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Censoring PAFs: The Network Issue

The College recently announced that Peer Advising Fellows may no longer advise their advisees on academic matters. The administration stated the decision was made in order to transition to a better freshman advising program in the future, where academic advisers would receive more “intensive training.” This announcement raised some concerns among PAFs and the larger Harvard community, and immediately startled me, lowering my expectations for the efficacy of freshman mentorship going forward. Most importantly, this change to the advising system highlights an under-reported inequality on Harvard’s campus: network inequality.

The new limitations on freshman advising from PAFs are ill-advised because they eliminates a major equalizer: the PAF academic network. This decision has the unintended consequence of disadvantaging students who need PAF guidance the most and highlights the upper hand given to students entering Harvard with a preexisting network of social connections.

How does PAFing help make a more equitable Harvard? It bolsters students’ academic and social networks on campus, regardless of the number of Harvard students they know upon arrival. This safety net is essential to students attending Harvard without any friends or acquaintances already at the College. Before coming to Harvard as a freshman, I did not have any close relationships with any other students. I did not have the slightest idea about what classes would be like, what the social life entailed, and what resources to access if I needed different kinds of support. Harvard, as far as I was concerned, was a different country (though just 20 minutes away from my childhood home).

I assumed that most other freshmen would arrive with the same doubts and ignorance that I had. However, I was stunned to find out that there was a network of Harvard expertise flowing to many of my peers through their siblings, their elite prep school classmates, and their athletic teammates. Many of my new peers had deep connections here, and they handled Opening Days and Shopping Week with relative ease. To my surprise, however, I soon discovered many of my peers already knew how to lottery for classes and take placement exams. Meanwhile, I clumsily explored course catalogues and tried to decipher the General Education system and concentration requirements.

Though this information asymmetry was discouraging, it was substantially remedied by the support I received from my PAF. My PAF not only gave me candid social advice, but he also navigated me through course selections and shopping best practices. The academic advice I received from my PAF and his friends with interests that related to my own was more than helpful — it was foundational to my Harvard classroom experience.

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Could revamping the freshman adviser program allow for the same caliber of guidance? I assume many students now on campus would say no. The freshman advisers I encountered did not have an inkling about what classes were like and did not approach selections holistically. Of course, this is not true across all advisers, but the freshman advising horror stories are abundant.

Granted, the PAF program has its issues. There are absentee PAFs who perhaps do no more good than an indifferent advisor. However, having the PAF network within freshmen entryways means that students have other resources within reach. Additionally, sometimes PAFs’ academic experiences are not pertinent to their PAFees’ interests. This is seldom a huge issue, however, because PAFs can connect advisees to friends or other PAFs with more applicable advice. Regardless, all PAFs have general social and academic advice worth sharing — advice that is certainly more applicable on a daily basis than that of freshman advisers.

Even if students give the College the benefit of the doubt and assume that their retraining effort will bring advisers up to speed on class selections, it would not justify the restructuring of the PAF program. There is truly no replacement for student advice. A faculty adviser may know every Q score, know each professor, and have the course catalog memorized, but they cannot understand the student experience. They cannot connect students with peers that have recently taken the same class, and they cannot give the candid advice that students need in certain classes. PAFs, however, are an equalizer. Without them, students with stronger networks at Harvard will have the upper hand before classes even start.

Carine M. Hajjar ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House.

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