Teddy Clamp: ‘College families’ would be a home away from home for freshmen

Cartoon by Juliana Kogan

After spending the start of the new year with family and friends at home, we’ve all returned to D.C. to see our friends at GW. But not all of us will come back to school feeling like we’ve found a strong group of friends.

It can be difficult for many students, especially freshmen and transfer students, to build a support system when they get to college. It’s a big adjustment and definitely takes some getting used to. Although we should all push ourselves to make friends on our own, GW also has a responsibility to help us feel at home. That’s why GW should preempt that feeling that something’s missing by assigning interested students a “college family” that can guide them during their time here.

Some British universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge, operate using the college family system. At the end of each year, a first-year student will “propose” to another first-year student of any gender and they will “get married.” Students don’t always marry people they have a romantic interest in, but rather they choose someone with whom they get along well and would complement their style of “parenting”. Finding the perfect match is a gut feeling: You have to be partners, yet not want to hang out together all the time, allowing the “child” to have two distinct parents.

Then, at the beginning of the next academic year, the college will assign each pair an incoming first-year student to be their “college child.” Together, they’re responsible for making their child feel at home during their first few weeks of college. They show their child around campus, take them to the best places to eat, bring them along to parties and act as their child’s support system away from home.

I grew up in Britain, and have friends in Britain who have both had college parents, and are also college parents themselves, and they really enjoy the program. Having someone there for you individually who’s gone through the same thing, knows the tips and tricks and will show you how to settle in is invaluable. They also love having a child to introduce to their friends and show around their favorite haunts.

And as college continues, the pairings become less forced and turn into genuine friendships – like how many students in Greek life may feel about their bigs or littles. It’s a different way of finding your place, but can form bonds that are just as strong.

At GW, students already have the opportunity to make mentor-like connections, but Colonial Inauguration leaders and Greek Life bigs don’t reach most of the GW community. CI leaders have hundreds of students assigned to them over the course of the summer, making it less likely you’ll be able to truly connect with them. And the big-little relationship doesn’t begin until partway through a freshman’s first semester – and that’s a long time to spend alone without support in an entirely new environment. Only about a third of students are involved in Greek life, meaning not everyone develops a big-little relationship. Thus, there is a large portion of students who may need another version of a support system.

I’ve heard people say that GW lacks community. We don’t have a football team, and the rest of our sports teams’ games have notoriously low attendance, so we aren’t connected by school spirit. In a way, GW is made up of smaller communities, meaning students don’t automatically fit in. It can be hard to find your community since making friends in a student organization or club takes time, and there’s no one thing that connects every single student.

A few years ago, GW tried to combat this problem by implementing the Guide to Personal Success program, which paired incoming freshmen with an upperclassman, faculty member or alumnus. The University dropped the program, though, due to a lack of interest. Unlike the GPS program, a college family program would focus more on students’ personal lives rather than their academic or professional goals. And mentors would just be students, not faculty and alumni, which would likely keep freshmen interested and keep them from feeling intimidated.

The University could easily start a pilot college family program with volunteers. Because most students at GW recognize how hard it is to fit in and are also committed to community service, I’m willing to bet plenty of freshmen would sign up to become parents at the end of the year. This process could look similar to the random roommate selection many of us experience. Interested students can fill out a form detailing their interests, major, hometown and lifestyle. GW could then use that information to match parents with incoming students over the summer.

Obviously, this wouldn’t work for everyone. Some people would not get along with their families, and others would slowly drift away as they found their student organizations, Greek chapters and friend groups. But for others, it will be a valuable way to settle into a new environment and make lasting friendships.

As a current sophomore who is not in Greek life, I feel there is an opportunity here. I loved my CI leaders and I think the Greek life system works really well for those involved in it. But I think there are still other students who could really thrive with the help of a GW family.

We’ve all been through the first stressful and scary months of adjusting to college life. Now it’s our turn to help new students and keep them from feeling the same way.

Teddy Clamp, a sophomore double-majoring in international affairs and history, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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