First Years Find Support Through PAL Program

Nathan Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief

Many Obies remember their first-year orientation experiences well. Mine was hot, sweaty, and overwhelming — most people who I’ve spoken to can relate. There was a lot of information thrown at me in a short amount of time, and most of it didn’t stick. Nearly all of the valuable learning experiences during my first semester came as a result of relationships with older students that I was lucky enough to develop. However, that support system was not guaranteed to me, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like to navigate Oberlin and living away from home for the first time without it.

Clearly, there was a leadership void that needed to be filled, particularly at a time when Oberlin’s finances are on shaky ground. Thus, the school needs to increase its retention rate by providing support and resources for first-year students to help them acclimate to college.

To alleviate some of the stresses of orientation and create an institutionalized support system to help first-years navigate the various complexities of life at Oberlin, Associate Dean of Students Dana Hamdan has developed a new program called Peer Advising Leaders, or PALs.

PALs are Oberlin students who are invested in making the orientation experience an enjoyable one for first year students. Each PAL was assigned a cohort of 15 first-years, with whom they met several times during orientation to cover Oberlin basics like PRESTO, registration, and Blackboard.

PALs will also continue to meet with their cohorts throughout the fall semester. Each PAL is tasked with teaching six classes that have been designed to help first-years navigate the moments of first semester that can prove challenging or confusing, from midterms to planning for Winter Term. Each lesson has been planned meticulously by Hamdan and the PALs coordinators — students whom Hamdan has selected to be leaders in the program.

When PALs training began on the Sunday before orientation, I was excited to see what the program was going to look like. I understood that the job meant that I was going to be working with first-year students, but beyond that I wasn’t terribly clear on the responsibilities of the role that I was stepping into.

I was also a little apprehensive. As with any new program, I feared that, to put it simply, the program wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t sure what kind of buy-in I was going to get from my cohort. I didn’t know if the curriculum was going to be meaningful and productive or if it was going to be a bland study skills program that would leave students in the dark about the confusing elements of Oberlin’s unique academic and social culture.

I was immediately impressed by the program Hamdan had assembled. Not only is the curriculum built in a way that is responsive to the needs that first-years will have at specific times throughout this semester, but it is built in a way that is intensely personal. During my own orientation last fall, I felt detached from the people who were presenting me with important information — I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to raise my hand and ask a clarifying question, even if I had one.

In my experience so far, that dynamic has been challenged in a really powerful way by the PAL program’s structure. The first-year students in my cohort have approached me with questions, both during and outside of our sessions, regarding everything from how to register for classes to how to buy textbooks.

I think that their willingness to engage with me as a PAL has less to do with any characteristics of my own and more to do with the unique chances that the program has given us to interact with one another — opportunities that I would have been overjoyed to have last fall. Hamdan has been deliberate in providing us with those opportunities in comfortable settings, maintaining that it is up to us to make the most out of our interactions.

While Hamdan is the PALs program’s visionary — and I’m sure that she feels acutely responsible for its efficacy — she has made clear from the very beginning that the PALs experience is ultimately ours to design and build. She has given us ownership of the program that she spent the last several months toiling over. That is one of the most profound and meaningful acts of trust that I have ever experienced in my life.

That trust illustrates how Hamdan has let the program grow and why the program is one that I believe in strongly.

It’s still too early to label PAL as a success or a failure, or as something in-between. What it is not too early to say, however, is that the program is a reminder — to me and hopefully others — that Oberlin as an institution is capable of making decisions that prioritize students, even when under duress of financial troubles and significant administrative turnover. The PAL program feels like a step in the right direction to me, and I hope that it is the first of many.