In a forum with the VSA on Oct. 22, President Bradley discussed ideas for potential changes to the Residential Life system that were met with great resistance from students. Bradley’s primary motivation for this proposal was to encourage dorm communities to take better care of themselves. Two aspects of her proposal were converting the student fellow position to a paid job and expanding House Team roles to include more juniors and seniors. These plans did not originate with Bradley, as she mentioned having discussed these changes with former Director of Residential Life Luis Inoa before his departure from Vassar (The Miscellany News, “VSA Senate Forum with President Bradley,” 10.27.2017).
The student fellow system is a point of pride for many Vassar students and Residential Life staff members, and although there are certainly issues with the structure of the program, we feel it has been largely successful in providing first-year students with support and second-year students with an opportunity to mentor their peers. While these changes to the Residential Life system are still under discussion, we at The Miscellany News feel compelled to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the current system and how it can be changed while still preserving the aspects that enhance and foster positive student experiences.
One of President Bradley’s suggestion that sparked the most student opposition was making the student fellow position available to juniors and seniors instead of sophomores. Just one day after the forum, a petition was created by students urging Bradley to keep the position open primarily to sophomores. At the time of publication there were over 700 signatures (Hallie Carton, “Save Sophomore Student Fellows,” Change.org), which speaks to how much students value the perspective that sophomores offer in this mentoring position.
As student fellows, sophomores will have recently completed their first year at Vassar, so they can easily recall and relate to the homesickness, loneliness and other issues that first-year students often encounter. Because they are usually close in age to first-years, they might seem like a more accessible resource than an older student would. While junior and senior students could bring more leadership and life experience into the student fellow role, they might not seem as approachable when fellowees need to reach out for support. Another reason why sophomore student fellows are seen as valuable is that they and their fellowees will continue on at Vassar for three more years together. Upperclassmen student fellows may have more experience at Vassar from which to draw, but, should they become student fellows, they will unfortunately graduate one or two years after getting to know their fellowees, severing this bond. By contrast, since sophomores hold these positions, first-years can establish strong and continuous relationships with their student fellows that span at least three years at Vassar.
Additionally, most juniors and seniors may not want or be able to fully commit to the responsibilities of a student fellow. Many juniors go abroad for one semester, and a majority of seniors are busy working on a thesis or applying for jobs post-graduation.
These hurdles preventing upperclassmen from committing to House Team are illustrated by the apparent lack of interest among juniors and seniors in holding House Team positions. In recent years, not all of the House Student Advisor positions—which are held by juniors and seniors—were filled because there were not enough applicants. By contrast, the student fellow position is highly sought after; ResLife frequently receives far more student fellow applications than there are open positions.
While we support maintaining the current system of sophomore student fellows for the aforementioned reasons, we believe that student fellows’ pay ought to reflect the important and intense service they perform for the campus community. That said, we would hope that a monetary incentive would not be the sole reason a rising sophomore would consider becoming a student fellow. Student fellows spend vast amounts of time and emotional energy serving as a resource for their fellowees, valuable work for which they should be compensated. The House Student Advisor, a Residential Life position filled by students, is already a paid work-study position, so it follows that the student fellow position could be a paid job as well. Student fellows’ campus jobs infringe on the time they have to devote to their fellowees; if they were paid, they would not need to take on another time commitment.
Many student fellows, moreover, have commented on the lack of support they themselves receive in their roles as care providers. While at times highly rewarding, being a student fellow does require emotional energy and work. Student fellows would benefit from having a stronger, official support system, such as dedicated listeners or advisors, whether faculty members or peers.
Current and former student fellows have also expressed how much pressure they have felt to make themselves available at all hours. Setting the expectation that they are can be relied upon to address any and all issues is an added burden for some student fellows. As both students at Vassar and members of House Team, which is a larger commitment than just time spent with fellowees, student fellows carry a lot of responsibility in fostering the well-being of their fellowees. It can be difficult to manage these responsibilities and a leadership position without much support, regardless of how much the student fellow knows and cares about their first-years.
It bears mentioning that first-years, not just student fellows, are affected by the current setup of the House Team system. Orientation is a hectic and exhausting week for first-years and House Team members alike. Because of the busy schedule, there is limited time for first-years to spend orienting themselves physically and socially on campus. While student fellows are prepared and excited for this time of the year, first-years are often overwhelmed by the rigor of the schedule. Fellow groups are led by their eager student fellows throughout most of the first week’s activities, including meals, and there is no liberty for first-years to choose how they spend their time and energy.
Amidst all the meetings and scheduled events, it is often difficult for students to meet people outside their own fellow groups. Bonding within the group is prioritized and can be valuable for some students, but it cannot be ignored that other students feel isolated as a result of the fellow group structure, including the lack of diversity. The first week of college is a formative time for first-years, and they should have more agency and ability to form the friendships they choose, rather than those that may seem forced upon them. While we recognize and commend the extensive planning that goes into orientation and the many valuable programs offered, we feel that these must be balanced with time for individual exploration.
Every student on campus has had a student fellow, and some have also taken on roles as student fellows and other House Team officers themselves. Because decisions regarding a change to the ResLife structure heavily affect students’ experiences, students’ viewpoints and ideas should be prioritized when proposing changes to the system. At the VSA Senate forum on Oct. 22, many students expressed that their opinions and voices had not been sought out. As the College considers ideas for altering the Residential Life system, we urge the administration to thoroughly consult students with varying experiences at Vassar and with ResLife before making any decisions.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.