Unnameable: An Exploration of Student & Institutional Identity at Sarah Lawrence College

PART II/III

 

Admissions & Communications Staff Opinions on Students, The College and the Future

I will freely admit that part of this exploration was an attempt to speak with the Man Behind The Curtain, and to unmask this entity known as “The Administration.” To that end, I emailed everyone from the President to the Deans to Department Directors to Administrative Assistants. I received eight responses, the first from Gerry Schorin, Director of Marketing and Communications. His office acts as a liaison between the institution and various external audiences, working closely with Admissions and Advancement. In many ways, they serve as PR between the college and the general public.

While Schorin would love to be able to pinpoint potential SLC kids before they enroll, he has yet to find some statistical predictors of a successful Sarah Lawrence student. To him, the uniqueness of our school attracts a certain cohort of kids, though they elude specific labels. Schorin imagines us as “more Ferrari than Chevrolet.” Thousands of people may walk through a Chevrolet dealership, but not all of them will make a purchase. Conversely, a Ferrari dealer may see three customers in a day, but those people are there to buy. Amy Abrams, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, believes that you can see “it” – that elusive something that marks a prospective student as an SLC kid – she describes it as a spark or a light and need to be among equals. She says that there is a way students talk; about their academics, about their interests – it marks them as someone with the potential to be a “life-long learner.” Abrams says these students are the ones who will “devour work” and will contribute great things to seminars and conferences; she describes SLC students as the hardest workers she’s ever met. These students are visibly ready to come into their own and the potential shines through in essays and teacher recommendations. Davita Westbrook, Assistant Director of Admission/MFA ’10 , believes that all SLC students are unique and that they are “intellectual artists and artistic intellectuals.” Westbrook looks at the 1,300 undergraduates as 1,300 separate personalities and “1,300 manifestations of the ‘Sarah Lawrence Student.’”

When speaking about the institution itself, Schorin says that if you were to ask 500 people to define SLC in ten words or less you’d get hundreds of different responses. One of Schorin’s duties is to use the very limited resources at his disposal to try and help unite the various pieces of the Sarah Lawrence identity in order to present something to the general public. Not unlike the students’ questioning of themselves, he believes that college needs to figure out how it wants to talk about itself and what it wants the world to think. To Abrams, the institution is marked by a connection between classroom and extracurricular activities and she sees so many student projects, plays and other endeavors develop from interests inside the classroom. The best part, she says, is that all these activities are supported by students’ friends. Sarah Lawrence, Abrams believes, prepares you for whatever you want to do. Westbrook characterizes Sarah Lawrence as a place provides the type of progressive education that allows students to grow, mature, and gain a deeper understanding of self. Westbrook also believes that activism, and place on the cutting edge of social change, define Sarah Lawrence. She points to students, faculty and staff who were and are part of the Occupy Movement, as well as groups like SLC Worker Justice as part of this legacy. She does however lament the fact that more students are not involved in social justice and activism.

In regards to the potential changes on the horizon, Schorin believes that we’re so “one-off” that there’s no chance of mainstreaming. The academic rigor of SLC and the idea that you’ll sit down with a professor one-on-one can intimidate a lot of kids, not ot mention the workload, the intensive writing, and the fact that you can’t hide in a seminar of 11 students. He points to statistics from the past few years as evidence of this. Though we’ve tripled our search and received a 300% increase in response to inquiry, we have not seen a tripling of applications; applications have increased by 6%. To him this is evidence that we’re not going mainstream. In a survey of 1,700 students who chose not to attend SLC, 200 responded and the overwhelming answer to why they didn’t come was, “I love what you do, but it’s not for me.” However, applications for the class of 2016 were above the national average and our retention rate in the past years has been around 90%, which is a long way up from the 70ish% that it used to be. Both of these are indicators that the school is on a positive track towards the future.

Schorin adds that the school’s alumnae/i would never allow anyone to change the focus of the school. Abrams states firmly that SLC will always value the work student’s have done way more than “one test you took one day in the gym,” but says that if you’re proud of your test scores you should send them. The school will never use SAT scores as a cut-off like other institutions because historically, SAT scores weren’t an indicator of a student’s ability to keep up with the workload.

