A look at Williams’ comprehensive, collective approach to providing students the tools they need to navigate college—and life.
Christopher Sewell ’05 visited the dean’s office only twice as a Williams student. Once was during his first year, when he spoke to the dean of the college about a bad grade. The other time was to discuss study abroad.
These days, however, it’s common for a student to meet with a dean several times a semester for all sorts of reasons, says Sewell. Now an associate dean at Williams, he’s part of a complex, comprehensive web of people who provide students with important tools for navigating college—and life.
The work isn’t new. It’s more that the college’s approach, and that of higher education, nationally, is evolving. “Twenty years ago, a small number of staff were dedicated to student support,” says Marlene Sandstrom, the Hales Professor of Psychology and dean of the college. “Today we invest many more resources as we’ve shifted our philosophy from ‘How can we help students be better prepared for Williams?’ to ‘How can Williams be better prepared to meet the needs of our students?’”
Across the college, countless staff look out for students’ wellbeing every day in ways large and small. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. “We describe Williams as high touch, because we’re small and intimate,” Sewell says. “We need to make sure students know about and utilize these resources, and we try to help normalize support.”
To get a sense of that collective work, and new approaches to it, Williams Magazine interviewed eight people who provide direct support to students. Common themes emerged, including why college can be such a difficult time of transition, how a small community presents both challenges and opportunities, and what it’s like to work with high-achieving students.
What does your work involve?
Wendy Adam, Director of Integrative Wellbeing Services: We work with students whose needs range from serious, long-term mental illness to adjustment challenges such as being away from home for the first time and learning to manage all that comes with it. Williams has and always will have a very strong clinical treatment approach. We also want to empower all students with the variety of skills they need—including, for example, self-compassion and mindfulness—to keep themselves well and to live in the full range of human experiences. I see the student as a whole person, with physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of self. It’s crucial to care for their unique needs and opportunities for growth in each of these areas.
The Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer, Chaplain to the College: I support three chaplains in our work to serve all our students regardless of their religious affiliation. Our office is a ministry of presence—we meet with students over coffee and meals and offer a listening ear or encouraging thought. They might talk about their lives or what’s going on in the world, or they may just sit and do their work. We reach out to students throughout the semester, including hosting a tea station at the library and a Hanukkah party attended by Jewish and non-Jewish students. We provide religious services and sacred texts and Bible study. We leave room for exploration and questioning, and, as much as students want to learn, we are there to help them.
Hannah Lipstein, Violence Prevention Coordinator: Often in interpersonal violence work we think of response—serving survivors of sexual assault or harassment or stalking. My focus is on prevention. My work involves digging into why violence is happening—broadly and at Williams—and educating the entire student body to work toward ending it. I run bystander training workshops, helping students learn how to be accountable, informed, responsible community members. I do consent education and workshops on healthy boundaries. I work with student groups and athletic teams. I’ve sat in the student center with a whiteboard, asking students to respond to prompts about what healthy relationships look like. It’s rare for a college our size to have a full-time person working in this capacity, but Williams has two. (Meg Bossong ’05 is director of sexual assault prevention and response.)
Tatiana McInnis, Associate Director of the Davis Center: I provide holistic care for students—everything from discussing class assignments to consulting on group dynamics within and beyond the Minority Coalition to organizing off-campus trips or bringing a band to campus. I provide workshops for folks who are just jumping into the vocabulary around equity and inclusion and for those seeking to understand how experiences of oppression compound and inform how students arrive at and move through their own college experiences. I also train hiring committees so that staff and faculty diversity reflects that of students.
Laura Muller, Director of Quantitative Skills Programs and Peer Support: I work with faculty who are teaching any
course with a quantitative component, small to large, on everything from writing assignments to helping students build particular skill sets, like graphing or learning Excel spreadsheets. I also oversee the peer tutoring program, which includes the Math and Science Resource Center, the Economics Resource Center and individual peer tutoring. Students come to our resource centers from across the disciplines. Our centers have about 650 visits per semester and about the same number in individual tutoring. We see everyone from the student who is having a lot of difficulty to the student who is getting a B-plus and wants an A.
