JA Confidential #3: “I had no idea what kind of effort it took”

Editors Note: Although everybody has a Junior Advisor as a freshman at Williams, very few people actually know what it is like to be one. To that end, the Williams Alternative presents “JA Confidential”–a series of off-the-record conversations with current JAs about life at Williams as a Junior Advisor.

Williams Alternative: You’ve been a JA for three months now, in what ways, speaking generally, has your approach to JA-ing changed? What were your strategies at the beginning, and what are they now?

Junior Advisor: I think I probably started off a little too involved in the entry. It just wasn’t a very sustainable approach. Once work and other obligations started picking up after the first few weeks of school, I really wasn’t able to be around or as accessible as much as I was at the beginning of the year, so in that sense I’ve definitely toned down my involvement in the entry and taken a step back.

WA: If it weren’t for work and other obligations as you say, do you think you would have maintained the same level of involvement, or is the new level perhaps more beneficial for the entry?

JA: I think my involvement in the entry would have decreased regardless, although not as quickly. I like to think that being less involved is a good thing regarding the entry. I think there’s an important line to walk as a JA. My job is to create a sense of identity in the entry that frosh can latch on to and call their own but also not to create an identity that’s too strong or pervasive that it takes away from the other important aspects of student life at Williams.

WA: How do you go about finding that line? Is it mostly daily trial and error, kind of just feeling it out, or is it something that you and your co can actively try to set and establish?

JA: I think it’s a bit of both. My co and I had a basic idea of what our entry dynamic would be although things like that can only go so far. I’ve found that entries really rely on the frosh, their expectations and how they interact. So in that sense finding the right balance has happened on a much more day to day basis in our reactions as JAs to our frosh.

WA: If the entry relies on the frosh, what do you do if there’s an issue among them that’s preventing the entry from being what you think it could or should be? How do you take back “control” I guess?

JA: I can’t speak for all entries but what I’ve found is that the biggest issues usually involve one or a small group of frosh acting in a way that isn’t conducive to a healthy experience for the rest of the entry. In those cases the best way to make sure that the entry doesn’t get out of control is to talk to the individuals one-on-one, to try to figure out what’s causing friction in the entry. Although we haven’t had many issues in my entry I think these measures only go so far and I think a tough reality to face is that sometimes entries aren’t always super successful. Whether it be a lack of compatibility from the frosh to frosh relationships or the frosh to JA relationship, it’s just not guaranteed that a random group of strangers will click as well as some entries seem to.

WA: What do you do if the entry doesn’t get along as well as you might like, and do you think it’s important for entries to be family-like environments?

JA: The best thing, I’ve found, when things don’t seem to be going as well as I’d like them to be is to create opportunities for frosh to bond. For example, entry dinners or outings. These things help bring together frosh who want to be around each other without forcing those who don’t want to be involved to do things they’d rather not be a part of. I do think that in the ideal situation an entry is a family-like environment, it’s definitely how I’d describe my entry freshman year and something I hope at least some of my frosh can say by the end of this year. It’s really cool to be able to create a space that frosh, who are far from their family and high school friends, can call home. I think the entry as a home can help serve as a foundation that the frosh can build off of when creating the experience they want to have at Williams.

WA: Do you think either part of that can be alienating for freshmen? Either that they want to participate in the entry activities, but feel like they can’t for whatever reason, or that they might be in a non-familial entry and feel left out if the entry right next door gets along great?

JA: Yeah, I think there are definitely scenarios that can be alienating for freshmen including both of those. As a JA I try my best to be aware of frosh that aren’t involved in entry activities for an extended period of time, and to check in on them, one-on-one, in order to get a better understanding of why they don’t feel like they can or would like to be involved. Sometimes frosh just don’t want to talk about it or don’t feel like they want to participate in the entry and I respect that, too.

It’s tough to compare the closeness of entries but there are definitely differences and the frosh do take notice of them. I think it’s important to keep in perspective the idea that the entry system is by no means uniform. Each group of people will foster different environments that fall on a pretty large spectrum – understanding this and not constantly looking at other entries as a reference point can be difficult but beneficial. I also think that entries that are extremely close and familial can alienate entry members that don’t feel like they want to be as involved, which creates a dynamic that can be as unhealthy as an entry that doesn’t get along.

WA: In terms of not comparing, is that true for being a JA too? How do you and your co keep your blinders on when JAs inevitably discuss their entries around the water cooler, and perhaps not always truthfully?

JA: The same definitely applies for being a JA, my co and I have had conversations about how other JAs have been running their entries and whether or not there are certain things we should do to follow suit, but in the end we usually agree that the way we have been doing things is what works best for us and shouldn’t be deviated from too greatly. The toughest moments usually come when frosh approach us as JAs and say things (that, as you said, may or may not be truthful) like, “x entry did this last weekend, when are going to do that?” or “x and y JAs do this in their entry, why don’t we?” We try to stress that every entry is different but sometimes the message isn’t completely received.

WA: Do you think there’s a difference in the way JAs perceive the entry, and the way frosh do?

JA: Definitely. I think that JAs in general have a much more similar understanding of the entry because of the training and time we’ve spent together discussing the JA and entry system since JA dating last spring. As a JA, I see the entry as my responsibility to an extent. It’s a fun place to hang out and develop relationships but it’s also a place that I directly influence and because of that I need to be a bit on my toes at all times. As for the frosh, I think because they all come from different backgrounds and had different expectations coming to Williams, their perceptions of the entry are much more diverse. As far as I can tell some see it as an essential part of their freshman year lives and for others it isn’t much more than the place they were assigned to live.

WA: Does it bother you at all that you invest so much into it, and then maybe some of the frosh don’t really understand?

JA: It was pretty frustrating at first, especially during first days when our lives are pretty much devoted to the frosh, to see some that weren’t responsive to what we were trying to do for them. As the year has progressed I’ve gained some perspective and understanding though. It wouldn’t be fair to expect the frosh to fully understand everything that we do as JAs because I know that as a frosh I had no idea what kind of effort it took for my JAs to be as good as they were.

WA: Great, one last question: Any message you want us to pass along to your co?

JA: Just a huge thank you. I thank my co a lot for being so great but it really can’t be said enough.

WA: We’ll relay that, thanks for sitting down with us.

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