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WOULD YOU like a personal guide to Harvard?" tempted the application forms shoved at hand-out--hungry freshmen in the Union last fall. It sounded like a great deal: just fill out a short form and you get your own private mentor, an upperclassman "committed" to showing freshmen the Harvard ropes. The application blurb glowingly promises--in language reminiscent of day camp brochures--"the fun of making friends." Who doesn't need a friend freshman week? "Students Helping Students (SHS)--We are just what we sound like," read the advertisement for the organization. Well, not quite.
Most freshmen who signed up last year never did cash in on that guaranteed friend because their guides never called them. One-third of the guides never bothered to call all year, according to a survey conducted at the end of last year. Another third of the freshmen did meet their guides, but they had "no warm feelings" connected with the experience, Arthur J. Kyriazis '80-3, chairman of SHS admitted with distinct discomfort.
"We were so shocked," Elizabeth R. Mason '81, one of the fifteen SHS board members last year, said of the survey's findings. She shouldn't have been. The so-called guides--selected on the basis of a brief application form--were let loose in September with only a pep talk from Kyriazi. Although the SHS charter empowers the board to "conduct ongoing evaluations of the program" and to dismiss guides who fail to "perform required duties," board members never checked up on the guides until January. "By the time we realized that we had done something wrong, it was too late," Mark J. Shlomchik '81, treasurer of SHS last year, admitted.
The idea seemed foolproof enough to its creator, Kyriazis, who pushed the program after a friend of his at the University of Pennsylvania set up a similar organization there.
Convinced that what worked at U/Penn would work at Harvard, Kyriazis approached Henry C. Moses, dean of freshmen, in the spring of 1978. Moses agreed SHS guides might introduce students to house life, but feared the guides would try to offer academic or personal counseling which they were not qualified to provide. "We do not want students doing what they are not supposed to do," Moses announced soon after SHS took shape.
Shlomchik noted that Moses was "exceptionally resistant" from the start. "He was afraid we would fail and then his name would be associated with it," Shlomchik said, theorizing that if Moses had "the guts to support us," he might have prevented SHS's downfall.
However, SHS could not blame Moses for its fundamental weaknesses. Faced with over 1000 applications from entering students, SHS stumbled over the problem of attaching guides to freshmen.
The board selected the 250 guides from a list of 400 upperclassmen who filled out applications randomly distributed by Kyriazis and friends the preceding spring. No guides were interviewed. "The board read the applications and as long as the people seemed to have common sense and took the questions seriously, we accepted them," Mason said. Mason asserted that SHS doesn't need people "with special talents," because it provides "informal counseling." "We just need people with a desire to help fresmen," she added. By January it was clear that counseling--informal or otherwise--was in very short supply. To help choose freshmen for their absent "friends," Kyriazis decided to consult the Freshmen Register. "We used the facebook to see what people were like," Kyriazis explained. "Sometimes you can tell from a picture," Kyriazis ventured, though he had difficulty explaining what.
In the sole training session for the guides, Kyriazis stressed the importance of "contact upkeep." Kyriazis passed out a one-page information sheet, which instructed SHS members to "contact your freshman almost immediately for a group lunch/dinner at your House" and "procure telephone numbers." It continued: "Contact again for individual follow-up meetings (their emphasis). The document yielded only one substantive piece of counsel. "Always be informal in tone and approach."
Many freshman who signed up with SHS waited freshman week for a phone call that never came. Lee Rubin, chairman of the Freshman Task Force (FTF), recollected, "the main thing I heard from freshmen about SHS was, "My big-brother (guide) hasn't gotten in touch with me, What should I do?"
Meanwhile, SHS membership was turning over at an alarming rate. Half the members left by midyear, Kyriazis said, further charging that many of them "used SHS as a stepping stone." Kyriazis also claims SHS floundered because the University wuld not grant them office space. Archie C. Epps, III, dean of students, in January assigned SHS a room in the Memorial Hall basement. Kyriazis marched into Rm 186 only to find it occupied by the Kuumba Singers. Epps said he thought Kuumba had moved a year ago. SHS is still on a list with 12 other new organizations looking for office space. Kyriazis argues that SHS should get special preference because "we provide a special service to the University," but Epps disagrees.
But the office space battle is a poor excuse for failure. Rubin points out that the Freshman Task Force does not have an office either. "It seems like there's some passing of the buck here," Rubin remarked.
Meanwhile, many freshman still had not heard from their guides and some were growing impatient. Moses told the SHS board that freshmen were coming to his office to complain that their guides never contacted them. Moses just "watched us go down," Shlomchik said. "He said he would give us advice, but when we went in to see him, he would just sit and listen," he added.
If the guides were not keeping in touch with their freshmen obviously it wastime to get on the phone and make sure they did. And ultimately, the board did. But by then it was January and, as Shlomchik conceded, "too late."
Finally four board members agreed in late spring that only full-scale restructuring could salvage SHS Shlomchik, Mason, Steven N. Kaplan '81, and Susan Kish '80 drafted a reorganization plan which installed a coordinator in each House to supervise the guides.
Kyriazis is optimistic, perhaps overly so. "We've come out like gangbusters this year," he announced exuberantly, adding, "I've really been a good guide this year. I've already met with my freshmen."
No doubt Kyriazis has. After all SHS is his baby and he's eager for an admiring audience. Rubin raised questions about Kyriazis' motives im promoting SHS. "A lot of people thougt he was in it for the business. He was most interested in selling the idea and once it went through, he let it go." Kyriazis responded, "Anyone who really knows me knows I am really dedicated to SHS."
Whatever his intentions, Kyriazis says he believes SHS will take off this year. Last year's crises he writes off to growing pains. "Now I hear about SHS everywhere I go," he says.
Rubin says she hears about SHS too, but not postitively. Already eight freshmen have complained to her that they have not heard from their guide. This story has a familiar ring to it.
Sadly, many feshmen feel very much in need of the services an organization such as the SHS might provide. Rubin observes that many students in the first weeks have asked Freshman Task Force members how they can get a guide. Without an alternative to bureaucratic doubletalk and summer camp slogans, SHS will collapse under its own weight. SHS will not fail from lack of freshman interest.
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