Pilot Program Connects First-Years with Staff and Faculty
Issue   |   Wed, 09/16/2015 - 01:28

This year some first-year students will have a new chance to engage in in-depth conversations with faculty and staff outside the classroom.

Half of this semester’s first-year seminars started a pilot program that created “teams.” The professor and students of each seminar in the program were matched to two or three college staff members, forming a team.

Teams are scheduled to meet about five times a semester for casual dinners and personal discussions facilitated by the faculty and staff. All meetings are voluntary for students, and faculty can choose the number and content of the meetings. The other half of the first-year seminars will not form teams, retaining the same format as previous years.

Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Austin Sarat, who was responsible for leading the implementation of the program, described it as “an effort to extend the first-year orientation through the first semester.” The intent of the program is to help first-year students share their personal experiences and difficulties, as well as receive the support of a cohesive group of peers and facilitators.

“The team approach intends to nurture and cultivate the idea that the first-year seminar can be a gateway to the college experience,” Sarat said. He also said that insufficient support for first-year students after orientation and the negative impact this can have on their academics were problems that teams were formed to mitigate.

Teams were first unofficially formed in fall 2014, when Sarat invited Dean of Students Alex Vasquez, Director of the Career Center Ursula Olender and Director of Counseling Center Jackie Alvarez to form a team with the students in his seminar.

“It was really comforting to have a team of faculty members that took such great interest in helping with my college transition,” said Sophia Salazar ’18, a student in Sarat’s seminar last year. “It was nice to know that some of the feelings I once felt during the first few months of college were shared and validated by the experiences of fellow peers and even, at times, by college faculty.”

Sarat’s team met throughout the semester, and after the first-year seminar ended, Sarat began working on expanding the program to include more seminars and create more teams. He met with Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein and President Biddy Martin to discuss a potential pilot program. They formed a committee comprising Sarat, members of the Office of Student Affairs and the staff from the original team. The committee met during winter break to decide how to implement the program on a larger scale.

In February, the committee sent invitations for the pilot program to faculty teaching first-year seminars, and half of them accepted the offer. While the initial plan for the pilot called for only five teams, Dean of Students Alex Vasquez said that the unexpected enthusiasm from the faculty members caused the program to be expanded to half of all seminars. In March, an invitation to the program was sent out to staff, and 80 of them agreed to participate. Once the committee had a roster of participants, they held a meeting with all the faculty and staff involved to discuss the pilot. Vasquez said that reaching out to a widely representative group of faculty and staff on campus was a priority of the program.

“It’s about having first-year students connect with other members of the community to advise them, to mentor them, to support them and give them more access to resources,” Vasquez said.

The main goal of the program, however, is to make effective use of the facilitated personal discussions.

“It’s less about the provision of expert knowledge than it is providing a setting in which a group of students can talk about adjustment issues, the sense of whether they belong, the stress of academic work, the balancing that we all have to do,” Sarat said.

Details of the program, such as the logistics of team meetings and whether the program will be implemented in all first-year seminars, are set for discussion at the end of this semester.

“I believe that we educate not just minds, but people with minds,” Sarat said. “I have a deep and fundamental commitment to the idea that Amherst can be not only a rigorous, but also a humane community.”