Looking forward, Schorin would like a brand that unifies as many parts of the college’s identity as possible and says that while the Admissions slogan “A Deeper Education” speaks to our academics, it doesn’t necessarily relate well to what we do after graduation. Abrams says the college is a different place now than it was before the financial crisis; whereas before the price tag would be mentioned in passing, now it stops people from even applying. The image of America’s most expensive college is hard to live with, and Abrams believes we need a new way to capture people’s attention, a way to stop being pigeon-holed into the talk of cost. In her mind, we need to be able to sit with people face to face and discuss the value of the education. As she says, this is the school that helped get people like Barbara Walters, Rahm Emanuel and JJ Abrams to where they are today. Westbrook stresses, with a great deal of emphasis, that “from an Admissions standpoint, we are not changing the type of student we are looking for.” Abrams says that the idea of the Division III push is to find a larger pool of applicants but she’s still looking for those athletes who have “it” – the passion and the light in their eyes. Westbrook agrees that DIII will not attract the type of student who’ll sacrifice the unique academic opportunities of Sarah Lawrence in favor of athletics. She adds that, out of an eighty-year history, only six have been Test-Negative and the school has never normalized before. Abrams says that, sure, maybe people are wearing less black and have fewer tattoos but that the external appearance of the students has nothing to do with the core, which remains unchanged: “who you are is not on the outside.” She believes this is a school with a purpose and it’s not attractive to everyone and it should never try to be everything to every single person. She urges to stand up and be proud of our difference.

 

Student Affairs & Athletics Staff Opinions on Students, the College and the Future

Paige Crandall, Dean of Student Affairs, believes that there is not a singular type of SLC student and that the school is welcome to anyone who is comfortable with the academic model. In her opinion, those students who want the “big school feel” or Greek scene won’t fit well here. Natalie Gross, Director of Diversity for (almost) seven years, believes that there are certain qualities present among SLC students – though not every person has every quality. Carolyn Miles, Acting Director of Athletics and a staff member for eleven years, says you can’t put a label on the SLC student and she has never come across a stereotypical student. Josh Luce, Director of Student Activities, reminds us that perspective is key and that seniors will of course look at the college, and their peers, differently as they progress through. In response to the numerous criticisms that have been leveled against the first year class, he says that first year is a time of “intense learning experiences,” and that the entire journey of college is marked by personal changes. To him an SLC student is independent, unafraid to pursue multiple interests and has a desire to make this place their own. Each student is unique and involved – no one gets involved in campus life just to “pad a resume,” they’re fully committed. Gross agrees, saying that students are passionate about the school and passionate about their subjects: there is never a passing fancy between an SLC student and their interest, it’s “always a love affair.” She believes that the SLC student has changed over time but that we’ve always refused to take things at face value and want to break them down “to the marrow, not even just the bones.” She describes SLC students as the most creative people she’s ever met, both down-to-earth and proud, with a desire to be connected and to challenge themselves to understand issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. Joan Reilly, Student Affairs Administrative Assistant and Health Advocacy ’12, says she very much values the inquisitiveness, independence, and confidence of the students.

Crandall describes the school as broad and eclectic, and that its inviting and inclusive nature is one of its greatest qualities. She, and many others, stress that the school responds to demands from students and that this is one of the most important features of SLC. On the small scale, Crandall says, the staff works with students to put on events that are of interest to the student body, even if the planning is last minute. Both Crandall and Luce cited examples of policy changes driven by student inquiry and complaint, these include the new Smoking Policy Task Force and the 2009 revision of the Alcohol and Other Drug Policy. In regards to the Alcohol and Other Drug Policy, Luce said the old policy came under complaint for its negative language and punitive focus and that a team of students, staff and faculty reviewed the policy in response to this. The implemented changes represented a shift towards education and away from punishment, and that our current policy now stands “to the left” of many of our peer institutions. Gross is optimistic about the changes to the institution she has seen. She points to the creation of her own job as Director of Diversity and that of Polly Waldman as Associate Dean of Disability Services, DAPS, Diversity Committee and the Chief Diversity Office position as baby steps in positive institutional change. Similarly, she points the legacy of the ’89 sit-in with its demands for more faculty of color, more ethnic studies courses, and more recent demands for a therapist of color as good (attempts at) changes to the college.

