Adding academic resources

Heading off to college is overwhelming for everyone. College comes with new independence, opportunities and new social possibilities. It’s all very exciting, but it often means leaving behind a strong support network. Students need to build support networks here to supplement those at home. And all across the world, deans, school administrators and faculty think about how to help students find a group of people to turn to with questions and to share their thoughts with.

Thankfully, at Williams we do that exceptionally well. The entry system is one of my very favorite things about Williams, and having an immediate group to bond and live with can ease the transition for students. We have faculty academic advisors, Junior Advisors, deans, peer tutors, teaching assistants and upperclassmen in our clubs, groups, troupes and teams who are there for us. And now, we hope to add another resource to that list: the Peer Academic Mentor.

We are rolling out an experiment for next year: creating a pilot Peer Academic Mentor program at Williams. It goes something like this: Juniors and seniors selected as mentors will work with roughly five first-year students each. They will reach out to those first-year students over the summer, have required meetings with them during First Days, midterms and pre-registration and continue those meetings in the spring.

The goal is to match Peer Academic Mentors with students who do not share their academic interests, in part because they are less focused on how to complete a major than about how to get the most from a liberal arts education as a whole. They will help first-year students think broadly across the curriculum as they make academic decisions.

The Peer Academic Mentors will be trained during sessions in the spring and fall in various aspects of the curriculum and the Williams experience. When reaching out to their first-year students, the Peer Academic Mentors will focus first on the general academic climate and strategies for navigating Williams. They will talk about things like participating in class and explain that your professors actually want you to come to their office hours. They will also discuss some specifics of the curriculum, like how tutorials and preregistration work. The Peer Academic Mentor will want to talk about balancing your new life as a Williams student, with the extracurricular activities, athletics and academics. Thankfully these students will have had several years of experience to pass on!

The Peer Academic Mentor will also talk about academic resources and help connect first-year students to the multitude of helpful and accessible resources we have here. We want to make it clear that students don’t reach out to those resources when they have a “problem,” but that engaging with other students and getting peer feedback is an essential part of being a successful student. It would be nice if everyone realized that, especially since students are often overwhelmed when finally connected to a helpful resource, and that is sad. We have to advertise a little better, and this is a great vehicle to do it.

These meetings will also afford the first-year student more opportunities to articulate why they are making their academic decisions. They will allow the advisor to challenge and guide first-year students – encouraging them to branch out and take classes they are really interested and excited by, instead of just what their friends or entrymates are taking. We only have 32 courses in our Williams career, and it’s always great to check in and make sure you are choosing courses well, since there are so many great ones to choose from.

The Peer Academic Mentor will be a complementary voice to the many fabulous resources available to first year students, especially the faculty academic advisors and Junior Advisors. They will reach out and try to create a supportive team with the faculty advisor of their first-year students and enrich the support he or she receives.
Again, this is an experiment. We will implement this on a small scale next year, and we’ll get plenty of feedback to see what works well, what is lacking and if this is a program worthy of the College’s resources. Then we may expand the program in the future when, hopefully, we have worked some kinks out and gained some valuable insight from the pilot program.

Cadence Hardenbergh ’11 is a political science and Chinese major from Sudbery, Mass. She lives on Spring Street.