For Ciccone, a native of rural New Hope, Penn., the tumultuous adjustment to Harvard was complicated by inadequate advising. Her interests ranged from history to Russian studies, her professional plans from law to education. Without informed advice from her proctor, Ciccone felt just as confused halfway through first semester as she did during Freshman Week. “He’d call me into his room to ‘discuss’ my classes. He’d write down my courses, ask me how I was doing,and tell me, ‘Well, uh, basically, just come to me if you have any grade lower than a C.’” Among his standard answers to any question: “Just think about what you want to do in the future” and “Try government.”
Ciccone’s story reflects some of the prevalent complaints about the Harvard advising system. Admittedly, watching over 6,400 undergraduates is a gargantuan task. But in light of Harvard’s financial and intellectual resources, the existence of what many consider a mediocre advising system remains a wonder.
No one questions the College’s intentions. According to the FDO Handbook for Advisers, a proctor is “a freshman adviser in residence who works to create an academic and social community of between 20 and 40 freshmen.” The book recommends proctors invest 20 hours of “informal associations and discussions” with students every week to assist in their “academic, social, personal, or disciplinary difficulties.”
Potential proctors, already members of the Harvard community, undergo a demanding application process that involves the evaluation of case studies, a personal statement and several interviews. Those who are chosen attend a rigorous week-long training program in August, where they are exposed to case studies of the academic and personal issues that students might face. As Straus proctor Zeev Ben-Shachar ’01 relates, “At one point, we were faced with the situation of roommates at war, and we debated how much of a role we should play in the peace process.” The training is rounded out with information on course requirements, extracurricular opportunities and other college resources.
But there’s only so much that proctors who received their B.A.s from other institutions can learn about Harvard in a week, and then they are expected to impart their knowledge to their first-year charges. But proctors argue that this does not have to be a liability, and can even become an advantage. “Our advising role is to be a general resource and a safety net, not a directory bureau,” says Wigglesworth proctor Nicholas J. Tustin. While proctors with Harvard undergraduate experience know the system intimately, others can offer a less biased perspective on the College through their individual experiences in and out of the classroom, Tustin argues.
Tustin believes it isn’t necessary for proctors to know all the information right away, arguing that those who are good at their job will go to appropriate sources and seek out the information they need. According to Tustin, proctors are constantly pooling ideas to create a “collective wisdom.” Proctors participate in monthly Yard meetings, in which they are briefed on upcoming events and they discuss situations that their students might have to face. What’s more, proctors frequently dish out advice to each other over plates of lukewarm spaghetti at Annenberg.
However, even if they spent their undergraduate years at Harvard or are dedicated to learning all about it, proctors rarely share the academic leanings of their advisees. At many of the nation’s other top universities, academic advisers are assigned to first-years based on their intended majors—not so at Harvard. Most students are advised by their proctors and even those with non-resident advisers are often matched for non-academic reasons.
Krishna G. Aragam ’05, a potential biochemistry concentrator, feels that it’s difficult for his law student proctor to know what combinations of science-related classes are appropriate for him. “He encouraged me to take Chem 10 and Math 21 this semester, along with a really demanding Core,” he relates. “I had no idea what I was in for.”
While an adviser’s lack of expertise in a particular field may frustrate some, there are always other places to turn. Chandini Sharma ’05 goes to her economics teaching fellow when she wants to talk about concentration plans, and Lara C. Bishay ’05 can turn to her prefects for informal advice on concentrating in biology. According to Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67, Harvard’s method of assigning advisors allows for a crucial element of a liberal arts education: the free exploration of myriad subjects. “It would be risky for academic interests to match too closely,” Dingman maintains. “Students can feel pressured into a certain path because it’s difficult to tell an adviser that you’re no longer interested in their particular passion.”
When first-years are relying on one person in the form of their proctor, they are benefiting from the integration of disparate roles into a central figure. According to Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley Nathans, “One of the strengths of Harvard’s proctor system is that even in a relatively large place [the Yard], advising and counseling can be centered in small entries, where effective proctors come to know their students well and where their responsibility as frontline academic as well as residential counselors means that they focus on the totality of students’ experiences in the College.”
Disciplinary and social issues can be closely linked to academic ones, and a person who can comprehend all three will theoretically be more effective in helping students or taking necessary actions. Mikey Stewart ’05 notes, “My proctor knows how much work I’m having to do here, so I feel like he understands if I’m difficult because I’m so stressed out.” There is also the enormous convenience of having an academic resource literally under the same roof. As Bishay puts it, “It’s great to know that [my proctor] is there if I need help, if I’m stressed, or if I’m having problems with a class.”
