JA Confidential #4: “Some don’t even need you at all”

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: We’re nearing the end of fall semester, so you’re almost halfway done with being a JA. In what ways have you most changed, or matured, in these months as a result of being a JA?

Junior Advisor: I think I’ve grown to take better care of myself over the course of this semester. My frosh are wonderful and my entry is, for the most part, a whole lot of fun. However, I realized pretty early on in the year that the issues I was dealing with outside of being a JA were impacting me a lot. I don’t think any of my frosh, or even my co, are aware of the extent to which I’ve struggled (which I’m honestly relieved about), but it was very hard for me to feel satisfied with how I was as a JA if I was so dissatisfied with everything else going on. Thankfully, a few close friends encouraged me to reach out to psych services, and that has been very helpful to me. I think I’ve also learned that being a JA doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly thrown into this robotic role where you can no longer have needs because you have to only focus on the needs of your frosh and your co. In reality, I’ve realized this semester that being a JA is really about how prioritizing your own well-being first can make you a healthier person and the best JA you can be. That definitely might not be true for every JA, but I guess my newest motto is “treat yoself!”

WA: That’s a really great answer, and I have a lot of follow-ups. Firstly, were there ever times when you felt like you were being forced to choose between your own well-being and that of your frosh or co? In other words, were there ever times when you felt that those two ideas were at odds?

JA: That’s a toughie! I guess my answer to that is yes and no. Yes, I’ve had to make that choice a few times, but most of those times the pressure to choose comes from me forcing myself to make a choice rather than the situation actually forcing me to make a choice. When we’ve had crisis moments, I’ve found it very easy to ignore my own reaction to the situation and just deal with helping the frosh. In doing so, I forget to check in with myself even though we’re explicitly told during JA training to always check in with your own reactions and make sure you’re okay when a situation presents itself. I think this comes back to how I’ve matured over the semester. I’ve started to realize that my emotions and reactions are just as valid and deserving of care when I’m thrown into a scary situation.

WA: Do you think that allowing yourself to own your emotions and reactions enables you to better connect with a freshman under duress, and therefore help them, or that it gets in the way and leads to mistakes?

JA: I definitely think it’s helped me in those situations. I don’t necessarily share my own experiences with them, but by just understanding my own feelings about what they tell me, I’ve found I can better understand how to help them. Again, this is all just my own experience. For some JAs, they might feel the exact opposite. Every JA can figure out what strategies works best for them not only in dealing with stressful situations but also just in helping the entry run smoothly. There really doesn’t seem to be a right answer as long as the entry remains a comfortable space for the frosh.

WA: How do you go about making the entry a comfortable space for the frosh?

JA: My co and I just try and make the entry as welcoming as we can – we encourage attendance at entry meals and at snacks, but we understand that not everybody will want to go. The entry is a wonderful system for those who want to use it, but it definitely isn’t for everybody – and that’s totally okay. I think making frosh that don’t show up to things feel guilty for not coming can actually make those frosh feel uncomfortable and prevent them from coming to things in the future. My co and I try and shut down those kinds of comments when we hear them (like “oh, look who decided to finally show up to snacks!”). We of course want the frosh to be involved, but we’ve learned that a lack of involvement doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like you. They’ve just found their niche elsewhere, and that’s great as long as they understand the entry can always serve as a home base to them. My co and I try to make that clear.

WA: That’s a sentiment other JAs have voiced as well, but what do you do if frosh are making the entry uncomfortable for other frosh in ways more complicated than just sarcastic comments about snacks? If you have any experience with that.

JA: We honestly haven’t had too many experiences like that where a certain frosh is continuing to make the entry uncomfortable for others, now that I think about it. Most of the time it really is just a comment here or there (often not intended to sound as rude or offensive as it did), but my co and I try to shut it down as fast as we can. I think they kind of get the message that certain jokes that might be okay at home are not okay here.

WA: I guess that that’s just part of the socialization process that freshmen undergo upon arriving. Have there ever been times when a frosh has done something that’s bothered you, not just the freshmen, and if so did you handle it at all differently?

JA: That’s funny you ask that. I’m kind of in the middle of recognizing that I’m totally valid in being annoyed by certain behaviors that have been irking me over the course of the semester. I’m not sure yet how I’ll deal with them, but I think I’ve at least made the first step in recognizing that the kind of comments being made are upsetting to me (but not really the other freshmen) and I am totally right to feel that way. I guess that comes back to learning to be more welcoming to my own feelings. I don’t have to let things slide, even if I know I’m not meant to be upset by them.

WA: Do you think there’s pressure on JAs to be some type of bastion of mental health, perhaps to an unrealistic degree?

JA: I think there is to some degree, but we’re also encouraged so much by the administration, by JAAB, and by each other to take time for ourselves. I think a lot of that pressure comes from frosh, in a way. They come into college with this view of their JAs as responsible people who have their lives pretty figured out. For me at least, there’s this fear that showing them a person who is anything less than those expectations would lead them to think that I’m less capable than what their JA should be. I know this is so irrational, but I still often feel that way.

WA: I think that sounds more reasonable than you’re giving it credit for. Following that thought, I definitely viewed my JAs as some sort of beacon of having-it-together-ness. I mean, they had been at Williams for 2+ years and I had been there for a minute and a half – but would you rather your frosh view you as on a pedestal, so to speak, or in a manner closer to real life?

JA: I can’t be the same person for every frosh, and that’s been a challenge for me to accept. Some need you to set an example and stand on that pedestal, some need you to be a parent, some need you to be a friend, and it may seem that some don’t even need you at all. Although ideally I’d love to be friends with all of them and become closer, I’ve come to realize that I just have to do my best to fulfill whatever role they each need me to be. That realization was confusing and ultimately kind of saddening because I came into the role thinking I’d become friends with these people pretty easily. However, it’s a lot of work to really become friends with your frosh, if that does happen – from talking to other JAs, it seems that often the JA kind of needs to be the first to step off that pedestal (if it exists) and initiate a closer relationship. I’m not quite sure I’ve done that yet.

WA: That’s an incredibly insightful response, so thank you for sharing that. One last question before we part: Any message you’d like us to send along to your co?

JA: Of course! Co: You’re such a champ! I’m constantly impressed by how well you balance everything that’s thrown your way. Mostly I’m just relieved I’ve finally met somebody here who’s weirder than I am. Thanks, Co!

WA: Great, we’ll relay the message, thank you very much for sitting down with us.

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