Reexamining the First Year Experience

By Max Schnidman ’14

The January Admission program has come under increasing scrutiny this year: in addition to its revision being a part of the First-Year Experience Committee’s report, January admits (Jans) were nearly prevented from joining Greek life in their first semester on-campus. Hamilton isn’t the only college examining this program, either: The New York Times published an article recently discussing these kinds of programs, and the disappointment they can bring to the students who are admitted through them. While that sentiment on-campus may be muted, Jans are still segregated from the wider community and from the rest of their class (The Duel Observer’s rumors of a Jan-Junior alliance are closer than many would admit). As a community, we owe it to the Jans to help integrate them into the College.

The First-Year Experience Committee report recognizes this problem, stating, “We are concerned that the structure of the current program cannot adequately introduce January admits to Hamilton’s academic standards or integrate them into the Hamilton community.” It then proceeds to discuss means to integrate them into first-year housing and the now-postponed first-year courses. The report, however, fails to discuss any long-term solutions to the Jans integration issue, and all-first year housing will not solve it.

Clustering the Jans into first year housing will not succeed at integrating them into their class or into the Hamilton community as they will be introduced into a first-year class that has already had a semester to become very tight-knit, assuming the first-year housing plan succeeds. Jans will be desperate to find a more open group, one they can more easily enter (being the one new person in a dorm midway through the year does not work; and if Residential Life clusters the Jans together, that defeats the purpose of integrating them with their larger class).

As a result, many Jans currently enter Greek life, which welcomes them with open arms and gives them a community to inhabit. This community, however, is under siege by the Administration, which recently attempted to enforce a policy that prevents Jans from joining Greek life until their second semester on-campus. Comments by Dean Thompson in conjunction with the first year report suggest that the administration believes that two weeks is too quick to decide to join Greek life, and that two weeks is not enough time to integrate in the Hamilton community.

These arguments, however, fall apart under scrutiny. First, joining Greek life and integrating into the Hamilton community are not mutually exclusive. Greek life is as much a component of the Hamilton community, as athletics or certain extracurriculars. We do not prevent students from trying out for sports or joining clubs in their first semester; why stop them from joining Greek life? Secondly, two weeks is long enough for the intuitive, “first system” of the brain (Cf. Kahneman) to make its judgment about the Hamilton community.  If the Administration takes issue with so many Jans joining Greek life, and if they accept behavioral psychology, then they must examine what in their orientation program for Jans causes them to join Greek life in large numbers. It may even be that their judgments about Hamilton are formed not long after they receive their notice of January admission, but that is a separate problem.

Underlying the issues of Jan integration and Greek life is the alcohol culture, which Greek life is considered guilty of perpetuating. If we accept that premise, then we can understand some of the College’s concern about Jans joining Greek life for the alcohol. Still, drinking is to be expected when most, if not all, Jans elect to spend the semester in the U.K., where the drinking age is 18, and social drinking is frequent and far more reasonable than the binge drinking found in the U.S. It is also expected when Greek life is the only community open to the Jans in terms of cultural compatibility and opportunity to join (all first-years join Greek life in their spring semester).

It is still possible to integrate Jans into the community. Rather than putting Jans in a community completely unlike Hamilton, both culturally and geographically, we should offer Jans the opportunity to study in the U.S., where the drinking age is 21 and the culture is closer to Hamilton’s. They could still gain a kind of abroad experience by studying in a large city (e.g. Chicago or Atlanta). The program could otherwise run in its present form, but the Jans would have more cultural ties and similar drinking experiences to the rest of their class. Jan housing, however, should not be with other first-years, as attempting to integrate them with a class that has already had a semester of relative insulation will be unfeasible. Rather, the Jans should be spread amongst upperclassmen dorms, so they can better integrate with upperclassmen who are used to people moving in and out of dorms mid-semester.

It may be better to eliminate the program in the long run if the lack of community integration proves impossible. For logistical reasons, however, the Jan program is necessary to guarantee enough space on campus in the Fall semester, though the College may want to consider development projects that render the Jan program unnecessary. We owe it to the Jans to integrate them into the community by giving them a culturally similar Fall semester in the near term, and possibly eliminating the program in the long-term. However, the status quo cannot hold.


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