Student fellow role engenders unexpected growth, rewards

Hoffmann poses as some of her fellowees pop out from behind. Left to right: Quincy Dossett ’22, Emma Iadanza ’22, Ayo Opuiyo ’22, Olivia Stevens ’22, Ciara O’Donnell ’22, Lucy Postal ’22. Courtesy of Tammy Wang.

Most of us realize that helping others feels nice. Certainly this isn’t the first thing a philanthropist will tell you, but it’s still noteworthy. This week, while talking to my dear friend and ex-roommate Samantha Steeves ’21 (a student fellow in Joss), I came to a stunning realization: Student fellows aren’t just saints who agree to shepherd a group of first-years through the many stresses of beginning college. In fact, the training they receive makes a lasting impact on how they manage their own lives.

To better understand this phenomenon, I launched an investigation, starting with Steeves. On a sunny afternoon, we stayed inside to talk about her illustrious job. She regaled me with tales of her first days as a StuFel, saying, “Training was filled with very many long, hot, cockroach-infested days. I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself in the process. Before we even learned what a student fellow was, we went through student fellow retreat, and basically during those two days we didn’t even talk about helping another person; all we talked about was how to help ourselves first. That was my biggest takeaway from the whole training experience.”

I caught up with another StuFel via email. Melissa Hoffmann ’21, who lives in Strong, took a similar view of the student fellow retreat. She noted, “We talked about vulnerability, curiosity and openness. It was quite the spiritual journey. We were on campus, but focused on the mindful part of being a student fellow.” Hoffmann also informed me of some of the concepts that they discussed during the retreat, like respecting silence and moving beyond one’s comfort zone.

Training helped Steeves learn to prioritize support over problem-solving. “When someone comes to me with a problem, I certainly want to jump in with a list of solutions. But that’s not always the best course of action,” she explained. Agreeing with this sentiment, Jewett student fellow Ziggy Robles ’21 touched on the less exciting aspects of training, saying, “I expected it to be a little bit more hands-on, but it was a lot of lectures and hours and hours of just sitting at the table and listening to people tell you about the resources available at Vassar. They could’ve just given us a packet and we would’ve been fine and done with it.” Even so, he found training en- riching overall: “The biggest takeaway from the entire thing was bonding with my house team. We were miserable together, we were having fun together, we were doing activities together. It was fun, and I would definitely do it again.”

All three shared that being a student fellow allows them to grow in unexpected ways. Hoffmann expressed a difference in how she perceives herself now, saying, “I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want the role I play in my fellowees’ lives to be and how I can do the most to support them. I think being a first line of support for nine students has really helped me contextualize my place in the universe. Right now, I feel like my life is pretty meaningful and that’s pretty rad.”

Sharing this new perspective, Steeves told me that her role has somewhat altered her thought process. “Knowing that there are people who I’m responsible for and who are coming to me shapes how I do things, how I talk about things and how I react to things, because I think about what I would want my student fellow to do and what would be helpful for me. That’s a kind of a new thought that passes through my head nowadays,” she said, gesturing with a flourish toward her head, perhaps to indicate the changed neural pathways.

My other intrepid interviewees experienced adventures no less life-changing. Hoffmann wove a woeful tale: Two fellowees asked her to help remove a centipede from their room, and she managed to remove the offending critter and reassure them that all would be well in the fullness of time. She said of the ordeal, “It was arguably one of the most transformative experi- ences of my StuFel career so far.”

My interviewees also shared incredibly heartwarming anecdotes. Steeves described the last day of Orientation, when her fellowees spontaneously gathered to support one of their peers in a track meet and helped him win the race. Robles’ fellowees threw him a surprise birthday party last week. Hoffmann shared an equally wholesome happening: “During the Arlington Amble, my group went to a flower shop, and we all got free ones. Unexpectedly, one of my fellowees broke off her flower and put it in my hair. It absolutely made my day.”

Finally, I asked each student fellow to share a piece of advice. Robles imparted the following wisdom: “My advice to first-years is definitely just to relax. Everything is going to take its course. Be your best self. Always understand that your best self is learning from everything around you, adapting to everything around you and understanding that other people around you have stories.”

In a similar vein, Steeves said to me and also to the general public, “Just keep going. I know everything seems overwhelming, especially when you’re just starting a huge transition, but things will work out.”

Hoffmann offered a tip for any future student fellows out there: “Please don’t call your fellowees kids. They are adults, and probably smarter/cooler than you; all of mine are.”

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