Responding to demands by JA class, Mandel promises affinity pods, other changes to first year experience

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President Maud S. Mandel responded on Thursday to a list of demands sent by the incoming Junior Advisor (JA) class, promising affinity pods and further changes to the first year experience for JAs and the class of 2024, while rejecting two other demands. The response from Mandel closes out a week of discord between the JA class and the campus administration surrounding affinity pods and various other aspects of the first-year experience. 

Forty-nine members of the JA class sent a list of demands to Mandel, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom, Dean of First-Year Students Chris Sewell ’05 and other members of senior staff on Tuesday, following a series of group meetings and town halls in which some members of the JA class advocated strongly for the creation of affinity pods within entries.

In her response, Mandel tackled all five of the stated demands, agreeing to the majority of the proposals put forth by the JA class, including affinity pods.

 “Williams is prepared to include affinity preferences in a questionnaire to incoming students around their pod selection,” she wrote.

Issues of affinity housing have come up for years, with some Black students emphasizing the necessity of such a housing system in order to carve out places of safety and community on a predominantly white campus. Last year, the topic of affinity housing came to a head with a Black Student Union Town Hall, where the issue was strongly advocated for in an event attended by members of the student body, faculty, and staff. 

In the email sent to Mandel and members of senior staff, a majority of the JA class put forth a series of demands that they saw as essential for the incoming class’ first-year experience amidst the pandemic. 

“We write this letter not to speak for the entire JA class, but to express acute grievances, requests, and worries that we believe you must address before July 10,” the email read. 

The JAs argued that affinity spaces would help alleviate what they saw as a potentially isolating experience for first-year students of marginalized identities, given the College’s adoption of a “pod” system within the traditional entry structure this fall. JAs also asked administrators to clarify what their roles would be in this reimagined entry system, as the July 10 enrollment deadline grew closer.

“Given the world we’re in, there have been a lot of questions, especially from the JAs, about what the first-year experience will look like [and], what JA responsibilities will look like given that this year will have unprecedented pressures on the entry system and the first- year experience generally,” Jonah Martinez Goldstein ’22, a JA, said.

“A majority of JAs wanted to reach out to admin to get clarification on some points, to make sure everyone was on the same page, and just to ensure that the first-year experience was safeguarded and that it can be as rich and accessible as possible,” Martinez Goldstein added.

The letter echoed sentiments raised by Martinez Goldstein. “Due to the urgency of these issues, there is a real potential for harm to both first-years and JAs should this letter be ignored,” it continued. “What follows are the minimum standards necessary for the safety and comfort of this JA class. These must be met in order to support our well-being as JAs and that of our first-years.”

The letter alleged that, with the enrollment deadline nearing, the campus administration had been inadequately communicative with the JA class about what the first-year experience would look like and what the JAs’ role would be in that process.

The letter listed five demands that it sought to see the College accommodate and set a deadline for the administration’s response. These demands included affinity spaces for incoming first-year students, a clearly delineated process for first-year students to leave their pods if they felt unsafe, permission for JAs to bring sophomore, junior, and senior students of their choosing into first year housing, an extended timeline for enrollment and more direct lines of communication between the JA class and administration.

While agreeing to uphold JAs’ request for affinity pods, Mandel noted that these preferences would not be the sole factor in pod composition and that administrators would still have to confer with the College’s legal counsel when finalizing the questions that would make up this year’s housing questionnaire.

In response to the JAs’ concerns about potential intra-pod safety issues, Mandel also stressed that the College would provide temporary housing assignments for students going through the appeals process. 

“We don’t want our students feeling trapped in an unsafe situation,” she wrote.

Additionally, Mandel assured the JA class that Sewell and the Junior Advisor Advisory Board (JAAB) would devise “the best governance system possible in order to bring in [JA] voices and ideas.” 

“We definitely want to hear what you have to say,” Mandel said.

The College was less receptive to the other two demands put forth by the incoming JA class. In their original letter, members of the JA class requested that JAs either be allowed to pull non-JA students into their entry-pods or “retain a small nucleus of friends elsewhere on campus with whom [JAs] can interact without masks or social distancing.” 

While Mandel was open to the idea of allowing JAs to pull other students into their pods, she firmly rejected the possibility of allowing for JAs to have groups to socialize with outside of their pods that did not require mask-wearing or social distancing.

“We cannot in good conscience allow engagement outside of housing units without masks or social distancing,” Mandel wrote.

Although Mandel emphasized that there would be no financial penalty for students who change their enrollment decisions, she denied the JA class’ request to extend the enrollment deadline. Mandel dictated that the deadline would remain July 10 and that “housing…will be assigned to students who are able to inform the college of their plans by the July 10 deadline.” 

This aligns with the JAs’ request to be allowed to “retroactively change their decision about whether to return to campus beyond the July 10 deadline without financial, housing, or any other penalty.” According to Mandel’s response, the College will allow students who had previously committed to being on campus to choose another option. However, Mandel wrote, “Housing … will be assigned to students who are able to inform the college of their plans by the July 10 deadline.”

Mandel’s letter was met with tempered optimism by some members of the JA class.

“It has seemed that JAs are quite pleased with the response from admin,” Martinez Goldstein said. 

“Obviously, there are a lot of time constraints on the ability of administration and JAs to work out different concerns or problems that anyone might have identified,” he continued, “but Maud’s response was met with a mixture of relief and pride that the College is interested in working with the JAs in this way and that the JAs were able to secure clarification on these points.”

Incoming JA Jadon Cooper ’22 expressed similar sentiments about the College’s response.

“For me, I want to believe that Maud’s response is a good sign for us as JAs and for our frosh,” Cooper said. “I had very low expectations going into this in regards to administration listening to us, but the email makes it seem like they see the validity in what we want and will help implement the changes lined out.” 

“In the grand scheme of things, I feel like we’re not asking for much as a JA class,” Cooper continued. “All we want is better communication and for there to be guaranteed ways of protecting our frosh as we all try to navigate this new set-up. I doubt everything will work out perfectly, and I’m sure they won’t handle this perfectly, but this definitely feels like a confident step in the right direction.”

In seeking to maintain lines of communication between the JA class and senior staff, a committee has been formed with members of the incoming JA class, JAAB, and Sewell to facilitate communication surrounding the implementation of the pod system. Going forward, these groups are expected to meet to mold the first-year experience in the time of the coronavirus.

Editor’s Note: This article was corrected at 12:00 pm EST to reflect the fact that the JA class sought affinity pods for students of all marginalized identities, not solely students of color.