April Ruiz, Associate Dean: My particular focus is on first-generation college students. It can be a difficult transition from a family that has not navigated college or a community where not many people graduate high school and go on to four-year institutions, to a place overflowing with resources, choice and opportunity—to be in classrooms with peers that are their intellectual equals but who have been better prepared for what college brings. I help students celebrate their first-gen identity while also working through challenges that identity sometimes brings. I help them connect with the Williams family—alumni, faculty and staff who all want to help students make the most of their undergraduate education.
Christopher Sewell ’05, Associate Dean: I focus on transfer students, veterans and anyone who takes a leave of absence and then returns. The students I serve are either older or have taken time away and are coming back in a different space. My work might be as simple as emailing transfer students and veterans over the summer and inviting them to a welcome dinner. I might check in with my students once a month, or more often, asking, “Are you OK? What’s going on?” I try to ensure that all my students see my office as a place they can be helped and leave feeling like there is a clear plan in place to ensure they are successful.
G.L. Wallace, Director of Accessible Education:
My job involves articulating a vision for and being engaged with the discourse around disability and accessibility on campus. The populations I serve include students who had formal supports in high school, students who wish they didn’t still need services in college but do and students who find the experience of college to be somewhat debilitating. We help them get access to day-to-day supports, like additional time on an exam, or provide them with services like note-takers or audio recordings of readings. We have structural accommodations, like offering students who need it a reduced course load or the chance to take a course over the summer or graduate on a different timeline. I try to remind students that accessing these resources should not be a stigmatized experience but one that acknowledges that institutions are narrow and we need to expand on their design.
Why is college such a time of transition for students, and how is the understanding around their transitions shifting?
Sewell: The transition to college comes with social, emotional and academic changes. Whether it’s “This is my first time away from home,” or “These are the hardest classes I’ve ever taken,” or “I come from a very structured school environment, and now you’re asking me to make choices about my schooling,” there’s so much happening, and it’s very easy to become overwhelmed.
Muller: As students transition from high school to college, a lot has to happen that first semester. We’re taking a whole bunch of students from different backgrounds and placing them in a classroom together, and we can’t expect them to all be the same. There are experience gaps.
Adam: National data indicate that more than 30 percent of college-age students have seriously contemplated suicide, and 25 percent report having used self-harm, such as cutting or burning themselves, in stressful situations. Strong emotions and a limited capacity to manage them manifest differently in the college population. This generation is constantly on and has immediate access to pretty much anything they want to know. That comes with the capacity to distract themselves from what they’re feeling or experiencing, sometimes allowing strong emotions or important needs to go unattended and become overwhelming. Sleep deprivation and interrupted rest also have significant impacts. One thing I recommend to students is to take sleep seriously, because it directly affects their mental health.
McInnis: Our student body is 36 percent to 38 percent students of color, and those students have experienced and/or witnessed alienation, racialized violence and violence against trans folks and queer folks. But now they’re at Williams, and that means they’ll be “set” in the future if they take advantage of the network and privileges here. It’s hard to balance acknowledging that it’s difficult here but that there are folks who share cultural identities and don’t have access to the same wealth of resources—and for our students to accept those resources.
Ruiz: For first-generation students and students from marginalized identities, there’s a pressure to represent as well as possible all of the folks from their background. They
think, “The moment I ask for help and admit what I perceive to be a weakness is the moment I let my entire community down.” They carry a lot on their shoulders to achieve and be independent, which are good qualities in some ways but also don’t always serve students well.
How does the intimacy of a small campus enhance or complicate your work with students?
