Over the past week, freshmen have been lingering in Annenberg after dinner, sharing with their new friends what classes they want to shop, what clubs they might want to join, and more. Students at Harvard learn about and explore all the resources and opportunities that the University affords them by talking to their peers. Collaboration of this sort seems to be Harvard’s goal.
Hence, I was surprised to discover that Harvard’s new policy states that Peer Advising Fellows should limit or eliminate discussions about course selection with their freshmen advisees. These new guidelines seem at odds with Harvard’s broader emphasis on the importance of collaboration and discussion amongst students as integral to the community. Moreover, they unfairly disadvantage students who cannot find that peer-to-peer academic advising through other avenues.
As a freshman who came from a high school that sends a handful of students to Harvard each year, I had several established connections to upperclassmen before setting foot on campus. Throughout the summer, I texted two friends who had just finished their first year at Harvard. Most of my questions surrounded course selection. How early should I complete my General Education requirements? I wondered. Do you like the History and Literature concentration? Do you have any tips about getting into application-based seminars? What was your favorite class during your first year? These discussions and their opinions were invaluable as I began to navigate the process of creating a new world for myself on campus while simultaneously navigating the beginning of my academic career and first shopping week. And even after a string of texts with these upperclassmen, I still had a million questions that I wanted to ask my PAF about course selection.
But many students, and, I would imagine — a disproportionate number of first-generation students or students who come from high schools not well-represented at the Ivy League schools — are not as lucky as I was. These students might not have someone to text when they’re confused about the freshman seminar application process or when they want advice on what Humanities 10 is like. They may need guidance navigating Harvard’s curriculum and not already know any Harvard upperclassmen to help guide the way.
A logical conclusion might be that a freshman’s academic adviser should serve as the main contact for students seeking this guidance. And, as has been the case for many others, my academic adviser has been nothing but supportive. She is knowledgeable about Harvard’s curriculum and willing to get any specialized information I ask for through her various contacts across campus.
But no matter how strong the freshman advising program is, students serve as an invaluable resource to one another that simply cannot translate in a fair way to the new system in which academic advisers serve as the primary resource for freshmen to gain information about academics. Even beyond all the nuanced course selection advice that PAFs might be more equipped to give, having gone through it themselves, there’s a wealth of information that is simply not appropriate for adult advisers to provide. A PAF, for example, is much more likely to give honest information about professors’ teaching and grading styles than an academic adviser, whom I imagine would be unlikely to criticize their colleagues.
Further, for many Harvard students, the academic and social realms of campus are inextricably connected. To assign a peer adviser to serve as a mentor and de facto friend, to allow that person to talk about clubs, activities, and sports, but then to discourage or forbid that person from talking about academics, which connects the other aspects of our lives and brings us together, is puzzling. We are here for academics; our classes and course of study are on every freshman’s mind. To prohibit peer advisers from discussing academics, then, does a disservice to all first years.
By removing the opportunity to talk about such an integral part of our lives, especially during orientation and shopping week, Harvard has created an artificial divide between PAFs and freshmen that only serves to remind the freshmen that their PAF is paid to help them within the constraints of their job description. The relationship seems artificial and transactional, instead of convivial. If a freshmen can’t relate to their PAF in a way that seems organic and natural, if asking a question about academics is met with a stock referral to someone else, then the relationship is forever tainted.
The new guidelines merely limit freshmen’s access to critical information, especially during a shopping week that has been full of unexpectedly-stressful General Education lotteries and issues with my.harvard. To address any concerns or questions surrounding the role of PAFs, provide them with training on the right way to contextualize advice about course selection and then allow our relationships to grow naturally, even if that means we talk about academics.
Orlee G. S. Marini-Rapoport ’23 lives in Greenough Hall.