2018 marks the eightieth anniversary of the first-year counselor program — perhaps the crown jewel in Yale’s advising framework. But unknown to most students, internal discussion has been rife about recent and future changes to first-year orientation and programming. One of the more radical proposals has been mandatory pre-orientation programs for the entire first-year class — an idea which has, for now, been shelved.
Just within the career of the Class of 2018, Camp Yale has experienced what we might term “mission creep,” as the number of planned activities has extended to include elements like a community values exercise, a wellness panel and a Welcome to New Haven talk. Meanwhile, we have curtailed the scope of faculty and peer advising.
The anniversary of the FroCo program offers us an opportunity to re-evaluate this trajectory. Instead of rushing to program, as other colleges have done, we might find that the best way to enhance the first-year experience lies in Yale’s traditional strength of peer and faculty advising.
Programming codifies and centralizes the production of institutional knowledge; advising acknowledges the pluralism of expertise and the contingencies of local experience. Programming is a trawling net that drags everyone along; advising is a trampoline that catches students when they fall but also enables them to rebound. Programming inspires cynicism and indifference; even the most indifferent and cynical advising can leave a trace of inspiration.
So how can we strengthen Yale’s first-year advising framework, while curbing the trend toward overprogramming?
First, we can reverse changes made to the advising framework last fall, pursuant to the report of the Committee on Advising, Placement and Enrollment. Among other things, the committee recommended that FroCos no longer sign first-year schedules, and that first-year advisers merely attest that a meeting transpired. It seems inevitable that schedules will one day be processed digitally.
While these recommendations were well-intended, their rollout had inadvertent effects. A signature may be inconvenient to obtain, but our culture regards its materiality as the foremost expression of trust and accountability. It’s important for FroCos and first-year advisers to discuss their students’ holistic development at Yale, but we cannot allow the task of looking over a schedule to fall solely to the overworked residential college deans. Crafting a schedule is not just about compliance with the academic regulations; it is an opportunity to invite students to ask animating questions about their course of study. We do students a disservice by minimizing its importance.
Second, we must do more to recognize the best faculty advisers in Yale College. In a research university, service will always be secondary to scholarship in tenure and promotion decisions. But we can find ways to celebrate our best faculty advisers, most obviously through a system of awards similar to the one for teaching prizes. While this will not fully capture the time and emotional labor faculty advisers invest, it will at least signal our appreciation for their work.
Third, we must bring the intellectual enterprise to bear on student administration. Too much of student life programming relies on broad platitudes, rather than evidence-based research from the social sciences or deep reflection in the humanistic disciplines. For a start, residential college heads could institute summer reading lists and discussion groups for incoming students — as at peer institutions like Stanford, Duke and Princeton — which would help frame college as an opportunity to connect lived experience with academic inquiry.
Finally, we must provide better support for FroCos. At the moment, there is no contingency plan when FroCo-to-first-year ratios fall below typical levels due to extenuating circumstances. Moreover, an ongoing review of FroCo workload and compensation has triggered speculation that either staffing or stipends will be cut. At the end of the day, the review misses the wood for the trees. What’s critical is that FroCos’s views are listened to and taken seriously, and that they are empowered as stewards of the community rather than treated as workers in a bureaucracy. Otherwise, the Yale College Dean’s Office will find it increasingly challenging to recruit qualified students.
As I enter my last semester at Yale, I will always count excellent advisers and FroCos as some of Yale’s best gifts. Genuine, involved mentors literally changed my life. By reducing reliance on prep school networks and on the counsel of Ivy League-educated parents, high-quality advising offers our best hope of resolving inequities in the distribution of social and cultural capital among incoming students. As I sit down with my own first-year students to discuss their schedules, I know the task is not just to decide on this or that class, but to create a fairer, more accessible Yale.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .