This Halloween, students in Silliman College can expect the return of a special, but long-gone tradition: their new Head of College, psychology professor Laurie Santos, has promised to set up a haunted house that will not disappoint.
“I’m a huge Halloween aficionado,” Santos told the News, adding, with a smile, that she has already started planning for a “lit” weekend of festivities.
Santos’s enthusiasm for this coming Halloween starkly contrasts the hostile atmosphere that surrounded Silliman the same time last year, when former Associate Head of College Erika Christakis sent out an email criticizing the Yale administration’s oversensitivity to culturally appropriative Halloween costumes. In the same courtyard that Silliman freshmen now know as home, students chalked, shouted, cried and despaired last year at former Head of College Nicholas Christakis, Erika Christakis’ husband, over his handling of her email and the ensuing student response. Some students said Silliman no longer felt safe to them, threatening to live off campus or transfer to other residential colleges. Morale was low and the college spirit was fractured.
When Nicholas Christakis announced at the end of May that he was resigning from his post, many wondered who would be willing to take the reins after an especially difficult and tumultuous year in Silliman.
Enter Santos, whose appointment was announced June 16 and who has vowed to bring a sense of wellness back to the college in her new role.
“I just want to make everyone in this community love this place in the way that I already do,” Santos told the News, explaining that she felt a particularly strong connection to the college long before she was contacted for the position. “This sounds cheesy, but I hope we can be the community that everyone adores, a place where people would hate to move off campus because they can’t imagine living outside of Silliman.”
Santos first learned about Silliman when she was earning her psychology Ph.D. at Harvard University — her roommate at the time had been a proud and spirited Sillimander during her undergraduate years, and told Santos all about the camaraderie and exciting events that took place in the college. Santos was awed by the pride that her friend exuded, which soon “rubbed off” on her and led her to picture Silliman as a distinct community.
Santos acknowledged that it has been challenging to steer the college out of last year’s disarray, but said the Silliman spirit has always been strong throughout history, and that she is confident the college will move past the anomalies of the past year. To help rebuild the sense of community, Santos said her programming this year will focus on wellness. This can come in the form of meditation sessions, Zumba classes and other activities that promote both physical and spiritual wellness, she said.
“I think given what happened last year, students just need some time to have some fun in Silliman,” Santos said. “One of my goals [for the college] is to build a community that everyone can call home.”
She added that her psychology background and acquaintance with both the science and practice of wellness will help her achieve that goal. Besides teaching courses in the Psychology Department, Santos also serves as director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory, which includes the Canine Cognition Center at Yale. Though her new role in Silliman means she will have less time to teach classes and conduct research, Santos said, she is excited to bring her psychology training into practice with students in her college.
“I’m aware of all the subtle influences that make spaces and conversations feel not inclusive. I’m familiar with the work on stereotype threats. I know how environment shapes these subtle feelings of not belonging,” Santos said. Her hope is to change the dynamics in Silliman by representing more diverse identities in the Silliman Tea series and other programming, as well as by partnering more frequently with the cultural centers.
Eight Silliman students interviewed all spoke positively of Santos’ presence in the college. Many described her as warm, friendly, outgoing, energetic and open.
“Last year, I felt like the head of college was here, but he was not really part of the community,” said Emma Pred-Sosa ’19, who works as an aide in the Silliman Head of College Office. “This year, it feels like Head of College Santos is a leader in the community.”
Lucas Mobley ’20 said he met Santos on his second day at Yale during a college reception. Before he could even introduce himself, Mobley said Santos knew his name “right off the bat.”
Three seniors who have lived in Silliman under three different masters and heads of colleges said they particularly felt Santos’ enthusiasm and openness. Melia Bernal ’17 said Santos has, quite literally, opened her living room and kitchen to students looking to relax and bake.
“There’s a great vibe in Silliman these days. Laurie exudes a warm, compassionate intelligence, as does her husband, Mark,” Silliman College Dean Jessie Hill said, adding that the Head of College House has been christened “HoC Nest” by the students. “It can be a challenge to make Silliman feel small and inclusive given how physically large the college is. Laurie gets this intuitively. She’s wired for it.”
Silliman was named after another scientist, Benjamin Silliman, class of 1796, who was among the first American professors of science.