Open Channels

If you didn’t already know, Dean Feldblum loves to tweet (see her Twitter), which makes her one of the coolest administrators I’ve ever known. But aside from that, she’s not just an awesome administrator, but also a great human being. For many college and high school students, administrators–and even the Dean of Students (or the equivalent)–can sometimes be shadowy unknown figures who probably make one appearance during orientation to show their face and whom you may never see outside of any formal context. You see their signature on a few documents and maybe they give a few addresses to so-so attendance and lukewarm applause. But not at Pomona! Our Dean of Students actually talks to students, loves teaching class, relishes working with community leaders, and enjoys getting to know students outside of just an academic capacity. And most importantly (at least for the sake of this blog), she hosts dinners with each sponsor group at her house.

Having dinner with Dean Feldblum in her backyard on the northwest corner of campus is, in my opinion, one of the most important parts of the first-year experience. Each sponsor group, the head sponsor, and a few professors come together for about an hour just to have an informal dinner discussion without any set agenda, which by its very nature, speaks to the commitment of Pomona to building a community not just among students, but also between administrators and faculty. It also conveys the sincerity of the administration to engaging in open and honest dialogue with the students they represent.

On a slight tangent, I must admit that my dinner with Dean Feldblum as a sponsor this year could not have been better than my dinner with her last year when I was a first-year, namely because I won one of the two tickets to the Taylor Swift concert that she raffled off at that dinner. But setting that aside (after all, Dean Feldblum isn’t around just to hand out free concert tickets), last night’s dinner still lived up to everything that I thought it would be (and that I told my sponsees that it would be). There are many valuable exchanges and experiences that take place at these dinners, but for the sake of being concise, I’ll stick to just one: opening dialogue.

One of the great things about having dinner with Dean Feldblum is that by virtue of being just one sponsor group and a few professors, we students can voice our opinions more than would be possible in the case of large forums or anonymous surveys because we can articulate our own personal experiences and ideas. Of course, this dinner isn’t some joyous celebration of all the things that Pomona does exceptionally well; although there are many and they do come up in the conversations, I believe that the real value of having this dinner and these conversations exists in the unveiling of the negative and critical experiences that people bring to the table. Obviously Pomona is not perfect or even close to perfect, nor is any other institution of higher learning, but sometimes we get too caught up in this blurry delusion that everything is supposed to be perfect, that everyone is happy and successful, and that there are no issues that need to be resolved. Buying into that delusion is a severe misrepresentation of our college and all the people who are part of it, and for that reason, being able to articulate constructive criticism, coupled with recommendations and ideas for how to improve Pomona in various ways, is a important responsibility of every student. However, it isn’t always easy to find ways or opportunities to articulate discomfort and dissatisfaction with one’s situation in the chaos of our everyday lives. Hence the premium that I put on these intimate sponsor dinners with Dean Feldblum. They allow people to open up more in a more familiar setting when they’re surrounded by their sponsor group. Despite the brevity of these dinners, I think that opening up these channels of dialogue with a prominent and dedicated member of the administration is a key component of facilitating student-driven changes on campus to the college as a whole.

A year from now, many of my sponsees will (hopefully) be sponsors, helping to guide next-year’s first-year class (and making me feel old). And even those who aren’t sponsors will still likely play a role in changing the climate, the community, and the college through any one of a million different outlets on campus which allow students to play a role in shaping the dynamic of Pomona. I’d like to think that these discussions begin in earnest at these dinners with Dean Feldblum. The takeaway from these dinners isn’t that students can get a break from the dining halls, that Dean Feldblum can snap another photo for her next tweet, or that all the first-years can make haphazard guesses as to why they’re all in this particular hall (although listening to guesses such as “most of us wrote that we don’t like rap music” is rather humorous).

This dinner is intended to make us reflect upon our experiences at Pomona, regardless of how long we’ve been here. It’s intended to make us better critical thinkers and analysts of our surroundings and our education. And it’s intended to jump-start dialogues about how to improve Pomona, how to help students, how to enhance our experience, and most importantly, how to think like leaders. In other words, how to open channels. Which, in the wake of this fiasco in Congress, is clearly something that our country needs more of.