What is a JA?

I decided to become a Junior Advisor (JA) because I loved my JAs and felt certain I would be even better than they were. Sophomore year, as I worked on my JA application, I believed that my strengths as an individual would overcome their failures as residential leaders. I would perhaps drink with my freshmen, but only in moderation. I would have the perfect entry culture, a group dynamic that allowed all first-years, whether drinkers or non-drinkers, athletes or non-athletes, first generation college students or eigth generation Williams students, to love both me and the entry as a whole.

Once I became a JA and began planning my own entry, I realized I knew little about entries other than my own. My idea of what made a good entry was almost completely in reaction to my first-year entry. I found myself confronted with challenging questions about the purpose of an entry and the role of a JA. Should a JA have any relationship to the alcohol culture in his or her entry? Should a JA supply all alcohol for his or her entry, no alcohol or something in between? Should an ideal entry be a safe space, free from challenges, or a place where first-years are confronted by backgrounds and perspectives different from their own? Should JAs encourage or discourage tough discussions about race, sexual preference and alcohol? Are they supposed to be like a parent, a friend, a sibling or something else entirely? Last year, in a Record op-ed, former JA Dan Costanza ’11 said, “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” (“In defense of the entries,” March 2, 2011). Reading this quotation, I would assume that there is some general consensus about what the entry system is and should be. But does such a consensus really exist?

I believe that having to define both my role as a JA and the purpose of an entry contributed to the mistakes I made last year. I like to think that I was a successful JA, and that my freshmen had a positive experience. But I know I was unable to create the space I had hoped for because I never came up with a clear answer to many of these questions – especially the question of a JA’s relationship to the alcohol culture in the entry.

I was also a member of the JA Selection Committee last year, and though I support the structure of the selection process, I believe the committee suffered because it collectively faced the same challenges I had faced as a JA. Each member of the committee had come up with an independent, personal definition of a good JA and used it as a criterion in choosing the next JA class. I think that this lack of consensus about the ideas of what a JA should be creates a systemic problem in entry life.

As a member of the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) this year, I analyzed the responses to the CUL survey on entry life published last year. This CUL survey showed that though the entry system has overwhelming support from the student body, some glaring deficiencies remain, particuarly regarding the relationship between entries and alcohol culture. Moreover, the survey revealed that first generation and minority students feel the least happy in and supported by their entries. These students also felt the least satisfied with the relationship between alcohol and the entry.

Faced with these survey results and general concerns about alcohol in entries, President Falk and the deans’ office must look for a solution that resolves these issues without destroying the mystical JA spirit that inspired me to love the College in the first place. To many of us, this attempt seems doomed to fail, as students independently select and advise the next group of JAs. And though part of the greatness of our system is the fact that it is completely student-run, this also poses problems. Since students see themselves as controlling the system, every move by the administration to fix the JA system has been met with intense student opposition. But in order to maintain the positive aspects of the entry system, the student body, as a whole, needs to make these changes themselves. Otherwise, I fear the administration will be forced to act and perhaps ruin a system that is so instrumental in making the College great.

I propose that the students come together to draft a written “JA Code,” which would provide a blueprint for what we as a group believe a JA should be. This blueprint would serve as a tool for students as they decide whether or not to apply to be JAs, for Selection Committee as they decide which JA-hopefuls to choose and for the JAs themselves as they come into their new role on campus.

There will be a forum discussion in Goodrich Hall on November 17th to discuss these issues. I hope that the student body will come out to help fix the system that so many of us love.

 

David Zackheim ’12 is a classics major from Fairfield, Conn. He lives in Fitch.