of the College. They cannot drink with their frosh, and their frosh will never be as comfortable approaching them. As a volunteer, your frosh know that you are there solely because you want them to approach you.
My first-year entry was a total debacle and a model of how the entry system can go wrong. As a whole, our group was incompatible and, rather than learning how to live together, we decided to not get along. One of our JAs checked out early and we were lucky if eight people came to snacks. The entry system aims to be a microcosm of Williams and, like Williams, it is flawed in many ways. But also like Williams, the entry system is much better than any alternative, and the system needs mere tweaks in order to make something great even greater.
To do this, I would love training to involve more unofficial time with former JAs in which they could pass along ways of helping people feel welcome, even if that advice can’t fit into traditional training for risk of the College being seen as supporting drinking. For example, my co-JA had the great idea that at parties one of us would not drink, yet would still participate by playing water pong, thereby making non-drinkers feel welcome.
I also think it would be useful to offer JAs more help in selecting their co-JAs. I was lucky that I had a co-JA who was different enough from me to be able to relate to different people in the entry and strong enough to keep my loud self in line. Going in, however, I didn’t realize that a complementary co-JA was the difference between a good JA experience and a bad one.
I had to work hard to learn to love Williams coming out of my entry, but slowly I did, and as a JA I think I helped some others do the same. This will always be my greatest contribution to Williams. To me, the entry system defines Williams; if we strengthen it, we strengthen the College, but if we try to overhaul it, we risk throwing away the Williams I love.