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Amherst College program helps new students to adapt

A group of Amherst College freshmen took part in an extended-orientation session led by Austin Sarat, who began the program.
A group of Amherst College freshmen took part in an extended-orientation session led by Austin Sarat, who began the program. Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

AMHERST — The Amherst College first-years take their seats around a long table headed by the professor and administrators who have come to quiz them on one of the most complex topics students can face: themselves.

Professor Austin Sarat asks the 14 students how they feel about their finals, then turns to the broader subjects. What have you learned about yourself this semester? What was hard for you? How did you surprise yourself?

Meeting for the final time of the fall semesteras part of an experimental program intended to ease the transition to college life, the students answer quickly, banter easily, and share readily in the face of the probing questions about their new lives at the elite liberal arts college.

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Like many colleges and universities, Amherst is finding ways to extend elements of the orientation process further into the college experience, a shift that many in higher education believe helps students of diverse backgrounds adapt — both academically and socially.

Reflecting on her first semester during the recent group meeting, Talia Land, a student from New York state, said the class helped her realize the need to engage fully with the people and opportunities that college offers.

“If I keep avoiding conversations, or keep avoiding asking for help, or keep avoiding certain things. . . . I don’t want to get sentimental, but it’s all going to go by before we know it,” she said. “I’m going to miss this class a lot.”

Sarat says he worries that students don’t always stop to consider how they’re adjusting to college life. By asking them to share their personal experience, he hopes to show they are not alone. He also wants to make sure the students know Amherst cares about more than their grades.

“My view is that this is the right thing to do,” he said in an interview, “because it’s a way of providing a set of resources and contacts to communicate to them that we care about their personal development in addition to caring about their academic development.”

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Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science, began the program in 2014

The one-semester meeting groups are attached to the first-year seminars at Amherst, which students have long been required to take as part of their academic initiation. This year, 18 of the 32 seminar programs have such components.

Amherst College students met with a faculty member during their first semester to talk about adapting to college life.
Amherst College students met with a faculty member during their first semester to talk about adapting to college life. Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Twice a week, Sarat’s students meet with him for a class called “Secrets and Lies,” in which they read Socrates, Kant, and Mill, and they learn about the Monica Lewinskyscandal, WikiLeaks, and the specter of weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war.

Then, the students meet at night every few weeks to share thoughts they might otherwise keep secret — about self-doubt, shyness, and other hazards of life as a first-year.

Along with Sarat on the recent evening were Alex Vasquez, the dean of students, and Jacqueline Alvarez, the associate dean of students. They participated in the group sessions throughout the semester, both to hear from students and to make sure they know what help is available.

“I’m worried about my students,” Sarat said during the recent conversation, and he asked the two administrators what the first-years could do if they get overwhelmed.

Alvarez named the school counseling center as one of the assets provided to help students cope.

“Stress is normal, and if you weren’t feeling stress, that would be concerning, too,” she said. “People look as if they’re not using these resources, but they’re all using the resources.”

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Many colleges have instituted extended first-year programs in hopes of drawing students together to discuss their common experience, according to Stephanie M. Foote, director of the master’s program in first-year studies at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Such discussions can help students learn and appreciate about the different paths that brought them together.

“A lot of what we’re doing now is to respond to the uniqueness that exists in our students,” she said. “We have to be very aimed in our response to that diversity, and to create these environments where students feel included and feel they can thrive or flourish.”

At Amherst, students bonded over the difficulties of adapting to the 24-hour temptations of college social life while tackling new academic challenges.

Jack Faulstick, a member of the football team wearing a cap and shirt in the college colors, describes how he has learned to socialize, despite the fact that he can’t stand small talk.

He was disoriented to discover he had to prove himself again after being a star student in high school. “When I got here, you’re just some dude again, and you have to start at the bottom,” said Faulstick, who grew up in Amherst.

Kayla Ntoh, who is from Pennsylvania, said she also learned new things about herself, both socially and academically. “I had to learn that I need to be alone,” she said. “Taking those few hours, and being like, ‘OK, shutting my phone off, not talking to you, sorry’ . . . and just getting my work done, I’ve learned is very important to my academic well-being.”

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Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.