College is traditionally seen as a time for freedom and exploration, and an adult authority figure living just next door naturally dampers the rush of newfound independence. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Matthews proctor Jennifer K. Little: “If you build an atmosphere of mutual trust and friendship in the entryway, students will abide by the necessary rules out of a desire to avoid disappointing you.” Crystal Winston ’05, a member of Little’s proctor group, would agree. She finds that “as we grow closer, we become more conscious that our negative actions might affect each other, and that influences some of our decisions—perhaps makes us think twice.”
But the proctor’s multiple roles can also create tension. According to Ashkan Abbey ’05, “Knowing that what you say can have disciplinary repercussions limits your relationship with your proctor.” Mary Widmeyer ’05 agrees. “There are a lot of important decisions college kids face that we just can’t talk to our proctor about,” she says. “We could get in trouble if we brought up issues, like drinking, that make a big difference in our Harvard experience.” Indeed, many report that the often large age difference between proctors and students makes it difficult for them to relate on a social level.
That’s where the prefect system comes in. The two or three upperclassmen who plan social events for each proctor group are, for some first-years, their only glimpse into life past the Yard. As Nathans puts it, “Peer advisers are important supports to first-year students in many respects. They can introduce them to some of the routines of undergraduate life; they can offer important wisdom about time management and about balancing extracurriculars and academic work; they can provide a sounding board for some of the concerns and doubts that first-year students experience about finding a niche in the community; they can be a bridge to acquaintanceship with upperclass students for freshmen who seek those connections.” She admits, however, that this ideal cannot always be met. Prefects, according to Nathans, are often limited by “time and the difficulty of sustaining enthusiasm and commitment.”
Indeed, from a non-residential position, it can often come as a challenge for prefects to maintain close relationships with their first-years. Barbara Eghan ’05 says that she is pretty sure that her prefects don’t even know her name. She suggests that “prefects live in freshman housing with no disciplinary authority. Their function would be better served and you’d get to know them better—having this kind of resource close at hand is especially crucial during the confusing time of freshman year.” This is actually the norm at most universities nationwide, but even close proximity is no guarantee to a beneficial dorm mentoring experience. According to Shara J. Marrero, a first-year at Tufts University, “My resident adviser is a nice guy, but I wouldn’t go to him if I had a real problem. He’s too busy with work, writing his thesis and applying to the Peace Corps.”
Despite the limitations that some prefects face, Harvard’s program is far from a failure. Bishay speaks fondly of her prefects, who have taken her entry everywhere from their dorm rooms to the North End. She feels that their non-resident status doesn’t strongly impede on their mentoring capacity. “It’s not like the upper-class Houses are that far to walk to, and I know that my prefects would make me feel welcome,” she says.
It’s not just prefects who have busy schedules, though. Proctors can be consumed by their other responsibilities as well. Several first-years complain that relationships with proctors are superficial, and that they are hardly ever available. As Arnold Park ’05 says, conversations with his proctor rarely go beyond “How are you doing? Fine? Good.” This is hopefully the unfortunate exception, but many students say they have failed to form meaningful bonds with their proctors.
As in any relationship, communication between students and proctors is a two-way street, and a proctor can only be effective if the students will take advantage of them as a resource. As Biana Fay ’04 relates, “[My proctor] definitely made herself available most of the time, but I didn’t really make the journey to her room as often as I could have.” As the first year progresses and social events are no longer mandatory, it can become increasingly difficult to maintain a connection. And as Dingman notes, students at Harvard are not all that good at seeking out help. “A lot of them put people off because they’re afraid of showing their vulnerability,” he reports. “That’s rubbish. This is a complicated time in their lives, and Harvard is a complicated place.”
Most student complaints deal with the failures of individual proctors who, for whatever reason, do not effectively respond to their needs and concerns. As Tustin puts it, “It’s not necessarily that the system is flawed, it’s that human beings run the system.” Biannual proctor evaluations are one means of highlighting the ineffective proctors that slip through the cracks, and Dingman encourages students to address their dissatisfactions head on, by talking to the proctor in question or to a higher authority.
In any case, “the ultimate acid test of the system,” according to Tustin, “is how many freshmen at Harvard go on to become sophomores.”
As first-years venture out of the Yard, tutors and the House advising system replace the proctors. This decentralized structure most distinguishes Harvard advising from that of other school where a central dean’s office or the individual departments coordinate advising. Chip Chapman ’04, a political science major at Duke University, finds this type of system makes communication difficult. “There is a lot of information and help out there, but getting it is the problem.” The nation’s universities are listening to such complaints, according to Dingman. “There is an extraordinary volume of interest at other schools to build bridges between residential and academic advising,” he says. “College officials visit Harvard and want to know ‘How do you ensure your dorms are not escapes from academic life?’ Across the country there is a move in the direction of what we are offering.”
