Recognizing entry strengths

Let’s be honest: Academically speaking, there isn’t a lot of difference between a Williams, an Amherst or a Harvard. My sister didn’t make her college decision based on how much better the classes were. She’ll be a proud member of the Class of 2015 for what sets Williams apart. Things like Mountain Day. Things like Winter Study. Things like the entry system.

Alumni like me are slowly becoming aware of the critical reevaluation of the entry system thanks to recent articles in the Record (“Campus to begin reevaluation of first-year residential life,” Feb. 23). These articles, to me, represent an urgent desire on the part of the student body to become part of this critical discussion – a discussion that, true to the administration’s and the [Committee on Undergraduate Life’s] style, has been thoughtlessly kept out of the hands of the people to whom it matters the most.

President Falk’s recent editorial in the Alumni Review stressed that Williams must continue to adapt, to reevaluate even its deepest traditions. The entry system has its flaws, and the administration is right to examine ways it could improve. Yet I would challenge President Falk to find a better system. Residential advisors from other schools envy what we have. They don’t talk about how great it is to have free room and board. They talk about the disconnect they feel with their freshmen. Their role as agents of the college – as paid disciplinarians – creates an unbridgeable rift between them and the students they are meant to guide.

To suggest such a system, as [Multicultural Center Director] Lili Rodriguez has, demonstrates a total lack of understanding – or refusal to understand – why JAs are there in the first place. Say you’re a freshman who’s concerned about a friend’s drinking problem. Would you go straight to [Campus Safety and Security Director] Dave Boyer to talk about it? JAs are there so that freshmen can discuss all problems without fear of punishment. Yet people who have worked closely with Rodriguez say that she is pointedly uninterested in hearing about the entry system’s merits. She seems surprised, they say, that anyone could have had a positive entry experience.

I have a serious problem with the way Rodriguez has framed the discussion about the entry system. It is a spectacular leap of logic to say, “there isn’t a true dialogue about diversity,” to saying that the entry system actively suppresses it. It is equally absurd to suggest that by paying JAs so it will feel “more like a job,” true diversity will somehow spring out, fully formed, in all its glory. Lacking a sensible argument as to how disbanding the entry system would cultivate diversity, I suspect that “achieving diversity” is not the end but the means by which Rodriguez has pushed this issue forward. By invoking diversity, she has forced supporters of the entry system to step gingerly in order to avoid being cast as a bigot. By “trying to start a conversation,” she has made people afraid to speak their mind. The irony should not be lost on anyone.

Instead of using diversity destructively, let’s use it to better the system. There are concrete steps that can be taken to ensure positive entry experiences. First, let’s encourage diversity of opinion in the JA selection committee. According to former SelCom members, applications to the committee are low, and there are often multiple members from the same campus group. It is no wonder that with such over-representation in some social circles, others are left high and dry. We must simultaneously encourage participation and hold the selection of SelCom to a higher standard.

A newly minted JA once said to me, “Man, my freshmen are going to think I’m so cool.” Practically, this has translated to JAs who hesitate to crack down on abrasive behavior for fear of being a buzz kill. Some even feel awful going to the library, afraid that their entries will crumble without them. It has developed JAs who feel trapped by and resentful of their entries.

JAs need a self-esteem boost. They need to be reminded that they’re not just “knuckleheads buying alcohol.” The well-being of entries rests on the well-being of JAs. As someone who has seen entry life from both sides, a common reason entries melt down is because JAs don’t take care of themselves. A JA who cracks because the entry consumes his or her life is often the JA that checks out early. Being a JA always means sacrifice, but they must remember that one cannot take care of others without first taking care of themselves.

Revitalizing the system by ensuring that JAs remain committed, well-balanced, quality individuals will do far more for improving first-year quality of life than getting rid of it entirely. As Dean Dave [Johnson, associate dean and dean of first-year students] said, there is nothing we could dream up that is better than the central philosophy of the entry system: a group of students who wouldn’t necessarily associate otherwise, mentored by upperclassmen who are there for them, rather than for a free meal plan. I urge the administration to bring the conversation to the greater Williams community. They may be surprised with what they find.

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