Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Revamping the Freshman Experience

First week of my mini-summer vacation, and I have lots to talk about. First, an update about what's going on with me. Two and a half weeks from now, I head to lovely Roxana, IL to, as I put it, refine the crap out of some oil. I really have no idea what to expect... first internship, first chance to do some real chemical engineering.

"Wow, sounds interesting. What are you actually going to be doing?" Answer: "operations". You have as good an idea as I do about what that means.

"Ooh, big oil. Really?" Answer: yep. I'm not sold on working for oil for a career--though I'd have to think it's better than working in some Lyondell plant--but it's experience, and they're paying my a crap ton of cash. Seeing as how I do not have a degree in anything as this point, that's all I can ask for.

"What do you do in Roxana?" Answer: ...well, I don't really have one. If anyone knows the St. Louis area, I'd love some input on this.

Before I go, I have a lot to talk about. This first one is a carryover from the school year, and a bit of a reflection on the housing job that I've had for the past two years, and I'm finally retiring from now that this year is done. The biggest question that people ask me is if I liked the job, or if I'd recommend it to others. I don't know if I can give that a straight answer. It's too complex, and it's been tied too directly to my Tech experience, to answer with a mere yes or no.

A better answer is something along the lines of "it takes a very specific person to do this job well." I'm not one for small talk. I don't know if I necessarily want to compare myself to Hu Jintao, but I read an article about him in a Time magazine as I was waiting for the dentist today. It remarked that Hu doesn't make small talk either, because his knowledge of relevant subject material is so masterful. I won't go so far as to make that claim myself, but given the choice I would much rather talk about something rather than nothing.

The point here is that this is actually a critical aspect of the job that you don't necessarily find out about until you're already in over your head. You need to be both willing and able to chat with your residents about whatever degree of irrelevancy they want. That usually surpasses Seinfeld in terms of sheer "nothing" potential. There's nothing wrong with this, or at least there ought not to be if you're doing this job. I found myself with less and less patience for this sort of thing as my two years ran on, which is one of the important reasons I needed to leave.

I could sit here and complain about training, and the facilities, and the unfortunate responsibilities you find yourself having to exercise. But that's not going to change anything. There are, however, two areas that I can offer material and useful insight on: resident assignment and the Freshman Partner program.

One of the primary challenges in any housing environment is diversity. Maybe that can mean racial/ethnic/national diversity, but I don't think that ever presents a big problem at Tech. I find international students among the biggest attendees of programs, the most conscious about following directions, and the most excited about Georgia Tech in general. Besides, I've always said that ethnicity is but one dimension of diversity, and probably the least important one. A much more important measure is diversity of thought and belief. And along that axis, Tech is relatively homogeneous anyway.

A significant subset of the population that does exhibit this diversity, however, is the Greek community. That's PC for "frat boys". Doesn't matter what nationality they are, these are simply a different sort of resident than non-Greeks. Much less willing to be part of the hall, to come to programs, and to care about anything outside the fraternity. Obviously, this doesn't apply to everyone who's in a fraternity, and I would guess that it's more prevalent among freshmen than anyone else. And plenty of fraternity people do contribute a whole lot to the hall. But it is frustrating as a staff member when your perceived relative success is partially a function of not your own skill, but of who you happened to get in your section.

My answer for this, developed in conjunction with my friend Alex (a fellow staff member), is to have designated Greek and non-Greek housing. Or, more to the point, exclude future Greeks from the Freshman Experience. Add a simple question to the housing application for entering freshmen: "Do you intend to participate in IFC rush with the goal of joining a fraternity?" (I say fraternity and guys simply as a reflection of the population of Tech, but the principle applies to girls as well.) People who say yes still get housing with student staff, but it's not as elaborate as the FE.

Yes, it smacks of segregation. And no, there's no way to enforce this. Maybe you rush and want a bid, but don't get any. Maybe you get bids but don't like where you got them from. On the other hand, maybe you rush for the free food and don't have any intention of pledging, but meet a bunch of guys you really get along well with. But this would accomplish at least three goals. First, it would allow staff in freshmen dorms to have a better chance of getting residents who actually cared. Second, it would relieve some of the burden on housing, as the residents who lived in "pledge housing" would require less attention than the normal FE. Finally, it would allow staff who were themselves Greek or were particularly comfortable dealing with Greeks to interact with residents they liked.

The other fix is to entirely remove the Freshman Partner program. The goal here is to make some sort of connection between Tech academics and Tech residence life. That's admirable. But somewhere along the line, it turned into "get some yahoo who works in the Global Learning Center to come to the cheesy post-Convocation Caribbean party." Residents don't necessarily care about this initiative, either. The Assistant Dean of Students came to Glenn last month to talk about demographics at Tech, which was actually a reasonably informative talk. The only thing keeping residents in the room? The free Quizno's.

In coming attractions: opinions on who is pretty, and reviews of Iron Man and Mario Kart Wii.

Currently listening: "Summer House", the Lady Sails


Samantha said...

Opinions on who is pretty? Ha, I can't wait to read this one.

Matt Pavlovich said...

But I've already told you my Top Five. This should come as no surprise to you.

That said, any predictions as to who I'll include, or opinions you yourself have?