Pomona Student Union Discussion Examines Sponsor Group System

The Pomona College Sponsor Program, established in 1927,
is often regarded as one of the hallmarks of the Pomona experience. Designed to help students transition to college life, the program groups together first-years who live together in residence halls with older students who help them settle in to the Pomona community. While many embrace the idea of the Sponsor Program as providing a welcoming, safe, or family-like setting in residence halls, not all students are completely enamored with it. 

The Pomona
Student Union (PSU) provided students with a chance to discuss the advantages
and disadvantages of Sponsor Groups at its “Consider the Sponsor Group: Asking
the Hard Questions” talk Nov. 27. The talk featured seven panelists, a group that encompassed
participants from every level of the Sponsor Program: current and past
sponsors, sponsees, and head sponsors. Vice President and Dean of
Students Miriam Feldblum also attended the talk to hear what students had to say. 

PSU member Saahil Desai PO ’16, who organized the talk with Katherine Snell PO ’15, said that the Sponsor Group is “something that we all encounter but we never really think about beyond our anecdotal experiences.”

“It kind of worried me, that what if students tend to criticize these types of institutions that exist in the world but not the institutions that exist in Pomona, so I thought I would try to start up some sort of dialogue about that,” Desai said. 

Cameron Cook PO ’15, a head sponsor, began the discussion.
Cook, who along with other head sponsors is in charge of placing first-years
in their Sponsor Groups, disagreed with the idea that the aim of Sponsor Groups is to “socially engineer” students.

“The aim of Sponsor Groups at the very least is to remove
the fears and restrictions of students, and create a safe, comfortable living
environment,” Cook said. 

“Being part of a Sponsor Group gave me a taste of being in
the Pomona community,” Graham Bishop PO ’15 said at the talk. “The camaraderie that develops in Sponsor Groups helped in adapting to a new environment.” 

However, Bishop
also noted that students often “submit to a group identity” in Sponsor Groups,
preventing sponsees from forming individual relationships with each other. 

Karina Fushimi PO ’17, a current sponsee, addressed the
obsession with discovering the “unifying theme” that connects each Sponsor Group.

“A Sponsor Group is supposed to be a family, and it’s
nice to feel like you’re being accepted for whoever you are,” she said.
“But it’s very hard to leave your Sponsor Group without people jokingly
saying that you must think you’re too cool for them. There is a strong sense of
obligation to spend time with your Sponsor Group.” 

“The biggest problem with Sponsor Groups is that sometimes you can’t socially engineer freshmen in the way that you want to,” said transfer student and Resident Adviser Warren Szewczyk PO ’15 at the talk. “The language used has morphed Sponsor Groups into a thing where people are forced to become part of the group. For those who don’t fit in, it’s easy to feel isolated and disillusioned.”

Desai also criticized the language surrounding the system. 

“I think we need to get rid of the language associated with the Sponsor Group,” he said in an interview with TSL. “It’s interesting because it’s not a result of the administration, but it’s the culture surrounding it. It’s hard to change that but I think it can be done, and I think it’s already being done by having a third sponsor.”

This is the second year some groups have had three, instead of two, sponsors. Julia Swanson PO ’16, who serves as a sponsor along with two other students, shared her opinions about the three-sponsor model. 

“We try to strike a good balance between making everybody feel comfortable but also not feeling like people are required to be in our Sponsor Groups or if they don’t spend a lot of time with us they can’t come back, so I think with striking that balance it’s nice having three sponsors,” she said in an interview with TSL

Another topic that the PSU talk focused on was sponsor training. 

Panelists agreed that more extensive training for sponsors was needed to allow sponsors to better create an atmosphere in which no student feels like a “ghost.”  

“Sponsors should help educate their sponsees beyond issues
they’re trained to address,” Della Anjeh PO ’16 said. “Sponsors need to learn how
to deal with low-income, first-generation students.” 

Rachel Jackson PO ’15, who served as a sponsor last year, expressed the need for sponsors to be trained to deal with mental health concerns.

“Pomona’s not a safe place for a lot of people,” Jackson said at the talk. “The majority of problems first-years face are emotionally based. Sponsors need to be trained on peer tutoring, and how to tackle the real, painful issues that first-years come in with.”

Associate Dean of Students for Student Development and Leadership Daren Mooko said in an interview with TSL that he considers the Sponsor Program “one of
the more incredibly useful student programs that we have that addresses the
transition of new students here.”

However, he noted that there are areas for improvement. 

“I think that there are weaknesses in the Sponsor Group system and there are ways that it doesn’t work for all students,
and we know that,” he said. “The challenge as an institution then is how can we provide
the same kind of support to those who don’t find what others find in the Sponsor Group.”

He said that he would like to see more juniors and seniors as sponsors. 

“They’re not discouraged, certainly not disqualified, but it seems to be part of the cultural norm to only have sophomore serve as sponsors,” he said. “I think juniors and seniors would bring really interesting perspective to the situation.”

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