“When you arrive on campus for your first term at Yale, many people will be ready and willing to offer advice about your academic choices,” claims Yale on its freshmen Web site which cites residential college deans, freshman faculty advisors, and freshman counselors. It wasn’t kidding — there were countless meetings with frocos, advisors, and heads of special departmental programs for the premeds, bluebooking sessions run by different organizations, even a handbook with a schedule and map for the first week.
After this honeymoon period, however, it became very clear to me that I was on my own.
In fact, as my freshmen advisor signed my schedule he said, “See you in January,” implying that we probably would not speak again until I had to choose courses next semester. This lack of a meaningful relationship between freshmen and their advisors has significant consequences. For example, it leaves us without anyone with whom to candidly discuss grades. While this might seem trivial, when I was trying to decide whether to keep my class Credit/D/Fail (something I had chosen to do at the suggestion of my advisor) or switch it to a letter grade, I had no one to turn to. After all, I didn’t want to talk it over with the few friends I had made in the first month — discussing my grades just seemed awkward.
I also had no idea what constituted a “good” grade here. Was it anything above a B because one of my professors curved the average to a B-? Or, rather, is it something in the A range? My quick Internet search suggested that the average Yale GPA hovered above 3.6.
Perhaps freshmen need the most help in something that seems far simpler than choosing courses, figuring out how to take care of a drunk roommate, or the grading system: learning to navigate the bureaucracy of Yale.
What, for instance, should one do if she has a window that won’t shut, a heater that won’t turn on, or a wireless router that no longer works (all three happened to my suitemates in the first semester)? More importantly, freshmen should be told that preregistering does not mean they get into a class, even if it is English and they have 12 different sections. Or that, in contrast, the Spanish department runs the same class at the same time in simultaneous locations so that while they might not be able to be in the class with the professor with the highest OCI rating, freshmen will be able to fulfill their Spanish requirement in whichever semester they desire.
Such small details have large implications. Knowing that petitioning in the English Department is on first-come first-serve means you might be able to get into the English class after all (if you’re willing to wake up at seven).
Furthermore, the ability student’s have to make full use of resources at Yale — whether or not they are even aware of them in the first place — is often determined by their ability to figure out paperwork. For instance, in order to use a residential college writing tutor, an appointment must often be made through the Web site a week in advance.
Additionally, freshmen often miss the very rigid deadlines to preregister or withdraw because there is no clear way to remind them. While this affects all undergraduates, freshmen are likely to suffer most because they are least accustomed to such an unforgiving system. Admittedly, some deadlines are mentioned on residential college Web sites and in deans’ notes, but the details included and number of deadlines mentioned in these publications varies widely. Consequently, students in colleges with very current Web sites and active deans are systematically benefited (I, for one, often find out about deadlines from friends in Timothy Dwight because their dean e-mails reminders about things especially pertinent to freshmen).
Yale should change its advising system to give freshmen more information about the inner workings of the University and contacts with whom they can speak candidly about academic issues. While the latter might require a more substantive change, the former would not be difficult at all. It would take a seminar — akin to the three about sex, drugs and alcohol — and, perhaps, weekly e-mail reminders from the Dean of Freshman Affairs about upcoming deadlines. It’s not that freshmen should be babied; perhaps they just need someone to set them in the right direction.
Sarah Nutman is a freshman in Trumbull College.