Expanding First Days

May 6, 2015 by David Kane

For decades, the College has sought, somewhat unsuccessfully, to mold student character and to improve the campus community. The College would prefer that students drink less (and especially less to excess);  that students be more intellectual, spending more time outside of class on great books and less time on Netflix; that students be kinder to each other, especially to those most outside the mainstream of College life; and that students be more involved in the community, more likely to volunteer at the local elementary school or retirement home. How can the College make its students more sober, intellectual, kind and charitable (than they already are)? Simple: Expand the First Days program into First Month, and focus that month on character development and community commitment.

Shaping character and nurturing community are difficult problems, so we should look for inspiration to those with a track record of success. The most relevant examples are military and religious organizations like the Marine Corps and the Mormon Church. What lessons do they have for us?

First: Start early. The reason that service in the Marine Corps begins with a 13-week boot camp is that the best time to change the perceptions of 18-year-olds is at the start of their enlistments. In boot camp, Marine recruits are cut off from the world they knew before, presented with a new set of community standards for what is best and challenged to live up to those standards. The College will have much more success in changing the values and choices of first-years in August than it ever will in altering those of  juniors and seniors.

Second: Separate. Many new Ephs drank too much in high school. We want them to (want to) drink less at the College. We need to distance them from their old habits, their old friends and routines. A First Month program, starting in early August, provides just such an opportunity. The reason that Mormons, and most other religious groups, favor retreats is that a departure from the secular allows the sacred to flourish.  During First Month, athletes won’t practice with their sports teams, they will play pick-up games with their classmates. The first and most important commitment that new Ephs make is to their class. They are purple first.

Third: Introduce. Every student in each of the first-year dorms will have at least one meal with each resident of his dorm. All students will learn the names of at least half of their classmates by playing all the wonderfully awkward name-learning games common to religious retreats. The more that students are introduced to their classmates, slowly and repeatedly, over many hours, days and weeks, the less likely that any individual is to end up isolated from the College and detached from the Ephs around him. For most Ephs, the College community is as tight-knit as it could be. They always have someone to sit with when they go to the dining hall on their own. But for hundreds of students, often students from non-traditional backgrounds or with non-mainstream interests, the College fails. Rescuing those students, enmeshing them completely in a network of friends and friendly acquaintances, would change their experience at the College from bearable to wonderful.

Fourth: Inspire. The best way to convince teenagers that Behavior X is cool is to surround them with slightly older Ephs whom they admire and who, by word and deed, illustrate that X is cool. The fewer sports captains and Junior Advisors (JAs) who are heavy drinkers, the fewer first-years who will follow in their footsteps. During First Month, every activity is designed to model the behavior that we want to see more of among students at the College. On Day Two, everyone reads one of Plato’s dialogues and discusses it at lunch and dinner at a small table with a faculty member. On Day Six, everyone spends a day on community service – anything from cleaning up trash along the banks of the Green River to talking with residents at Sweetwood. On Day 10, everyone hikes up Pine Cobble. All of these events are led by the very best people – students, faculty, staff and local residents – at the College.

Fifth: Integrate. First-years come from many different backgrounds. The best way to make these new Ephs comfortable with each other is to have them spend as much time with each other as possible, especially in situations that make their differences less important than their commonalities. It is impossible to stereotype members of Group Z once you have shared a tent with one on a WOOLF trip. It is difficult to be snotty to your classmates when you sounded just as ridiculous as they did while all learning “The Mountains” together.

Doesn’t much of this happen during First Days already? Of course! But not nearly enough. My suggestion: Expand the current First Days to two weeks this August. If, for some reason, the change fails, then we can always revert back to the traditional format. But if the College is really serious about making its students more sober, intellectual, kind and charitable, then it ought to devote the month of August during their first years to that project.

David Kane ’88 lives in Newton, Mass. He taught ECON 20: Quantitative Equity Analysis this past January.

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