In past years, programming on campus has doubled. However, Crandall echoes Jones in her understanding that people have different ideas of what social life is. Miles shares a similar sentiment when she talks about the evolution of athletics at SLC and the cultivation of teams based on student interest. Recent years have seen everything from men’s volleyball to the women’s soccer club to a few attempts at Quidditch. Still, at the core of all this, Luce says, is the pedagogy. To Reilly, the institution acts as a support for the students, encouraging them to excel as critical thinkers, writers and individuals. Here, she says, you learn life skills that other colleges don’t grant.

Luce asks, “what’s the incentive for normalizing?” It would ruin the unique nature of the school and, even if money were the motivator, we couldn’t suddenly welcome a flood of students because the school couldn’t function under that type of pressure. He points out that if we were about money, we would have cut financial aid programs rather than increase them as we have in past years. Reilly believes that the identity is never going to change, the educational philosophy will never change because it makes us who we are. Crandall acknowledges that the school changes in regards to the larger national and world climate, but that these changes don’t affect the pedagogy or core principles.

In the face of changing social life, Crandall reminds us that you come to Sarah Lawrence for the pedagogy and the ability to develop as a student and as a person and that social life here will always be an adjunct to that. Plus, she says, looking at the posters for our events will prove we’re not like a “normal” or “mainstream” college. Everything that’s alive has to change, and to believe that an institution won’t is antithetical. All the staff acknowledges that this process can be difficult and Crandall hopes that everyone keeps an eye on the impact that new changes make, but that some degree of evolution and change is needed to stay in the game. Gross, however, describes herself as heartbroken over the apathy that seems to have taken hold of many students. She believes students should be protesting more and that the activist nature students once directed towards the institution itself has fallen away. However, she acknowledges that apathy is the nature of college students and that it’s not across the board. In some cases, apathy is a manifestation of a lack of education about a topic. She refuses to believe that students just don’t care and hopes that people get charged about various issues of diversity and inclusion and work to make changes in our community.

Student Affairs itself has been marked by many changes in the recent past, becoming more structured and focusing on sustaining efforts like student organizations and traditions. Attempts have been made to create more community around events and Luce points to the Coffeehouse series and Spoken Word Collective as a successful initiatives. In the past, social life at SLC was underfunded and ignored, but now it is central to the Strategic Plan and Capital Campaign. While he says the act of building a student center may seem mainstream, the building itself surely won’t be. To Reilly, the Division III move is just a chance to be more inclusive and an attempt to further build community as it “gives people another reason to get together.” Miles echoes this, and adds that she’s seen a growing sense of community and appreciation and support for athletics since she arrived. Athletics not only give something to do, but also bolsters school pride. She says that there is a difference between social change and institutional change and that the students who come here will always have an academic focus and be highly motivated in their pursuits. Division III, she reminds us, is the realm of the scholar-athlete: these are students who place academics first but also happen to be athletes. The move to the NCAA was motivated by a desire for community building, and she’s seen a great coming together of campus around SLC athletics. Homecoming has had several hundred students in attendance for the past few years and she points out that this program wouldn’t work without such large support from students. Like Gordon, she sees this move as a validation of the hard work of our 150 plus student athletes and believes that Division III status will only bolster what we already have. She is aware of the anxiety among some alums and current students and believes that media reports and portrayals have cast a shadow on college athletics and reports that our teams are well known among peer institutions for their respectful nature – something she sees as an evolution of a “culture of respect” on campus. To those who worry about the active recruitment of more athletes, she points out that we have always recruited but the number one question coaches ask themselves is “can this student hack the academics?” Coaches are always seeking students who fit the SLC idea because this school isn’t for everybody.

Returning to the theme of activism and change, Gross tells us to stand up and make a difference when we see something about the institution we don’t like, because “when students stand up, change happens in a very different way than when staff do.” She reminds us, like Gray, that we have more power than we realize and that a lot has remained the same at this school that should change. She sees as moving towards a time when we deal with our own issues, when we’ll confront ourselves about issues of race, gender, class etc. and will understand that the intersections of these things have a place in every conversations, whether it be about curriculum, financial or something else entirely. She’s not worried about the future of school and believes that, that no matter what, this school will attract a certain type of student: those who are highly intelligent, creative, challenge the status quo, multitask-ers, and completely outside any prescribed box.

 

 

Next: Faculty & Conclusion

Zac Hewitt was born in Gray, Maine and grew up around New England. His primary interest is in folklore and you should definitely talk to him about mythological women. He has worked in Admissions for three years and been involved in Student Affairs since his first year. After graduation he really wants to head into the wild.

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