Bailey Fischer: We’re lucky to be able to provide a space where people can navigate differences. Because our community is diverse, and we do things together, we can create a village with neighborhoods. Some people always stay within their proverbial neighborhood, and some will go out to the bodega that’s shared by everybody—and the students love this diversity. They also enjoy the opportunity to dive deeper into their own faiths or the room to explore another.
Lipstein: Williams is fortunate to have a really invested and engaged student body. There is a sense that people look out for each other. The belief that everyone should be having safe and healthy experiences on campus is not new here, and it feels doable because Williams students know each other. When one student is engaged in a conversation about prevention and building healthy communities, it has ripple effects across the whole student body.
Muller: Our students like working in study groups. They like being together. They like thinking about problems together. One benefit of Williams is that it provides spaces for students to find each other. The Math and Science Resource Center is in a beautiful space in Schow Science Library, with little pods for each class. The Economics Resource Center is in Schapiro Hall, in close proximity to the department. And we have dedicated student tutors who can help.
Wallace: Increasingly, we’re understanding that there is a cultural component to being differently abled in the world—of living with a chronic illness, of living as a person who is deaf or blind, of living with a learning disability. These are life experiences that can radically alter how students engage with the college. We can be flexible and individualized in our approach to serving students’ needs. Sometimes an accommodation is temporary for someone with a health issue. If a student has chronic depression, it may impact their ability to complete coursework or take an exam at a certain time, but it may not present itself in regular, routinized ways. So we can respond as needed.
Williams students are understood to be high-achieving. How does that impact your work with them?
Bailey Fischer: Students are here working very hard at great personal, financial and intellectual cost. Part of what we do in the Chaplains’ Office is support them pastorally and spiritually. We do the soul care, and it’s primarily so that they are able to be here and it can be a life-giving experience. We tell them we know it’s sometimes hard, but we’re here to help them through it.
Adam: Williams students need relationships with people they can trust. They need a place where they can feel safe not to be hyper-performing, where they don’t have to have it all worked out or have all the answers or be perfect. They need to have a place where they can struggle with their identity over and over and over again, because it’s so intricately linked to thriving during this time in their lives. They need to know it’s OK not to know—to not know why they feel so bad or why they’re struggling. This population is quick to solve, and the beauty of ongoing mental health work is to be more and more curious. The less we’re certain about things, the more growth can happen. Our team gives them a larger vision for what mental health services and wellbeing can look like, with the skills and knowledge
they need to help themselves stay well.
Ruiz: Our students are used to taking on a lot, and they are highly driven and motivated. When they land in this playground of opportunity, they can take on so much, and it creates a feeling of pressure to maximize—to do it right. They want to live up to the expectations of their community, of themselves, of their professors. And there can be a hesitation to ask for help. Many good students realize that at some point they will reach a bump in the road, and some are prepared to know what those moments look like and how to get the resources and guidance they need. But some students aren’t as prepared. It’s a sign of great maturity to ask for help, and college is a good place to ask. So I remind my students that if they already knew everything, they wouldn’t have to be here. I remind them that it’s OK to receive less than an A grade if they know they worked really hard and developed a skill or learned something new or grew personally or in their ability to engage with a certain type of academic work. Learning outcomes are really valuable and sometimes more important than a specific grade, because those perspective shifts will carry them forward to other courses and to what they do beyond Williams
Sewell: We don’t say loudly enough that people here struggle. What we hear is: “Everyone’s great, everyone’s doing well.” We hear the stories about alumni who went off to become the CEO of some big organization, but we’re not hearing the story of how that person struggled freshman year to find friends, or struggled academically or had a socio-emotional crisis—and what they did to overcome it that eventually led them to become the CEO. These things need to be normalized for students. We need to be able to say, “It’s hard, I know, and this could be crippling for you. This is a really hard transition. So here are things you have at your disposal to use right now. Here are the things you already possess that you need to exhibit more and that will help you. Here are the resources you need to draw from. Let me connect you.”
Julia Munemo is a contributing writer for Williams Magazine.