"Like any relationship, it's how you manage it."
Once a year, while you and I are picking up the summer's best beach books, Associate Dean of Studies Beverly Fox sits down and reads, too—except her summer reading consists of more than 300 first-year-student application files, which she pores over from cover to cover.
And when she's done, her real work begins: helping high school teenagers become college students.
It is unlikely that any other college handles this transition with the care and breadth of thought that Fox brings to the job, for no other college matches student with don in a first-year studies class—entirely by hand. She looks at a number of different factors, not least of which is the size a class can be. "It could be done by computer," Fox says, "but that could never accommodate the details and nuances that come from reading the files and learning about each student."
Why so much time, so much precision? Because this relationship—don to student—is perhaps the most important one that SLC students will have in their four years together.
"Senior year in high school is such a different place," Fox says. "By that time, if you've followed your path, you know your school and your school knows you. You're the top of the world, looking at the freshmen and seeing how far you've come yourself. This kind of clarity about who you are is rare in your life.
"Then college—and you're back on the bottom of the heap. In such a short time, you know so few of the answers. The feeling doesn't last long, and one of the things that helps it subside is your don."
At most colleges an adviser may be a purely bureaucratic entity: someone to sign your forms. Dons are different. "They teach you. They come to know you and the questions to ask—often the very ones you're afraid to ask. They push you."
The first-year studies course is step one toward redefining yourself as a bona-fide college student. "Upperclassmen know how to make room for themselves in a seminar conversation, but when first-years are in a class with just their peers, they may be stumbling along a bit, too. It's not just doing the work, but learning how to do the work, and it's your don who can really show you how to get everything out of Sarah Lawrence."
The don/student relationship takes time to ripen, and part of Fox's role is to teach patience. "There are always a few students who come in early on and say, 'I'm not getting along with my don, and I want to switch.' I always reply, 'Tell me what your expectations were. What did you think a don would do?' Because young students tend to adhere so closely to their expectations, they're sometimes not paying attention to who their don is.
"Like any relationship, it's how you manage it—and often is best when your don is not what you expected, when you allow yourself to learn what that person can truly teach you. The transition to being a college student means learning to roll with the punches, to deal with frustration, to embrace the unexpected and see what it may bring you. I remember one student who came to see me about a week or two into the semester and said, 'I can't stand my don—she's rigid, and not at all what I expected from a Sarah Lawrence teacher.' We talked, and I suggested she think about her don and her don's teaching from a different angle.
Four years later, it's the Senior/Don dinner, the day before Commencement, and I saw the same student. She came up to me and told me how important it was for her to return to that relationship, but with openness. 'Thank you for keeping me with my don,' she told me. 'She's changed my life.'"