Harvard’s secret is to bombard young minds from every direction. Students are assigned a plethora of advisors to make “escaping” academic life impossible. Sophomore advisers, non-concentration academic advisers, entryway tutors, senior tutors and House Masters are a few of the human resources students encounter upon entering the House system. Dingman says the beauty of this system is that a student who feels uncomfortable with his or her assigned resources, has the option of consulting with another tutor in residence.
Dingman, who has been traveling the country checking out colleges with his two teenage daughters, does not know “of another school where there are so many non-students in residence.” Indeed, the numbers are impressive, particularly when compared to other schools. Quincy House Senior Tutor Maria Trumpler, an experienced administrator who advised at Yale for over 17 years, agrees. While there are 23 tutors living in Quincy House alone, Yale only houses two to four graduate students per college (their equivalent to a House). According to Trumpler, the huge ratio of students to residential tutors leaves Yale tutors without “a sense that they are responsible for a subset. If they happened to befriend students, that is great.”
Resident tutors become in-house specialists, fielding questions about their area of expertise. Rusty North ’03, for example, applauds the gay tutors in Winthrop House for actively pursuing community formation. “I’m glad we have them here. I consider them my friends. How many schools offer an in-house gay support system?” The varied experience and knowledge tutors offer lead Trumpler to the conclusion that each tutor in residence “is a huge investment Harvard makes. They are wonderful, unique people. I think [they system] works extremely well.”
But not all undergrads are sold on the concept. Jessica Huang ’04, who transferred from Cornell, remembers “feeling overwhelmed by the plethora of advisors and titles during orientation. Sometimes, it was difficult to discern whom I should see for what,” she says. Paul R. Berman ’04, currently taking a leave of absence, still wonders about his non-concentration academic adviser. “What does that title mean?” he asks. Berman met with his non-concentration academic adviser once at the beginning of the semester. “We ate ice cream and he tried to make small talk. Unsuccessfully. I haven’t seen him since.” Trumpler acknowledges that the position is still “a work in progress,” but the main role of the non-concentration academic adviser is “to welcome the student, to find out what their interests are and to help them find out what people or activities around the House can help them explore those interests,” she explains. In Quincy, students meet with this adviser at least three times during the year. Berman feels multiple meetings will only leave him with more cups of melted ice cream.
Just as proctors can’t connect without some initiative on the part of first-years, tutors often have even more difficulty getting to know undergraduates on a personal level. Dingman notes that students often avoid discussing their academic and social problems with tutors out of a fear that their honesty will preclude sterling recommendation letters in the future. “Students think ‘I won’t look like a sturdy candidate for fellowships later,’” Dingman says. James L. Stillwell ’04 confirms this suspicion. “In all honesty, I think a senior tutor is less likely to praise an emotionally unstable person than someone who can handle, or at least appear to handle, his own problems.” Dingman disagrees. “We write about whole people. We think the better of those who use the resources at Harvard. Students do not understand our expectations about advising out of this sense that they should have it all figured out.” Harvard’s tremendous resources are too often accompanied by missed opportunities. Huang agrees that advising is something students don’t pursue enough. “The resources exist; the questions is how to take best advantage of them. Students simply need to be persistent in seeking advice.”
Prior to transferring from Cornell, Huang felt Harvard’s smaller student body would encourage a more “intimate advising system,” but she has found the advising system “to be every bit as impersonal.” As a concentrator in economics—one of Harvard’s largest departments—Huang has learned to depend on word-of-mouth, friends and upperclass students. This get-it-yourself attitude stems from her advising at Cornell. “I was assigned a faculty and a student advisor. My faculty advisor was not very helpful. He just signed my forms. I think we met once during the academic year. My student advisor, an undergraduate research scholar, was incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. We communicated via e-mail and during ‘office hours’ and, when I decided not to study biology, she directed me to her friends, who were in my concentration of interest.” Fellow Cornell transfer student Pankaj K. Agarwalla’04 offers a caveat to all this talk of advising. “An adviser and advising system can only do so much. Sometimes you just have to learn the hard way, it’s part of college.”
Regardless of the system, students are ultimately responsible for themselves. As Shawn C. Harriman, undergraduate program administrator in the psychology department, has observed during his 17 years of experience, “Leaving room means there are often questions an adviser cannot and should not answer; we advise best when we articulate what is required, what is possible, and what the potential repercussions of various possible paths might be—but not what the final decision ought to be. This is often frustrating to our students, and I am always concerned that they do not misinterpret this as lack of interest in them or their programs.”
Liz B. Moderi ‘04 shares this piece of advice to anyone who feels they aren’t getting adequate support. “Having a bad advisor is not the end of the world,” she says. “So you’re going to have to make your own decisions. It’s ultimately what we all have to do anyway.”