After survey, CUL to recommend entry system adjustments

After compiling the results of its Winter Study survey, which asked students to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of first-year residential life at the College (“Campus to begin reevaluation of first-year residential life,” Feb. 23), the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) has been working over the course of the semester to provide context for its findings and draft recommendations to send to Dean Bolton and the JA Advisory Board (JAAB). While the results of the survey showed overwhelming student enthusiasm for the entry and JA systems, the CUL is looking to recommend changes that will address the lower levels of satisfaction found amongst certain student demographics.

In its survey, the CUL identified three major goals for the entry system as it currently stands: facilitating personal growth, encouraging students to interact with classmates from different backgrounds and perspectives and providing an environment for students that is conducive to meeting their academic goals. According to the CUL’s findings, 85 to 90 percent of current first-years agreed that the entry system helps to foster those three goals. Additionally, 75 to 80 percent of current first-years reported that they were happy with the quality and quantity of entry-related activities and felt that the activities helped to foster a sense of community. Finally, approximately 90 percent of current first-years reported positive experiences and interactions with their JAs.

“Overall, the results were extremely reassuring,” CUL Chair and Professor of Psychology Marlene Sandstrom said. “It looks like students are quite happy with the way residential life works during the first year at Williams.”

However, that high level of satisfaction was not uniform across all students. According to the CUL’s findings, first-generation college students, students on financial aid, non-athletes and non-drinkers reported generally lower rates of satisfaction than did the overall student body. Additionally, these students generally saw the entry as less successful in fostering the CUL’s three main goals of growth, diversity and academic support. Non-drinkers and non-athletes also were more likely to report alcohol-related concerns with the entry system, including entries’ encouragement of excessive drinking and marginalization of non-drinkers.

Sandstrom was quick to note that students from these demographics were not pointedly dissatisfied with the entry system; rather, they were just less satisfied than the student body as a whole. “These differences are statistically significant, but they’re not objectively low levels of satisfaction,” she explained.

Since compiling the results of the survey, the CUL has invited multiple interested parties to its meetings in order to contextualize the committee’s findings. Lili Rodriguez ’01, Multicultural Center director; Sulgi Lim ’06, assistant director of admission; Dave Johnson ’71, associate dean and dean of first-year students; and former JA co-presidents and JAAB members Lizzie Barcay ’11 and Kwame Poku ’11 have all met with the CUL within the past few weeks. On April 6, the committee invited Bolton to come discuss its progress up to that point.

Bolton expressed how pleased she was that community members have struck up a conversation about first-year residential life at the College. “I’m really enjoying the chance to talk with students about this aspect of Williams life, and I’m very grateful that so many are taking time to meet with me and share their experiences and reflections,” she said. “I think that for something as important as this, it’s crucial to talk with students in whatever way they feel most comfortable.”

Sandstrom also emphasized how much the committee has learned about the nuances of first-year residential life at the College. “The responses suggest that people took the survey seriously,” she said. “We got quite a few open-ended responses,” parts of the survey where students were able to add their own comments, “which shows that students really took time with this.”

Based on the results of the survey, the CUL is now in the process of drafting recommendations for updates to first-year residential life. “It seems to us that the current system works really well, but we also think it is important to address that satisfaction gap,” Sandstrom said. “That gap suggests some targeted tweaking of the current system, which would go towards making a system that is currently good even better.”

The first tweak Sandstrom mentioned was a cultural shift in the expectations incoming students have of the entry system. Entries are explicitly set up to represent microcosms of the campus as a whole, Sandstrom explained, and so students will be living with people with whom they do not necessarily share similar backgrounds.

“We set [the entry] up as a family, and we say that it’s going to be loving and supporting all the time,” Sandstrom said. “We need to make it clear that entry life is going to be challenging … if you walk into the entry thinking it’s going to be easy all the time, it’s a rude awakening when it’s not. We need a clear, consistent message across campus about what the entry system is about.”

The CUL has also discussed the idea of a faculty ambassador system for the entries. Each entry would have a faculty ambassador – the official name for the position is still up in the air, Sandstrom said – who would organize a couple of activities per semester for the entry.

“It would be a different context for students to make connections amongst themselves,” Sandstrom said. “It would also give the JAs a little downtime each semester. They could use that extra time to get support from campus resources or meet up with other JAs.” Sandstrom also added that, ideally, the JAs would be able to choose their entry’s faculty ambassador.

The concept of a faculty ambassador could aid in another issue the CUL has recently taken up: intellectualism at the College. “Intellectual life at Williams happens between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” Sandstrom said. “Having the opportunity for intellectual exchange, perhaps with the scaffolding of a faculty member, could be beneficial” in extending those hours of intellectual conversation.

Looking more at the JA system, the CUL is likely to recommend increased attention from JAAB in pairing JAs. Sandstrom cited several responses from the survey in which students said they had trouble connecting with their JAs.

“You may have a JA pair that likes each other, but they may have trouble connecting to the whole entry,” Sandstrom said. “The pair needs to be a complementary duo for the students in the entry.” As it now stands, JAAB members generate the pairs using top-five rankings from each incoming JA, developed over the course of a lengthy “dating” process.

Sandstrom recognizes, however, that sometimes a student just won’t connect with either of his or her JAs, and she said the CUL will advocate for an open-door policy for all the JAs, including publishing biographical information about them for all first-years to see. “That way, when a first-year student doesn’t connect with his JA, he may find another JA from a different entry to connect with,” Sandstrom explained. She said that for students who enter the College without a group to immediately join – a sport, for example – it might be hard to meet many upperclassmen. “Having an open-door policy for talking to other JA upperclassmen would be beneficial,” she said.

The CUL has also discussed ways in which to encourage JAs to reach out for more support from campus resources. “We’re interested in recommending more walk-in hours that JAs can use to talk to [Director of Health Services] Ruth Harrison, mental health counselors and RASAN members, for example, without having to make an appointment,” Sandstrom said. “This might help with issues [in the entry] that simmer for a while and then explode.

“If JAs were more used to regularly seeking guidance and support, it might lighten their load,” Sandstrom added.

Along with support for JAs, the CUL has been thinking about ways to extend training for JAs beyond just the traditional fall and spring training sessions. A mandatory Winter Study retreat for JAs was held for the first time this year, and Sandstrom mentioned increasing training during the Winter Study period.

“We’ve been thinking about optional workshops that would be of interest to JAs, as well as to potential JAs and other student leaders,” Sandstrom said.

While the CUL hopes to have official recommendations to send to Bolton and JAAB by the end of the semester, Bolton herself still feels she has much to learn about first-year residential life at the College. “I’d like to see an ongoing conversation about how we can do the very best at the dual goals of first-year residential life – building community and supporting each of our students as individuals in their transition to college,” she said.

Bolton also joined last week’s College Council meeting for a discussion on the entry system, and she plans to meet with the new Minority Coalition leadership in the near future.

“I think we’ll be deep in these conversations well into the fall because it is so important to be sure all the voices are fully heard,” Bolton said.