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Dormant First-Years Puzzle Campus

By Ravi Agrawal, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

The Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) is not alone.

Though the umbrella organization for 82 public service groups was the first to voice its displeasure with an abnormally low number of first-years getting involved this fall, organizations from WHRB to the Veritones to the Black Men’s Forum (BMF) have confirmed what many have suspected: The Class of 2006 has slowed down.

The Veritones and the Opportunes, two of the campus’ largest a cappella groups, have each reported around a 30 percent drop in the number of first-years trying out.

Devin C. Powell ’03, president of the Veritones, says only 60 students tried out for the group this year—as opposed to over 90 students in past years.

While groups like Harvard Radio Broadcasting (WHRB) have managed to attract more first-year students after an initial lull, PBHA remains extremely short-staffed.

After only 25 first-years attended the Freshman Day of Service—down from 300 last year—and PBHA complained that 250 fewer first-years were volunteering than expected, the group still reports a 30 percent drop in first-year participation, according to President Laura E. Clancy ’02-’03.

No one is quite sure where to place the blame for the low first-year participation, though many students cite a letter that Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 sent first-years this summer advising them to “slow down” so as not to burn out upon reaching the Yard.

But Lewis points out that he sent the same letter to the Class of 2005 two summers ago—and there was no noticeable drop in participation by that class.

So as student groups struggle to make do with a reduced corps of first-years, the question of why the Class of 2006 slowed down continues to baffle.

Explaining the Trend

Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 says the drop in interest in extracurricular activities is “odd.”

“We still see, and admit, candidates with highly developed extracurricular talents and interests,” she says.

First-years insist that their class is not unusual, arguing that they are merely “testing the waters,” as Rashan Jibowu ’06 put it in an e-mail response to a complaint about first-years’ participation over the BMF e-mail list yesterday.

“I feel with a little extra time and the continued support of the upperclassmen, ’06 will blossom into a more evolved class,” wrote Jibowu, who is president of the Freshman Black Table.

Lewis hypothesizes that as a result of the current economic slowdown, first-year students feel pressure to take care of themselves before engaging in altruistic community service or other extracurricular pursuits.

“Students are probably feeling morevulnerable and less secure and before they have fun they want to be sure their studies are in order, on the vague feeling their education will be more important to their future career prospects,” Lewis writes in an e-mail.

Some student leaders theorize that when the economy is good, many students feel guilty about their well-being and try to make up for it by volunteering.

But Clancy says that a bad economy should make students feel more needed.

“Homeless shelters are being closed down and funding for public service is dropping, so the need for students to enter public service is greater,” she says.

Kristin M. Garcia ’05, program director of the Franklin Afterschool Enrichment (FASE) program, says she does not think economic pressures have forced first-years to abandon public service.

According to Garcia, most first-years working for FASE this year are on federal work-study and thus receive money for their service.

“I don’t think September 11 or economic crises have anything to do with it,” Garcia says. “First-years just don’t seem willing to enter public service anymore.”

While the economy and Lewis’ letter have been blamed for everything from PBHA shortfalls to a downturn in Undergraduate Council candidates, some students also acknowledge that a stern Sept. 8 speech by Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby to the Class of 2006 may have played a role in decreased participation by first-years.

Amid light-hearted welcome speeches by other administrators at a Tercentenary Theatre ceremony, Kirby addressed specific issues of study abroad and student-faculty interaction, and he called on students to do their part in sustaining the campus’ academic life.

“You are here to work, and your business here is to learn,” Kirby said.

Neeraj Banerji ’06, who is considering working for PBHA but has not yet committed himself, said Kirby’s words were not lost on his classmates.

“Everybody seems to be concentrating on one major activity,” he says. “Lewis said studies are important while keeping time for relaxation too, and Kirby underlined the fact that studies were our top priority.”

Lewis declined to say whether he thought students were discouraged from pursuing extracurriculars by Kirby’s speech, joking that it would be “earth-shattering news” if students listened to their deans.

If administrative pleas for students to consider their studies and mental health when shopping for extracurricular groups have been heeded, Lewis says that does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with the Class of 2006.

“The decline in interest in extracurricular activities is not an irrational response,” Lewis writes. “It is actually more of a restoration of the old ideal that what you learn in college can be the difference between achievement and just getting by in later life.”

Rolling With the Punches

Student leaders, meanwhile, have redoubled their efforts to attract first-years. Some, like WHRB, have succeeded, while others have pressed forward with fewer human resources.

“After we saw that enough first-years weren’t signing up, we held more introductory meetings, put up posters and sent out e-mails to various lists,” says Roberta A. Camacho ’05, co-comp director at WHRB. “Now we have a similar number of first-year participants as last year.”

Powell says that despite the drop in students auditioning for the Veritones, the group was able to choose from a strong, if smaller, pool of talent.

“People who try out for the sake of it, those are the ones that have gone down,” Powell says. “Eventually our final picks were as good as those of previous years because the people who sing well and are really interested will come anyway.”

Some groups within PBHA continue to reel from the shock of a huge drop in volunteers.

“The same number of people came for our open house this year as opposed to previous years,” Clancy says. “But very few of them actually signed up for the e-mail lists.”

PBHA leaders say they try and recruit first-years the most because they tend to stay on for four years and form long-term relationships with community members with whom they work. But this year, the interest just was not there.

“Most first-years seem to have a vague interest in public service, but few want to commit,” Clancy says. “Public service has been relegated to second spot, and that isn’t fair.”

Leaders of programs like FASE, Mission Hill Afterschool and Cambridge One-to-One say they will try to keep their programs running with their limited personnel this semester.

FASE has only 50 volunteers this year, a decline of almost 50 percent.

“We’re just about staying afloat right now,” Garcia says.

—Staff writer Ravi P. Agrawal can be reached on agrawal@fas.harvard.edu.

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