Editorial: Give student leaders the training that they need

Posted by the Editorial Board

Burned into the memory of even the most distinguished upperclassman is that feeling of quiet dread that struck upon arrival at college. No matter how far one has climbed the social ladder since then, it is impossible to forget those initial moments of freshman year in which everyone was a stranger in a strange land.

Perhaps the memory of that unpleasant blip is what prompted so many of our peers to become mentors, advisors and residential assistants to the incoming class of 2015.  With 447 students – approximately 20 percent of the student body­ – now dedicated to assisting first-years in their transition from greenhorns to proud Thoroughbreds, one would be hard-pressed to charge our college with negligence of the freshman condition.

Every year those students who take up this noble task ­– through Residential Life, SGA, peer mentoring or club leadership – arrive weeks earlier than their classmates. They are trained in those arts of counseling and guidance so that the first-years arrive to a capable crew. There is no question that some coaching is needed to equip these volunteers with the skills they need to work with struggling freshman during Pre-Orientation and First Year Experience programs. But over the past few years the nature of those training activities has taken a strange turn, and this year's schedule pushed the program's deficiencies to the forefront.

First and most troubling is that this training, meant to impart practical counseling skills, has become bogged down by so many games and mediation techniques. First the mentors and RAs try them on each other, and then when the freshmen arrive they pass the trust building onto them. These exercises range from the more standard icebreakers ("who would you bring to a desert island…") to silly diversions such as jumping around on newspaper "lily pads" to rather heavy dialogues where students are asked to share the skeletons in their closets.

So it makes sense that several peer mentors witnessed their assigned freshmen sit out these activities, or even slip away from the group altogether. It is also true that still others did enjoy them. But what the deserters understood is that the purpose of such exercises is something quite distinct from helping first years adjust to college life. Compulsory bonding, whether via "Apples to Apples" or a heart-to-heart, really does little to build genuine trust and only reduces time spent on legitimate service to the freshmen.

What might such legitimate service include? These kids have just arrived on campus, and what they want is simple. It is information: about their ID cards, or residency, or accommodations for dietary restrictions. First years are less concerned with the lily pads and secrets than they are that life will retain a structure and rhythm here at college. They would be better off with a team of ‘Skidmore experts' at their disposal rather than a troupe of well meaning but improvising mediators. And many a trainee will tell you: not only did I walk away from the emotional bits frustrated, but they didn't even shed any light on my job.

Their irritation can be justified further. Speaking to upperclassmen that participated, all estimate that over half of the schedule for the training period was devoted to the games and feelings. These are hours that student leaders could have spent in practical preparations, finalizing plans to insure the best possible experience for their incoming students. Shaving the superfluous bonding time off of the schedule would have made for a more productive, more efficient, and ultimately less cringe worthy week.

There is no reason to quarrel with the aims of training, only the heavy-handed execution. First years should certainly feel as though they have support from the upperclassmen that serve as mentors and RAs. To be frank though, those older students are not there to solve first years' problems, only to guide them toward those resources on campus that can. A week of training does not make a peer mentor a certified counselor, and while mentors are the first line of resources for first years, ultimately the troubled students must be funneled toward those best equipped to actually help them, be they at Health Services, the Counseling Center, or anywhere else. Therefore there is no need for an instituted emotional connection and every need for a clean, practical program to which the trainees can adhere.

In the current state, everyone feels ambushed: the upperclassmen dedicate day after day to drills everyone said goodbye to in high school, and do so to the detriment of their clubs and duties. Meanwhile, the freshmen are not given concrete, useful direction amidst the mandatory bonding sessions. Securing a welcome and supportive college community for those entering is, as always, a worthwhile task. But sometimes scaling back our efforts, doling out straightforward jobs and letting the campus breathe achieves what a compassionate but overbearing program never could.

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